June 14, 2009

How politicians endanger democracy —Ken Nnamani

*‘Next constitution should be small and smart’


Former Senate president, Ken Nnamani, says the responsibility for the failure of democracy to consolidate in Nigeria is majorly that of politicians.  He also speaks in this interview on how to make the nation’s constitution work, the Yar’Adua government, the failed third term bid, among other issues. Excerpts:

THE seven bills sent to the Senate, why do you think President Yar’Ádua is separating these bills from the reform proposals of the Uwais Committee?
I think the reason for separating the Uwais Report is to make for easy passage. Don’t forget that it is a bill and not the report that the National Assembly will pass into law.

The Uwais Committee also attached draft bills that captured some of the salient provisions in its report. I have not seen copies of the bills Mr. President sent to the National Assembly but I believe that those bills will be almost the same bills prepared by the Uwais Committee with those amendments that Mr. President wants to make, including amendments as to who has the power to appoint members of the election management bodies.

Some people are of the view that politicians are always responsible for the collapse of the process because of their desperation to grab power. Do you honestly agree?
Some of the blames for the truncation or stultification of democracy are rightly placed at the doorsteps of politicians. It is true that politicians have often shown greed for power and have refused to play by the rule. We can all remember what happened during the second republic when unwillingness of those in power to allow the sanctity of the ballot box led to conflicts that encouraged military to intervene and take over power. In the first republic, it was the same failure of politicians to play by the rule, that is, the determination to win by all means that led to the Wild Wild West. The rest is bitter history.

There is no doubt that the responsibility for the failure of democracy to consolidate in Nigeria is majorly that of politicians. But the failure of politicians is aided by the weak institutions and deformed political culture we inherited from the colonial administration.

After independence, we failed to reform these institutions and they have continued to negatively influence our politics. We inherited tribalism, nepotism and corruption from colonial rule and have since reinforced these maladies. Our failure in politics is also caused by our failure to grow our economy and reduce inequality. History tells us that there has never been a consolidated democracy without a robust and large middle class. Nigeria does not have a middle class and it is therefore no surprise that our democracy is weak and reversible.

Electoral fraud and all forms of violence and hooliganism during election grow in the soil watered by extreme poverty as we have in Nigeria.

Ken Nnanani

Ken Nnanani

Let us look at what just happened in Ekiti State with the all powerful Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, and the role of politicians in arming people and visiting violence on the polity. Where would you put the blame for the Ekiti debacle?

I put the Ekiti debacle as you put it at the door step of both the politicians, the electorate and the government that has the responsibility to conduct free and fair elections. It is obvious that the electoral body did not learn the necessary lessons from the fiasco of 2007 elections. The leadership of that body has been busy doing media warfare and has not paid sufficient attention to the views of well-meaning and critical Nigerians. For example, the dispute over whether results from certain wards are legitimate should not have arisen if the electoral body followed the rules strictly. The electoral law provides for every important aspect of voting and collation of votes. If there is unshakeable commitment to follow these rules to the last detail, there will be little room for such dispute and violence. So, an election management body with uncommon courage, integrity and competence will resolve some of these problems.

Of course, politics in Nigeria has become a desperate game because of the potential to illegally amass wealth while in office. If we mean business in the war against corruption and convict corrupt politicians, then the battle for political office will be less desperate. I believe that desperate politicians tend to act in very desperate manner.

The leadership of INEC claimed that it will conduct a free, fair and acceptable election in 2011. Do you foresee anything of such using Ekiti as a case study?
The recent outing in Ekiti does not give much hope of free and fair elections in 2011. We are looking forward to new electoral act for the 2011 elections. I’m confident that my colleagues will rise up to the challenge. Also Mr. President declared that he will guarantee free and fair elections. The critical test is the character of INEC. Wait till we see the character of people to run the 2011 elections then we will know whether there is hope or more of the same fiasco and routine rationalization of gross incompetence.

Some people are of the opinion that third term failed because it involved Obasanjo or did it fail because it was immoral?
Third term failed because it could not survive the integrity of the constitution. In that case, you can say it failed because it was immoral. Our constitution does not contemplate that it should be amended just for the benefit of one or few individuals. No. The constitution caters for the interest of the people. It promotes the common good. Third term is not for the common good hence the Senate did not waste time to refuse passage to the third term bill. Don’t forget that the Senate debate of the third term agenda was done transparently, within the full glare of Nigerians.

