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Keynote Address at the Nigerian Bar Association, Warri Branch Law Week by Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, OFR, on 4th July, 2012
The starting point for an assessment of our national experience of civil rule since 1999 is a deserved tribute to the many Nigerians from all walks of life whose efforts and sacrifices compelled the military to retreat to the barracks. It was a titanic effort, a struggle for which many died, countless were bloodied and many lost lives, livelihoods and liberty. Freedom stirs in the hearts of humanity; neither blandishments nor the whip of tyrants can extinguish these stirrings or even deter a determined people from securing it. Freedom is a wonderful value, and the barbaric events of the last military rule ought to have convinced everybody that democracy, anchored on fair elections, the rule of law and good governance, is the way to go. In 1998, Nigerians overwhelmingly decided that never again will we accept the shortcuts of military rule and the long nightmare of tragedy that accompanied it for some 15 years.
I was privileged to have contributed in the design of the transition programme after Abacha’s death in June 1998. That transition was successfully concluded with President Olusegun Obasanjo taking the reins in May 1999. A few months after that I was appointed head of the Bureau of Public Enterprises, and later in 2003, Minister of the FCT. As a private citizen since 2007, I have reflected on our country’s journey, and my view is that we have many things to celebrate but much more to deplore.
Warts and all, we have preserved the prospect for genuine democratic governance in Nigeria. Some fraudulent elections have been overturned and illegal impeachments quashed. Nigerians even united to surprise and defeat the third-term attempt of a sitting president. With vigilance and will we can invest real substance into the formal democratic structures that we have and make real the vision that our people can prosper in freedom. The notion of the inalienable rights of the citizen is getting reinforced, despite the prolonged hangover afflicting sections of our security personnel. This increased awareness of human rights has sometimes been bolstered by the courts.
While democracy satisfies the intrinsic desire for freedom, it is its instrumental value that ultimately matters for the quotidian realities and longer-term interests of most Nigerians. People want freedom, but that must include the freedom not to starve, the freedom to live in dignity, with equal access to education, health, security and to enjoy as much happiness as their talents can legitimately secure.
The panoply of reforms undertaken between 1999 and 2007 were designed to reduce the burden of the state on the economy, improve infrastructure and make it easier to do business in Nigeria. Privatisation was undertaken because it was understood that there is no value in retaining state-owned enterprises that deliver services poorly, drain the public purse or which simply left public assets rotting away in moribund enterprises. The Oandos and the Benue Cements are testament to the success of privatisation. But our system has not managed to defeat the entrenched interests in some of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that successfully masqueraded as defenders of national interest until they finally interred those enterprises they had long used as illicit cash-cows.
Democratic rule also liberalised the telecommunications sector, bringing in foreign investment, spurring ancillary businesses and putting a telephone in the hands of virtually every adult resident of our vast country. We saw the beginnings of a credit system, and even a skeletal mortgage scheme that assisted many of the buyers of Federal Government houses in Abuja. Nigeria won debt relief, consolidated its banking system and witnessed economic growth, no doubt assisted also by high oil prices. The Obasanjo government grew the external reserves and created a rainy day fund called the Excess Crude Account.
By 2007, the new government inherited vast reserves ($47bn), an on-going series of power projects (NIPP), new rail systems from Lagos to Kano ($8.3bn) and Abuja Metro ($800 million), a fat Excess Crude Account ($23bn), in short a basis to hit the ground running, complete on-going projects, initiate new ones and continue the work of solving Nigeria’s problems. Alas, that did not happen. I will attempt an answer.
Despite the many accomplishments of the Obasanjo government, it was by no means a perfect government, just an effective one. The attention to the rule of law was not consistent. Let us recall the brazenness with which a well-connected thug sponsored arson against government buildings in Anambra State as part of the assault against the government of Dr. Chris Ngige from whom he was estranged. That thug was not called to account; rather he was elevated to his party’s board of trustees. If people consistently escape justice because of their connections to power, it is an open invitation to people of lesser quality to seize the state and suitably defile it. Consider the prominent role people like James Ibori came to play in our national affairs from May 2007.
Nigeria has also managed to compound impunity by assaulting the very basis of democratic legitimacy: free and fair elections. It is not simply a matter of opinion that elections in Nigeria have been progressively worse since 1999. European Union and other observers gave devastating verdicts on the conduct of the 2003 elections. Those of 2007 were so transparently awful that the key beneficiary, Umaru Yar’Adua, felt compelled to admit as much in his inaugural speech as president. Despite the initial façade, the 2011 elections turned out to be not only flawed, but one of most deceptive and divisive in our chequered electoral history.
