DECONSTRUCTING A DIATRIBE
By Wole Soyinka
THE Presidency's speech writers are clearly no believers in clarity of intent as a working partner of public communication. We are in no position to know whether or not this marked deficiency was part of their official brief but, as far as inaugural addresses go, this sets the record for internal contradictions, muddled propositions, historic distortions, falsifications of facts - the last being most noticeable in a singularly disproportionate attention devoted to absent dissenters - nearly half of an address that was meant to set an agenda, but was also delivered with a stated consciousness of the nation being 'at the threshold of history'. What should have been a focused exhortation thus came through as an extended diatribe. I put this down to the fever of unpreparedness, a rush to actualize a hastily concocted project. Anyone can plagiarise an idea; there is still left the little matter of its methodical actualization. Most disturbing of all the symptoms of a plagiarized project, however, was the attempt to press familiar expressions into service as disservice to truth.
A crucial starting point is readily supplied by the word 'democracy' or 'democratic', employed a half dozen times, roughly, in the presidential address at the Reform
Conference, but with one manipulative instance that constitutes a cynical abuse of the word. Events that take place within a democracy do not necessarily imply a democratic procedure, any more than a project under a dictatorship necessarily earns designation as despotic manipulation. In the president's words: "The conference is not a substitute for the executive or legislature (so far so good). Rather, this is a democratic path to consider all that is necessary to assist etc.''
Only in so far as the 2003 National elections could be considered 'democratic', can the methodology applied in selecting candidates for the Abuja Dialogue (or Conference)
be remotely considered so. From this premise alone, one can see what nature of a 'dialogue' is about to be launched at the prostrate Nigerian populace. A sincere dialogue is
still possible, but only when things are called by their proper names, not when the conveners lay its foundation on the principle of the interchangeability of fundamental categories, especially political ones. A project leader has a right to assemble individuals from any corner of the nation to advise him on any issues or projects, and his or her chosen path need not be democratic.
Does it really matter, this appropriation of democratic attributes? Very much so alas, since it is a reflection on how 'democratically' the nation has been governed in the past six years. What the President is thus declaring before the entire world is that democracy means however he chooses to define it. A process in which the convener of a meeting of four hundred allots himself one-eighth of the representation - of which, fortunately, I was one, so it is not a question of sour grapes - then allocates to the political party of which he is absolute leader the right to nominate 174 candidates - six delegates per state governor - is not a democratic process.
This President, it must also be recalled, straddles two additional constituencies - the military and the club of former rulers, the latter of which are granted automatic
participation, not, mind you, in order to appear in sackcloth and ashes for individual roles in the nation's present predicament, but as honoured, front-line participants etc. Altogether, 'all the Presidents' men' have the majority voice at the conference. Of course, one concedes the presence of some individuals who will assert their right to independent thought. Nonetheless, by no stretch of the imagination should anyone term this 'a
democratic path' to a national dialogue. This is a process that insists on an outright monopoly of the right to opinion to such a degree that the nation's police chief -
either on instruction, or simply from perception of, and anxiety to grease the Presidential will, thunders down on dissenting voices, and promises to unleash the full weight
of his notorious security apparatus on those who so much as think of gathering like minds to offer an alternative vision of their collective existence. Democracy means pluralism - to which lip-service is paid in the presidential address - and this includes the plurality of opinion, and its structures of expression.
As a footnote, however, let us quickly return to that item of the automatic right of attendance of former Heads of State, including even the civilian who was himself planted as a parting gift by another 'democratic?' dictator. If Sanni Abacha had been simply eased out in the palace coup, not removed with 'terminal prejudice' - would he have been accorded a seat among the delegates? Would Olusegun Obasanjo actually consent to sit together and debate Nigeria's future with such a 'former leader'? Observe, by contrast, that the Academic Staff Union received no invitation to the party, neither did the Student population. The women are under-represented and the handicapped are barely tolerated, yet the club of violent rulers is instantly accredited, rather than being summoned to testify to various panels on how not to make the same disastrous errors as they did. Time and time again, through numerous strategies, the nation continues to consecrate a past of violent rule. One thing we must say for the president - he believes in loyalty to his primary constituency.
And therein lies a most profound falsity of this supposed national dialogue, one whose proprietors have attempted to present as born, not only of conviction, but of rational process, the result of meticulous consultations and planning - 'a reasoned, well-organised, truly patriotic, genuinely open discussion." Fortunately, right from the start, the nation was given the opportunity to judge for itself all claims to this encounter as being 'well-organised', but that can be glossed over. Regarding open discussion however, between the President's explicitly itemised 'minimal issues that must be regarded as given' - in short, no-go areas in plain Nigerian parlance - the notion of an 'open discussion', much less 'genuinely so'
has been surely debunked by the very declaration of a minimal 'given' of a closed territory. Even President Obasanjo's former comrade-in- arms, General Victor Malu, wasted no time in blurting out his understanding and instant rejection of the very notion of a 'minimal given'. Let me interject here, by the way, that, speaking for myself at least, having made my choice and provided reasons for such a choice, my decision was to reserve my time and
energy for pursuing our own people's encounter at our decided, reasoned pace, wishing others well, but keeping a watching brief on the Abuja proceedings. We all owe a debt
to record keeping however, and misrepresentations of facts must never be permitted to stand. For those who have been at the receiving end of presidential salvoes against the
very notion of a National Conference/Dialogue/Debate in whatever form over the years, the following claim by any born-again conferencier is no less than a daylight rape of history. The propulsive agents of the long derided moment are still alive, fortunately, and it is our responsibility to come to the rescue of truth. "We adopted a strategy of widespread consultations....we refused to be stampeded until we believed that the time was ripe..."
