Olayinka Agbetuyi of Indiana writes on the need for a National Conference.
Prof. Soyinka, President Obasanjo and the Urgency for a Confab: Between Western Democracy and the Deep Red Sea.
Television images of political gladiators throwing a glass of water in the face of adversaries in the febrile heat of ingenious political debates in the Russian legislative chamber; adversaries coming to fisticuffs on the floors of the Korean and Japanese legislative houses; news of a Jerry Rawlings dealing a dirty slap to his Vice-President, in the unfolding of his self-conceived transition to civil rule (diplomatically rebutted); the news of a poisoned Victor Yuschenko in the Ukraine -all these are grist in the mill in the sudden fever of conversion to Western style democracy. Protagonists of the "Wild, Wild West" of yore in the Western Nigerian legislative chamber turn in thy graves: Thou art not alone, nor is there anything peculiarly African in thy inability to master overnight, the intricacies of an alien culture.
I write this piece to reinforce a sense of vindication following the recent pronouncement of the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka recently in New York. Never has it been truer than in the current position of President Obasanjo that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. On the one hand the president is chided by the likes of Emeka Ojukwu, for not shedding the mien of a military ruler and for not realizing that he now heads a civilian polity. Following the Ngige saga, and on the President's effort to appear decisive by saving his good name as the head of the administration in which the misfortune happened, he called for the resignation of the affected governor. Some Nigerians interpreted this as an effort by the President to usurp INEC's role, by not allowing the matter to play itself out via the court. On the other hand is the position of Prof. Soyinka, which tallies with that recently expressed by Chancellor Gordon Brown of Britain, on the different issue of debt forgiveness, that something cannot be procedurally right if it is morally wrong.
Yet another dimension, which is the overriding consideration of this piece is the dynamics of party politics a-la-western style democracy: the president is the creature of the party, is subject to party discipline and program, even though he now operates as the "father" of the entire nation. President Obasanjo has chosen to seek refuge, of late, under this provision, (no doubt under pressure from party stalwarts) although he stands to be accused of fiddling while Nigeria burns if the situation backfires. This appears to be the consideration that informs his pronouncement that the Ngige tragedy is a party affair to which Professor Soyinka has taken an understandable exception. But what choices has the President really got?
In my earlier contributions to this debate, I alluded to an open letter written to the President on the eve of his quest for the nomination for a second term, seeking to dissuade him from that course of action. I proposed instead that he saw the opportunity to call for a national confab to reorganize the country on an indigenously devised system of governance. That thinking was informed by the realization over years of study, that the Western system was devised first and foremost to suit Western purposes in a heuristic strategy. The choice of the current president to lead the return to civil rule was, again, not fortuitous. It was based on the notion that Nigeria needed a respected "father figure" in an atmosphere of mutual totally disrespect for constituent parts. It was in this regard that I felt that Obasanjo respected a Washingtonian figure.
During the Albany Plan of Union, George Washington almost disappeared into historical oblivion following his surrender at Fort Necessity during the Seven years War. His reputation was only rescued and salvaged due to his exemplary leadership during the Revolutionary Wars. It was due to this fact, and the fact that the founding fathers of America wanted to keep America English and not Spanish or French that they jettisoned the Articles of Confederation (a truer model of federalism) for the present notion of federation with Washington as a the unanimous choice as President. America started out rejecting a Unitary "federalism" because of the fear of too much concentration of powers in the hand of the executive, to obviate excesses represented the reign of King George III of England. All those checks on the executive have now all but disappeared. (except perhaps the ritualistic electoral checks are glibly overridden by ruthless campaigns during elections). It is for this reason that one agrees with Chief Ojukwu's parodied stance on Aburi, no matter what might be his personal motivation.
Still on Washington, the eminent states declined a third term precisely because of the long term effect of partisan politics. That unquestioned unanimous support for his presidency had wittled away by the time of his second term, that he graciously declined the offer of a third term, lest he be held in open contempt by the time finished his tenure. Therein lies the source of his enduring veneration, and the establishment of the precedent of two terms. The precedent itself had to wait nearly a hundred and fifty years at the end of the second World War after Franklin Roosevelt's bid for a third term before it was formerly enshrined into immutable law.
