The Orbit

June 14, 2009

The lost years

By Obi Nwakanma
ON May 29, some Nigerians,   particularly those who   currently describe themselves as partisans of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, celebrated what they now call “Democracy Day.”

Yet, this day has no democratic symbolism for anybody else who is conscious, and who is an honest follower of Nigerian history and politics.

For one, May 29 was the day in 1966, when waves of premeditated killing began in the North of Nigeria targeting the Igbo, leading to the first phase of the pogroms in the north, which in turn snow-balled into the full scale event that was the Nigerian civil war.

It was also on May 29 that Jacob “Yakubu” Gowon made his moves signalling events that would lead to the  final destruction of the old federation, the foundations of which were painstakingly negotiated by the nationalist politicians as a federal union, following his unilateral acts creating the 12 states with neither plebisctory nor parliamentary authority.

That act today is at the roots of Nigeria’s unhealable wound of history – its fragmentation.  So for most Igbo, that day – May 29 – belongs on the register of infamy and is never celebrated. But it was typical Olusegun Obasanjo chutzpah to stick it, warts and all, to the Igbo, and to typically make a profound and dramatic point of it. So he chose to found his own second messianic regime on a date that carries such hurtful symbolism for them, as indeed for many other Nigerians, and to name such a day “democracy day.”

It was an act, epic in its wide presumptions. Olusegun Obasanjo was embarking upon a thoroughly revisionist project whose intention was neither renewal nor rejuvenation of nation, but of a will to claim new fronts of conquest: a Nigeria shaped in the image of the man who seriously  thought himself the Maximus Pontifex of modern Nigeria. So, May 29 became from then – that day of his second inaugural – “democracy day” although nothing about it smells nor hints of democracy.

Indeed, it was quite ironic that Obasanjo’s mandate came with so  little by way of democracy. A transfer of power had been made through a cabalistic process, by which Obasanjo became, a Greek gift from the ancien regime of disgraced military oligarchs seeking an easy way out of a historic quandary.

They found in him an old trusted ally to make their escape free of sanction.
They imposed their final will on Nigerians and gave us, through a flawed process, an old dinosaur waking from the slumber of his caged sleep to become Nigeria’s president in a millennium that demands new ways and new ideas of people; but especially of Nigeria which was in urgent need of new beginnings.

That is another story. But it does mark an important point of departure in my view, to examine the nature of the “democracy” we inherited, and which we currently practice, in order to see how clearly odd is the term “democracy day,” and how challenging these last ten years of “democratic” transition have been.

I should in fact say without equivocation that Nigeria is incapable of creating a democratic order in its current situation and at this stage of its historical formation. To be plain, Nigeria is not a democracy. It is some kind of hybrid monstrosity between a feudal society and a colonial order sustained by a thoroughly martial mindset or culture.

Three questions ought to clarify these claims: first, are Nigerians participants in this democracy; secondly are the oversight  institutions of democracy functional, and above all, is the Nigerian state an organic entity that reproduces the values constant with the values of democracy?

I base my claims from the basic enlightenment perspective that situates man at the epicenter of the will of nations. I’m afraid that Nigeria does not reflect the values that conduce to the provisos of democracy, chief of which is the very fact of the autonomy of the self as a fully conscious and objective being capable of acting in total self interest.

The political rhetoric should inform us: Nigerian politicians are “rulers” not “leaders.” They are accountable not to the people but to their “godfathers” and have scant need for the their constituents beyond the symbolic moment. The last ten years have been lost years.

In that period Nigeria should have strengthened its civic capacity to create true democratic values. But it is clear that it is not in the interest of the current “stake holders” on the Nigerian colonial state to free the national space for democracy.

They will not without a fight. In 1998, when the military wing of the Nigerian ruling class was about to be forced out of power by a concert of factors which had confluenced with the June elections in 1993, they quickly created a diversionary crisis, sacrificed a number of their allies among whom ironically indeed was Bashorun MKO Abiola, a complex man who had been an arch supporter of every military regime and whose fingers were in every corrupt pie in Nigeria prior to June 12. Moshood Abiola became the standard bearer of the democracy movement in Nigeria by default.

He was basically hijacked and martyred to provide cause for the coalition that had formed against the military oligarchy, and the election of June 12 had become, in spite of itself, the rallying principle by which Nigerians gathered to challenge the military oligarchy.

But not long after, the key figures of the oligarchy regrouped and were once again recycled into the new order with Obasanjo.

Many of them emerged as ministers, party chieftains, parliamentarians, and key factors of politics in the last ten years. Former opponents of democracy became champions of democracy over night.

They used their substantial investments in power to muscle through the rather feeble democracy movement, whose leaders kept quibbling at the crucial moments until the nation was hijacked from them, and the initiative was taken from them.

The fact is that the last ten years has been characterised by a most disturbing truth: Nigeria’s political space was hijacked by a shrewd and ambitious group of men and women, who have very little democratic credentials, whose preparation for civic leadership is scant and possibly even non-existent, and many who in normal societies belong to maximum security prisons found themselves by default in state houses, and as ministers of government and lawmakers.

These men and women have sustained themselves by using means of terror rather than of discourse and dialogue.

We have witnessed political assassinations and chicanery of the worst kind in Nigeria; we have seen governors operating the accounts of states as though they were running their domestic grocery accounts; we have seen the collapse, perhaps because their foundations have been fundamentally weak, of the structures of bureaucratic governance of states in a proportion that compels us to ask the question: how can democracy exist without the kind of apparatus of oversight necessary for the internal regulation of state?

Among the most glaring issues of the past ten years have been the sanctity of elections: election is the sacred point of democracy.

But in Nigeria the institution that conducts elections  is so centralized and the president of the electoral body so powerful that he or she can decree who wins or loses an election irrespective of the mandate of the people.

The last show of shame in Ekiti testifies to the anomaly of democracy in Nigeria and to the urgent need for the peoples of Nigeria to begin to ask questions, read the minutes of the last meetings, and above all, form compelling coalitions to restore the integrity of the electoral and democratic process.

Among the more important questions that must be asked should also be that question about the structure of the Nigerian state. That is the national question.

That we have postponed this question to this moment is a futile delay tactic, but it also signals the loss of these past ten years because it is a question that must be asked before we begin to practice democracy. And that question? What is Nigeria to me?