Yet democracy by its very nature ought not to make people frightened of the consequences of not being in power. With term limits, losers are guaranteed another stab in just a few years. And where the rule of law prevails, an electoral loss is not the same thing as exclusion from the political space and vigorous participation in the political process. But such political sophistication prospers only when there’s certainty about electoral integrity and where the respect for the rule of law has become part of the DNA.
Simply put we have lost the opportunity to routinize the spirit of democracy while we stay busy appearing to observe its formal rituals. It was perhaps inevitable that the words of Plato that “the punishment we suffer, if we refuse to take an interest in matters of government, is to live under the government of worse men” would catch up with us.
Since 2000, there has been an unacceptable toll of mayhem and bloodshed in Nigeria. The explosion of religious and ethnic tensions expressed in violent hues has been one of the most disappointing features of the new era. Democracy ideally offers a civilised way to negotiate and manage differences without breaking bones. It thrives on the ability of contending factions to work out a consensus and to summon sufficient coherence to make things work. It is disheartening that virtual apartheid, based on religion, is beginning to divide cities like my hometown of Kaduna, with people being restricted to their respective ghettoes of faith. At the heart of democracy is a universal idea, but a key feature of present-day Nigeria is an astounding narrow-mindedness.
It is necessary that we reflect on the probability that by giving undue credence to group rights, we imperil not only individual rights but also the possibility of building a nation where everyone belongs and feels safe everywhere. Our political elite have encouraged divisions that keep them in public office, forgetting that the depletion of social capital, trust and cohesion will make it impossible for them to enjoy the fruits of the office, if any! This has manifested in many ways.
Nigeria has clearly failed to secure her citizens. We have a centralized police force afflicted both by little self-respect and a limited sense of its mandate. The efforts to contain Boko Haram’s terror has shown that our intelligence gathering apparatus is not fit for purpose, and our security agencies lacking in internal capacity and capability beyond harassing those opposed to those in power. The pathetic manner public streets are blocked in the vicinities of security and defence establishments makes the citizens wonder – if those trained and armed to defend us are so scared of the terrorists, how can we expect them to defend the realm? Are they concerned only about their safety and that of those in power? Are they serving to protect the state or those that are currently in power?
We have not built as much infrastructure as our development requires, and we have failed to moderate our escalating cost of governance. More importantly, democratic Nigeria is yet to propel economic growth and development to a level that can democratise its fruits through the creation of jobs for our youths. As we dither, divide ourselves and condone fraud, corruption and incompetence, the world just leaves us behind.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need to give our people a stake in keeping democracy aglow. History shows that even in the developed world, extremist groups tend to attract more support in moments of economic hardship. And when this is compounded by the politics of corruption and self-advancement of only those in corridors of power, the economic exclusion of all citizens but the professional sycophants, and relentless harassment of those in opposition, only the peace of the graveyard can be the best outcome. Our challenge therefore is to reverse these tendencies and make democracy work for the greatest number of Nigerians.
Nigeria has for too long remained just a country of potential. It is our duty to realise the promise of these potentials by making them real for all citizens. What can we do to make this happen? What is the role of government, the citizens and civil society organizations like the NBA? I write a column every Friday in which I try to answer these questions. I will broadly outline what I think needs to be done, and by whom.
Our political culture must change from one of self-enrichment to true public service. The situation in which we spend almost the entire federal revenues to pay the salaries, allowances and running cost of government and its officials is unacceptable and will crash this democratic experiment – and it is still an experiment, albeit a thirteen year one. Elections must be credible, free and fair because that is what will guarantee the ejection of those that fail the electorate. I have said this before and will say it again, if the ruling party and its partners in INEC and the security agencies rig the next election, Nigerians will not let them enjoy the fruits of their fraud. Enough is now enough.
Security is currently a front-burning issue. It is the primary responsibility of any government. It can neither be abdicated nor outsourced. Community leaders can support the efforts, but cannot replace the government itself. Finally, a single-minded focus on development – physical via infrastructure build-out, human by providing equal access to public education and healthcare, and municipal services that guarantee social justice and enable citizens the opportunity to realize their full potentials. That is not too much to ask. Is it?