Washington's position is instructive for the situation in Nigeria today. We must remember that Washington did not preside over such a cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse nation as Nigeria today in which all segments of the society came into the polity fully enfranchised. The case of full enfranchisement of the African Americans still lay about a hundred years in the future, and women were not given the vote until the 1920s. I make this brief comparative foray, to connect with the adversarial scenarios with which this paper started. In the novelist, Fagunwa's comparative metaphor, the case of twentieth century democracies may be likened to Ajantala, that monster prodigy of a child, who attained cognitive adulthood and full body functionality in his diminutive body in the span of just one short week -these are Ajantala Western style democracies, including Nigeria.
We know Ajantalas belong in the realm of fiction, in the real world real human beings undergo pupilage under parental guidance, and pupilage connotes mentorship. In international politics, mentorship signifies imperialism. This apart from the fact of geopolitical difference underscores my call on Mr. President to turn his second term to an avenue for a true national confab. The last but not the least is the risk of frittering away his Washintonian goodwill, as it now appears imminent.
If the threat to Washington's integrity was partisanship, it is from partisanship that the task of restructuring nation building must begin. During Nigeria's second Republic, it was rightly felt that partisan was destroying the nation; it was however, wrongly diagnosed that the antidote was a gradual move toward a one party dictatorship-a-la-bandwagon electoral "victory." It all polities (at all times and in all climes) are by definition pluralities, a one party system cannot but be an aggravation of political tensions rather than a solution to them. This is why I felt that a polity like in most African countries, that are more religiously and ethnically diverse will be as equally underserved by a an dictatorship, (miliary or civilian) as they would be by a Western style glorified two party system -it is actually not inconceivable for peoples to govern themselves in nonpartisan terms.
I have advocated for Nigeria, and by extension Africans to govern themselves in non-partisan terms for a period of two generations in the first instance. A way of doing this might be for all the past heads of states to be elected into an upper chamber from which triumvirs from the the three most populous groups will be elected into the executive for a rotational period of three years in which each triumvir will be chairman for only one year while he/she goes back to the collective of the triumvirate for the remaining duration of the three years pending the election of the next set of three triumvirs by the body of triumvirs. (The number three while not necessarily magical, seems most practical, if one dismissed single man dictatorship, or any adversarial dualisms.) The most important thing is to see that the needs of each block is served by their geopolitical representative being present in governance at the highest level at all times and not have to wait for the long terms of four or five years, if incumbents do not engineer a second term by hook or crook, to freeze the representation of the interests of opponents in the cold for as long as possible.
Proponents of the Western style liberal democracy would argue that every person in the country should have equal chance of being the country's ruler, and not simply the most populous. They will be reminded that there are such things as the tyranny of numbers or comfort of numbers no depending on how this is viewed. Would it therefore be more equitable for a person who represents the interest of a tiny majority, because he/she has the monetary clout to bankroll a ruthless campaign to victory, to lord it over the majority groups? We know intrinsic merit of programs, in themselves, do not win over the electorates. Such programs have to be carried to the electorate in media campaigns, and these require funds. This would appear to have instructed the fears of the political establishment in Northern Nigeria, and their ready use of the military solution, when they perceived that things were not going their way and it was a winner takes all. A person from a minority population would then have the blank check to use the instruments of office to impose such sensibilities on the majority, having by any means won an election. (This would again explain the colossal waste of state resources by Babangida on implementing a transition anchored on building parties of which everyone was a joiner, and no one was a founder -what he ingeniously failed to disclose was that the midwife was an interested party in the outcome, since he was not a foreigner. Even foreign Westerners are often not disinterested as departing colonial overlords have shown)
But perhaps we should again go back to the original blueprint of the system which the whole world is now being encouraged, cajoled, threatened and invaded to copy. In the original blueprint, the sagacious American founding fathers, made sure, wherever, each of the colonial governors, did not want an outright jettisoning of the King George III model, they were shorn of all executive powers, since they realized the time tested dictum that absolute powers corrupts absolutely. All the real powers lay in the colonial assemblies: to trade, to levy taxes, to award contracts, and so there was nothing to fight-to-the-finish for. It was from that time that the power to levy war was vested in the Continental Congress - a power which has been observed more in the breach by presidents and commander in chiefs down the ages, whenever it suits them, depending on the mood of the country.
To go back to the specific case of the Ngige imbroglio, Ngige would not commit his transgression against the state if the motive did not exist, nor would all the chief executives form the states to federal level. This recalls the case of the state chief executive who was alleged to have been involved in the fraudulent expatriation of states resources to a tune of $8,000, 000 dollars while the state indigenes suffered in abject poverty -absolute power, absolute corruption.