What a mangling of historic truth, whose records are accessible on the pages of the media! Anyone who formerly had any doubts will now, after reading the President's inaugural speech, begin to harbour suspicions that the ongoing dialogue was born, not of conviction, but is the result of belated conversion and possibly - political necessity. The moment of surrender was however quickly followed by political opportunism that operated on three
tracks: one, taking credit for what is not yours; two, diluting and re-packaging the original idea and, three: falsifying the position of the original proponents of the idea to explain why it took so long to come round to that very idea. It is not given to every human being to bow
gracefully to the moment of necessity.
I stress this yet again, as an article of faith: it does not matter to me who fulfils what is the people's desire and for public good, as long as it is done and done properly, and my wish is that it becomes possible to demonstrate this when the miracle does happen and the Abuja
Dialogue delivers over and above the call of duty! In the process, however, a serious democratic watch demands that we do not let our leaders declare it night when the sun is drilling into our skulls. Such carelessness only leads to a presumption of extraordinary powers, and must be held to explain how it was possible to encounter, listed within the no-go zone, the presidential system. Under issues. we are informed, that are "central to the oneness of Nigeria" - which is 'no-go', behold that singular item -
This quite took my breath away. Presidentialism central to the oneness of Nigeria? Central to the oneness of the Soviet Union? The oneness of Australia? South Africa?
Scandinavia? Somalia? To....where else? What are the grounds, the historic justifications, or existing models, in political science etc. that form the basis for this outrageous claim? More relevantly for our immediate context, just what is the purpose of any 'national'
dialogue, even where limited to 'political reforms', when it cannot tamper with the political system now in operation. The only principality that we know of - or more accurately, guess at - to whose oneness Presidentialism is central, is the principality of Hell. Mind you, many
Nigerians have asserted that over the past few years, they have come to understand that Hell is only a matter of experiential definition, intensely felt in recent times. I happen to consider that an exaggeration.
Regarding the other claimants to the 'given' centrality to national oneness, I am, and have always been a believer in federalism above any other governance structure- at least
for this outsized political estate - but I'll be hanged and quartered before I would accord it a core status, a 'bedrock of our unity, identity and political praxis.' Even less would I ever appropriate such omniscience as to list it as a no-go topic in an arena of discussions that
involves my peers, or indeed any lesser beings, such as my precedent Heads of State, traditional rulers, experienced Heads of International organizations, ambassadors intellectuals, business moguls, religious leaders, professionals, former high court judges etc. etc. No wonder the Born-again Democrat took the pre-emptive step of reminding us that we are no longer run by a military dictatorship! That was a most reassuring reminder. Many of
us actually believed the evidence of our eyes and ears and have continued to react on certain issues through a conviction that military dictatorship is back on the rebound.
So, incidentally, does a sizable membership of the legislatures, governorships, civil service, both in the public media and in private caucuses. These include the judiciary, whose judgments this very president continues to flout just as in the worst days of the military. Just one sobering instance: has the president carried out, even as we speak, the order of the Supreme Court to release the funds illegally and unconstitutionally withheld from the Lagos State government?
Let us now address some of the more mind-boggling contradictions. "History", pronounces the President, "has saddled us with the opportunity to reassess, refocus,
redefine and REDESIGN (my emphasis) our political landscape..." This pronouncement comes at the very beginning of the address and, if any sentence can be extracted as the
Dialogue's mission statement, this is surely a front runner. Alas, it is also the flag off for a procession of contradictions. Following immediately after several items that the conference is not supposed to be or do, the address comes to its proactive intent: "....this is a democratic (!) path to consider all that is necessary to assist the constitutionally established
legitimate structures of government, the executive, judiciary, to grow, become more dynamic, more accountable and more capable of delivering service to the populace." (my italics)
What this means is that the conference is not required to redesign! Slice it anyway you want and all that is being said is simply this: the delegates are invited to restrict themselves to assist in maintaining the status quo! A billion naira and a selection of wise and experienced heads for this? Any 'political landscape' is based on those very elements - the legitimate structures of government, the executive, the judiciary (especially structures for the protection of its integrity) .... all the way to public service delivery. The political landscape raises questions over the very structure of the legislatures. Is the nation bearing too great a financial burden, with disproportionately meager returns for its investment in the current system? Does the nation need full-time legislators? Shall governance be unicameral or bicameral? Has the President far too much power? Or too little? Importantly, what the President brandishes as 'constitutionally legitimate structures' are rendered unconstitutional, illegitimate and invalid once their enabling constitution is pulled apart. And what is the purpose of a billion-naira dialogue if it shirks that very duty, as a rational option, and all it does is assist its products to remain in place!