By allowing television broadcast of every proceeding we were trying to engender deliberative democracy. At the end of the day, my colleagues and I stood for legislative due process. Like I said in my speech during the debate, keeping the process of lawmaking free from corruption is even more important than the result. So, the third term failed because it offended the integrity of our constitution as well as the standing rules of procedure. Courage was what was required to say so. I’m delighted that we didn’t hesitate.

There are those who insist that if another more calculating politician like Atiku or IBB had wanted same with good strategy, constructive engagement and humility, the idea may have passed especially if such a president had served the people well?
Well, I doubt if a better strategy would have succeeded in bending the constitution to serve a personal interest. May be a better strategy may have succeeded in swaying some senators to endorse the agenda.

Well, that is a speculation and I don’t like to indulge in speculations. I don’t know of any strategy that would have bent the provisions of the constitution and the standing rules of the Senate under our watch. There are certain matters beyond inducement, I should add.

From what you know, how much really went into the third term bid because on both sides, there were stories of money changing hands from both the Obasanjo people and the opposition?
Sure, there were stories of money being given to some actors in the saga to influence the outcome. The media had commentaries and news reports on allegations of financial inducement. I have no concrete facts. All I can say is that my insistence on due process was not biased against anyone. I was an umpire and I concerned myself with upholding the strictest version of legislative due process. I enjoyed the unwavering support of not a few of my colleagues. I remain forever grateful to all the senators who served with me. I can only hope and believe that the confidence they reposed in me was justified.

Are you still in PDP?
Yes, a loyal member at that, not minding my characteristic speaking out at times in ways not often complimentary to the party. There seems to be signs of genuine determination on the part of the present members of the National Working Committee of the party to reposition PDP. If this trend continues, the party will come alive to the benefit of our quest for participatory democracy.

How would you assess President Yar’Adua?
I think that we have seen some positive changes like the fact that Mr. President has shown restraint in interfering and subjugating other branches of government. This is a great achievement. Democracy does not consolidate in a system of power mongering, where one branch of government or some officials take delight in confiscating the responsibilities of other branches of government and other officials. This president has been positively restrained. But, I think he has not done very well in prosecuting his economic and development agenda. The power situation is still critical.

The legislative/executive relationship, how would you describe it now?
The relationship between the legislature and the executive is cordial and harmonious. There have been just few incidents of outbreak of hostility between them. And these outbreaks have been low intensity conflicts unlike what was experienced in the past. This is good for institutional efficiency. Mr. President’s personality has helped in this wise. But, harmonious relationship is not an end in itself.

Harmonious relationship
It should be a means to an end – the end of promoting the welfare of the people and protecting democracy through effective legislation and oversight. I think the legislature should utilize their harmonious relationship to improve on its legislative and oversight activities. Don’t forget that sometimes conflicts may be more productive than the so-called peace. The most important thing is to bear in mind the twin concept I developed while in office: Interdependence and co-management.

The legislature and the executive should be interdependent and co-manage the economic and political challenges of the country. No undue conflict and no undue conciliation.

As former Senate president, how would you rate Senator David Mark?
No, I can’t sit in judgment over my successor. That will be graceless and unwise. When Senator David Mark leaves office, I can make such assessment. My interest is to pray for his success and offer advice whenever he needs my suggestions. People complain that the Nigerian constitution is the problem, but there is another view that as bad as the constitution may be, we, the people, have never attempted to operate the constitution properly.

Is it the constitution that is faulty or we the people?
I think it is both. The constitution is not as good as it should be. There are provisions in the constitution that hinder effective governance. I think the problem is that our constitution is very bulky and indeed unwieldy. Compare it to the US constitution, constitutions should just contain basic and fundamental principles of governance and the fundamental human rights and directive principles of state policy. The rest issues about entitlement and structure of government can be in subsidiary laws. Now, we that want to improve our electoral system, we must amend the constitution. If we want to improve the police structure, we have to amend the constitution. That is counter-productive.

The next constitution should be small and smart. Having said all that, we should not forget that constitution, no matter how perfect, cannot replace people. The quality of the intellect and integrity of those who operate the constitution matter more than the text of the constitution.

