The Passing Scene

June 13, 2009

“a little to the right…”

By Bisi Lawrence
August 27, 1985. Enter Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, on the day Buhari received his marching orders.

It was really not his first appearance on to the Nigerian political stage. the first was on February 13, 1976. The Nigerian Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed had been assassinated in a coup d’ état that shocked the nation.

He had proved to be a different kind of military ruler from his predecessors. He seemed to genuinely want a new beginning for a nation which had tripped itself up on the way to an assured glorious future.

The subsequent deadlock which built up around the Radio Nigeria Broadcasting House at Ikoyi created an anxiety that everyone wished would end quickly. That was where the coup leader, Lt. Colonel B.S. Dimka, was holed up. Eventually, Lieutenant General

Theophilus Danjuma, who was Chief of Defence Staff, ordered that the Radio Nigeria Buildings be leveled to the ground. The officer in charge of the operations was a handsome, dapper officer named Ibrahim Babangida. Thus entered one of the most charismatic and controversial figures upon the Nigerian historical scene.

He eventually effected the rout of Dimka from the Broadcasting House without any loss of civilian life. Many of us still feel grateful to him to this day for saving our lives. You see, I was then the Controller, National Programmes, of Radio Nigeria.

And it was effectively my station that Dimka had taken over. for quite a while, I felt close to the gentleman who had risked his career, and indeed his life, to save so many souls including mine, since it turned out that Danjuma was rather miffed that his orders were not carried out to the letter.

In fact, the man seemed to have worn that grudge on his sleeve for several years, and probably up till today. I need not tell you my feelings about a man who ordered that I should be killed and then continued to be annoyed that God did not give me ä prey to his teeth.”

I need not tell you about my feelings, either, concerning the man who saved us. So when he made his second entry on the Nigerian stage as the leader of a successful military take-over of government, I was not entirely discomfited. In fact, several groups actually made a song and dance about it.

I had no doubt in my mind that he would make an outstanding success of his essay into national leadership. He seemed to have such high hopes for his country.

One of those hopes to which he gave public expression, and which totally captivated my imagination was the idea of the two-party system. I remember listening to the lucid (if almost lewd) summary of the political suasion which he approximated, in its differentials, to “a little to the right, and a little to the left.”

That was, in fact, the basis of June 12th. That was what provided the saddle upon which it could ride, in the first place. And then the “Option A4″ cleared the course for a glorious canter to the “freest and fairest election” ever held in post-independence Nigeria. Ibrahim Babangida was the main architect of it all.

Not many people now remember what the chaos was like in the number of political parties that were lined up to take part in the elections that were expected to replace the Babangida government in the mid ‘nineties.

Hardly anyone, in fact, would wish to remember. When it seemed that almost every party had the letter “P” in its initials, one came up with that letter as all its initials – the “PPP”.

Some people looked over the conglomeration of strange bedfellows who were grouped together in the same parties, and decided that what was the most common element went beyond mere initials, but centred on the main objective – which had to be the size of the “take-away” jackpot expected.

Facing the truth of the matter squarely, they named their party, “Chop-I-Chop Party”.

It showed the spirit of the times.

Nigerians were into how to become millionaires without tears. Social parties were the scenes to reckless spending in a spree termed “spraying”. The politicians had found their way to becoming “professionals”.

The situation might have been seeping into our lives over the years, but this was the period when it became congealed. This was when it became clear that you could make a career, a life-time career, out of being a politician.

The days of being a lawyer or a successful professional aspiring to statesmanship were slipping away; the season of dabbling in politics to make a contribution of sorts were over; the era of serious-minded protagonists who actually held lectures and wrote books about their vision for the country was at an end.

In fact, the exposition of a vision for the nation encapsulated in a manifesto of the political party was going out of the accepted norm. It was all diverted into a stream flowing “a little to the right, a little to the left”.

But it seemed to work, and might have worked for some time. The abrogation of June 12 would now never let us know.

The two-party system that was handed over to us was, in effect, one party under two different names. Everybody wanted sound education, thriving industries, excellent health delivery service, motorable roads, and superb security. We wanted it the same way – maybe ä little this or a little that way.” But how? In what way and by what manner or means? That is the rub.

In retrospect, I have always wondered how a government without a distinct opposition would fare in “democratic” government, and that would have been the proposition before an Abiola government. It might have been a set-up designed by a genius who knew where to wait for the bus to come aboard.

That government would have been squeezed together like an accordion in no time, and the “maestro” waiting in the wings would have had little difficulty claiming the palm. If you do not really know what I am talking about, just think of what happened after the crush of June 12.

The political parties came up in their numbers again, didn’t they? And then resolved into one mammoh party with little satellites “beeping” around it. The “mega-merger” of a party that is being trumped today around merely makes the mammoh stronger.

A man who said he came from “the valley of the shadow of death”, rose to the peak of autocracy to impose his own style of life on all around him. Everyone seemed to have removed how to oppose out of his or her thinking, because they were all pulling in the same direction anyway, and that is towards the “take-away” banana.

The man who carried away the prize was not the architect, the originator; he was the one man the architect could not deal with – deterred unfortunately by the “code of honour” of the uniform.

Maybe he could have done worse or better, in a situation where what is better for some may be worse for others.

That is the story of our “nascent” democracy… no guiding principle, no credo, no ideology. And, by the same token, it will remain that way – “nascent” – for the next twenty years, or longer.

A discussion about nationhood in the 21st Century, especially as it affects Nigeria, must naturally touch on democracy. But most people hardly appreciate what democracy really entails, preoccupied as they are by what it gives as distinct from what it demands.

Even those whose existence openly stands in the way of democracy, blandly proclaim its virtues in the self-delusion that others are thus deceived, or impressed.

This, for instance, is the system of governance that demands the representation of every section of the community in the making of policy decisions.

Thus it offers full participation on an equal basis to the masses in the determination of their own fate, and further provides a stronghold against bias and domination.

But, I will say it again; we can only have democracy if we are prepared for it. We must deserve it through sacrifice and unflinching self-reliance to reap its dividends. It will not rise out of any document, or reform. It is not produced from positions or movements “a little to the right, a little to the left.”

The Constitution of the Republic of Nigeria (1999) stipulates, as an ideal for the promotion of national unity, that “there shall be no predominance of persons from a few States or from a few ethnic or any other sectional groups” in the composition of the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or an of its agencies. (Cap. 14(3)). A Commission exists for the observance of this provision, the violation of which should be justiciable.

So, how many times has this been seriously raised as an issue in the past ten years? And yet, just look around you. At one particular time, the top hierarchy of various areas of government, especially Sports, was awash with elements from the same part of the country.

And no feathers flew in any direction…whether “a little to the right or a little to the…”.

I am very grateful to all who expressed their concern about my health recently. I now feel much better.

The good wishes came in different ways. There was the note from Jide Oguntusin who is fourteen. “You cannot begin to fall sick now when I am beginning to understand you enough to enjoy your column,” he writes. “I hope to be reading it even at fifty…”  Wow!

Some even went further to offer prescriptions. Clearly ahead of others is this one from someone who honours me with the fond title of  “uncle”.

“Uncle, sorry you have been under the weather. Next time, try a ‘NADECO SPECIAL’ – one shot of gin, brandy, tia maria, campary and seven-up. I swear by it. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.”
Time out.