Within that same paragraph, however, we are permitted a reprise of what I have deemed the 'mission statement', somewhat watered down, but echoing the same sentiment: "The conference is about designing the most appropriate and relevant institutional mechanisms for managing our diversity and difference." This is what is known as mixed messages. Is it accidental? Is it deliberate? Is it a confusion of briefs among the speech writers? Or is it a warning that anything can be given whatever interpretation the selected Chairman of the
conference, answerable only to the Convener, chooses to provide. We are speaking here of that very chairman who lost no time in warning the delegates that he would walk out at any time that the discussion veered in a direction that touched upon restricted zones, such as 're-structuring'. 'Restructuring?' he is reported to have responded to a reporter's question. 'What has restructuring to do with what we are doing here?' - words to that effect. And he added for good measure: "I shall walk out, and you know that means the end of the conference"
Let us proceed - in the name of public enlightenment - to the familiar ploy of attempting to demonise the opposition, largely through foisting on such groups claims that they
have never made, processes that they have never initiated, positions that they have never advocated, indeed sometimes creating a particular species of the opposition that simply
never existed, simply in order to smear, by snide implication, the real existence of organized, and rational optional voices and vision. These are tactics that tarnish an occasion for national reflection, as we must account the laying of the foundation for a new democratic nation whose watchwords must include truth and trust. "Fellow compatriots, we believe that the idea of representation at this conference SOLELY (my exclamation) by ethnic configuration is rather unrealistic, inequitable and unworkable." This is more alarming than the tactics of setting up straw men in order to knock them down - it is setting up ghost personae in broad daylight. Will the Presidency kindly name any one organization that has demanded that this, or any other 'national' conference be made up solely of ethnic nationalities? Of course there have been meetings of ethnic nationalities all over the nation - east, west, north and south. Any constituent part of the nation has a fundamental right to meet on issues of common interest. What I would like the proponents of the Abuja Dialogue to do is to name just those who ever demanded that representation to that, or the PRONACO dialogue be made up SOLELY of ethnic nationalities.
Speech writers - and if ever there was a product of a committee of speech-writers, this bears all the hallmarks of one, and rushed off balance - speech writers should spare us gratuitous insertions of propositions that neither illuminate nor advance a purposeful agenda. No one has advocated a return to the model of the Greek city states, nor proposed a simultaneous convocation of a hundred million people in Aso Rock and environs for a national conference. No serious grouping has ever tried to justify the National Conference - with or without the Sovereign - on the basis that it once occurred in next door Benin or the distant Congo, nor in eighteenth century France, though of course there are lessons to be learnt from all of them - from ideological intent to circumstances. Pronouncing faceless enemies guilty of 'reifying ethnicity' merely exhibits a confused grasp of such a concept, since you cannot reify what is already palpable and material, nor can you extract an essence from the material, then re-invest that essence in the same matter in order to propose that it is thereby reified. In other words, it is impossible to reify the woodenness in wood. It is already there as wood.
(Actually, this promises a fascinating discussion - but in another place.) For now, let me simply insist that I have yet to learn of the declaration of a god of ethnicity! The ethnic groups to whose voices we have listened are too deeply grounded in material circumstances to tolerate such distractions. In a somewhat different vein is the yoking of 'pluralism' and globalisation in casual partnership. This is truly a disservice to the mutual antagonism of both concepts. The point of these concluding observations is simply to expose the dangers inherent in rushing what should be a methodical process to the point of execution - from research, to logistical bolts and nails, to the erection of an intellectual platform. From this, we can proceed to the question: why? Why the panicked rush after so many years of somnolence, rejection, abuse - often with psychiatric recommendations. Suddenly, the regime, having sipped from the same broth of madness, albeit with the additional tempo of a different virus, yanks venerable personalities from their normal pursuits at short notice, the rational rhythms of existence are derailed and the nation is propelled into a frantic race to 'destination.' To the question, 'why?', and 'whose destination?', the answers, I am confident, will emerge during the coming weeks, though several are easily guessed at. For now, however, let us do without these distracting inaccuracies, misrepresentations and demonisations and confront the realities that divide the various schools of thought in what they actually envision for the nation - then perhaps we may even arrive at some degree of complementarity in our efforts - even if from a distance. We have not, after all, shied away from responding constructively to private efforts to harmonise the two positions, though we have not found it necessary to advertise the fact. That door has never been closed. The destination is all.
There is yet another dishonest and dishonorable simplification of motivation of pro-ponents of the need for a national conference from which ever direction such a call
had been made or conceded. I was reminded of it only after reading one such false attribution in one of today's media commentaries. No one, I repeat, has ever proposed to my
knowledge, that a national conference, sovereign or otherwise, is the ultimate "cure-all formula" for the ills that beset the nation from food on the table, health care delivery, education for children as well as shelter and other basic necessities etc etc.
This project of reductionism must end, so that serious and honest attention can be focussed on the political ill which a national conference, of whatever colour, is meant
specifically to address.
It should not be necessary to waste public energy on issues that were never invoked regarding the capabilities of the proposed national conference. W.S.
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