We should not focus all efforts on constitutional amendment without political education and the strengthening of institutions of accountability. Our people will go all out to defend the constitution if they understand what they are to defend. Simplifying the constitution will help in making such an enduring document attractive to most Nigerians.

Let me give examples in both instances. On the part of the constitution, there is perhaps no reason to entrench all the provisions about the operations of agencies like the INEC, Police Service Commission and others in the constitution. Now that we are talking about restructuring the INEC for optimum performance, this calls for cumbersome if not rigorous constitutional amendment. On the part of the people, we ought to reduce our excessive respect for and worship of wealth and power. We also over-pamper our office holders to the extent that they feel obliged to ride roughshod on our collective interests. There is an urgent need for everyone to be alert and remain engaged with governance in order to make political office-holders accountable. There can be no greater accountability than a people being awake to their rights and responsibilities. That’s perhaps one of the secrets of the success of most successful democracies including the United States.

When last did you talk to Obasanjo?
Let me get this point clear. Please note that before I went to the Senate, I wasn’t close to former President Obasanjo and while both of us were in the service of this nation in the last administration, we were neither friends nor enemies. We probably enjoyed mutual respect and in some circumstances merely tolerated each other. Now that we’re both out of office, we occasionally meet at events such as NEC or BOT meetings of PDP.

What would you consider his strengths and weaknesses?
While I don’t cherish discussing individuals, let me simply state that there are few Nigerians that I know, living or dead, who have as much capacity to work as former President Obasanjo. He is not only intelligent, he is imbued with “street smartness” the kind that no one gets from any classroom. His ability to work for long hours is unequalled. He tried to show that he loves this country – Nigeria.

On the weakness side, I think that he lacks the qualities of a true democrat. He is not willing to listen to competing ideas other than his own. In this respect, he tends to be egoistic. A leader does not indulge in careless talks. ‘Do or die’ politics and `Enugu is working’ when indeed the state was under locust attack are few examples of statements that tend to diminish rather than enhance the stature of the former president. I have no doubt in my mind about how much the former president loves Nigeria, but it is highly debatable how much he loves Nigerians.

The president recently accused the National Assembly of poor productivity. He claimed no fewer than 64 bills are pending in the National Assembly. As a former Senate president, what is your view on this?
Well, I think that this is not much of a problem. If I understood it correctly, Mr. President sent a letter requesting urgent action on very important bills that are still pending before the legislature. This in my view does not call for blame-game. The National Assembly will consider the letter and maybe increase the tempo of legislative activities in order to help the executive and of course please the people. It depends on how the National Assembly responds to the correspondence from Mr. President. But, certainly, this is nothing to fight about.

Your Foundation, what do you have lined up in the future for the institution?
We have several programs lined up. We are starting a bimonthly Abuja Roundtable to provide technical support for policymaking and engender of deliberation and public participation in Nigeria. We have designed intervention modules for the Niger Delta, an approach that is quite innovative and creative which will most likely lead to reconciliation and thereby overcoming destructive tendencies in the region. In some couple of weeks, we will start off our Youth Academy, a somewhat ambitious project to train young people between the ages of 20-35 on transformative leadership and effective citizenship. We have other projects targeted at emerging leaders. We are designing multilevel projects on malaria eradication and literacy pilot programs in the FCT.

How would you advise the opposition to conduct itself with a view to making the polity more refined?
The opposition should be vibrant. Without a vibrant opposition, there can hardly be a strong democracy. One of the problems of democracy in Nigeria is that the opposition has no stamina. Everyone wants to join the ruling party because politics boils down to bread and butter. This is a misconception. When you are outside the ruling party formation, there will be no bread and butter.

This politics of stomach is sad to say the least. We need opposition politicians who are driven by ideas and higher values, not those who become opposition because they lost election in the ruling party. It is important to understand that opposition does not mean fighting the government without facts and reason. The opposition should constitute itself into a think-tank ready to propose alternative policies.

We should fight over ideas and concepts and not on personality and personal interests. Opposition should try to come together to wage war on ideas not on blackmail and violence. Proliferation of mushroom political parties is a recipe for weak opposition and a clear endorsement of the ruling party.