If the executive is limited to merely overseeing the execution of awarding contracts and the task of awarding ALL contracts art left to the responsible committees, not only would corruption be drastically reduced, the fight-to-the-finish for executive positions would come to an abrupt end, since there would be nothing to fight over. But first the hallowed legislative assemblies would have to be cleansed of military officers who got elected to the chambers by throwing around ill-gotten wealth acquired during their inglorious tenure. During a paper present by Prof. Jimi Adisa to the Indiana University African Studies program, I asked the political scientist what the Obasanjo government was doing to ensure that such people returned ill-gotten wealth to the state. His reply that affected such persons filibustered using the courts as agents of western style democracy, through injunctions and stay of executions, leaves a lot to be desired as such people in the legislative assemblies and in executive positions encourage the new civilian participants that once the nefarious deed is successfully carried out, it is done for good.
However, a lot of parody of Western democracy goes on in African countries, for apart from the humiliation of a tarnished image on account of association with any type of fraud in the British parliament and American Congress, for example, the British distinguish between fraud and serious fraud, and a Serious Fraud Office exists to this end. Any legislator or public office holder found to have enriched himself to the tune of over $5,000.00 while in office (based on his declaration of assets before assumption of office) ought not to be allowed by INEC to run for any public office, in addition to restitution being ordered by the court. Again I will echo Gordon Brown in saying that something cannot be procedurally right if it is morally wrong.
After the past leaders have helped to midwife genuine federal democracy in this manner, there would be no need to have a Western style bicameral legislature. Elections to state and federal legislatures would be a once renewable three year affair from which triumvirs would be elected to serve a single term of three years by legislatures.
However, it might be asked, on what basis people should organize for election if not on party basis, on what programs should legislatures run. The best answer, that lends itself for consideration is that people know what amenities provide for life. Potable water, electricity good roads and schools (quoranic or Western). People do not need to belong to any party to determine this. Each area should simply appoint leaders from town level to the federal level to determine their five year plans, ten year plans and fifteen and so on and be elected on the basis of their service to the community (public or private) In the first ten years or so in which the past leaders will be heading the triumvirate, they should on the basis of their understanding of the needs of each Geopolitical area be able to come to an understanding of what should be an aggregate of the national development. The fact that the needs of Imo geo- political- zone will not be the same as sokoto state, since their welthanschauug (philosophy of development based on their different past histories) cannot but be different. Federal resources would then be allocated on basis of differentiation of needs in the spirit of give and take.
I have said in the original open letter written to Gen Abubaker in 1998 that in the sensitive issue of appointing commanders in chief, such officers should be left to the minority groups, who would be elected to office by the majority groups in the legislature or the triumvirs representing the majority groups at the center. The decision of the commanders to go war will be based on the will of the majority, who through the triumvirs would be able to authorize war, while abuse of minority groups would be neutralized by the fact that they would be actual commanders to coordinate control of restive populations in periods of emergency, and would not naturally harm their own people while the will of the majority would be enough to check against abuse of majority population. The absolutism of the position of President and commander in chief will be eradicated. Proponents of this position have mounted the anachronistic argument of speed of decision making. In the televisual age of video conferencing, this is no longer tenable.
We are not talking of anything alien to African culture here. We take our point of departure from a system practiced by the senegambia, where the Diaraff Bundao was primus inter pares. We speak of a practice that has seen peace return to the fold of the Yoruba council of Obas. We speak of a system that ensured tranquility for ages on the continent (punctured by periodic disagreements, no doubt) before colonial incursion. We speak of the multiple overall commanders system devised by the Yoruba to stave off imminent ruin in its hour of internecine crisis.
As for the best source of finance to get Africa out of its present predicament Prof. Ayitteh's proposals recommend themselves as the most pragmatic, far reaching and far-sighted, if doggedly pursued, with the cooperation of the international community, Africa would witness a turnaround within the next five years. If the international community heeds Chancellor Brown's plea and grants Africa a reprieve, all well and good, but the continent must focus first and foremost on pulling itself up by its own bootstrap via the Ayitteh formula.
In the anticipated salubrious climate, let us now watch who would be able to utter the statement that Africa has been cursed with a perennial retrogression. Prof. Soyinka has hit on an enduring theme that will simply not go away until it is fully addressed. Let us have the overdue confab.