By Bisi Lawrence
Among the many profound statements made by Chief Obafemi Awolowo was his comment on the political future of this country, in which he declared that we might never witness the return of democracy for a long time — definitely not in his life time. It was after he had lost his last bid for the presidency of the country in the (in)famous judgment by Chief Justice Fatayi-Williams.
The verdict was based on the admission that fractions of a human being could be reckoned to have a viable existence in law. Perhaps that is why he specified that the judgment should not be cited as a precedent thereafter. Chief Fatayi-Williams has since gone to his reward, as all of us must in God’s good time. And that is that. Or is it?
That declaration has continued to haunt the directions to which I have turned my thoughts about political developments in the past two decades. It is slightly frightening that we are no further from that prophetic statement even now, some three decades later. One of the occasions on which the doleful prediction emerged was indeed at the third Obafemi Awolowo Memorial Lecture in 1995. The speaker was Professor Anya O. Anya, that well-known scholar in whom intellectual integrity has found happy expression through a transparent patriotism.
In his exposition of the lecture’s theme which was, “Re-inventing Nigeria for the 21st Century”, the professor presented the sentiment of Chief Awolowo’ s assertion as a challenge. He aligned this position to other equally profound issues concerning the ideal of unity which, we must admit, is now all but moribund; the dismal state of security; and the deplorable standard of public morality in the country. All these and other disheartening features were no more than signposts along the route of possibility towards the attainment of democratic rule within the first ten years of the 21st Century. Professor Anya could not see it coming earlier, even with all the enthusiasm and hope he himself exuded. Permit me to point out that we are now into the second decade of the Century, and here we are.
From this point, and at this time, it is not difficult to see real democracy arriving at a distant date, if at all, with the political confusion and moral breakdown within our polity. The trend of progress has been downwards. Pa Awolowo was really warning that the utopian delights of democracy which we desired so much for the benefits of its so-called dividends, would continue to elude us until we were able to effect a change in our way of thinking. These changes were perceived by Professor Anya, during the delivery of that memorable lecture, as some of the components we would need in “re-engineering Nigeria” for this century. It would, perforce, have to be a new Nigeria, a “born-again” Nigeria, fit for the fulfillment of the hopes based on the realization of our potentials.
Of course, it is fashionable and “progressive” to talk glibly about democracy as being the panacea for all the difficulty that confronts us in the efforts of building a nation. But most people fail to understand the demands of democracy, pre-occupied as they are by gains they anticipate, as distinct from the pains they have to assimilate. They are totally consumed by what it gives that they are bereft of all thoughts about what they too must give. They cannot easily discern the nearness of those whose existence clearly stands in the way of democracy, but who blandly proclaim its virtues in the self-delusion that all others are deceived.
Or how else could successive military governments have attempted to convince the people that the path of democratic rule was best prepared by the very institution that was primarily responsible for pulling down its fundamental structures? Professor Anya highlights this anomaly in his lecture by referring to the “evergreen” series of “transition” processes, which was to find its hallmark four years later, in 1999, in a Constitution purportedly made by the people – as it claims in its opening passage – – but to which most of the people have neither subscribed, nor to which they have identified. But the attempts made to ditch it have mostly been feeble in its impact, because they have not received the massive support they deserved. The recent National Dialogue of Eminent Leaders of Thought was another in the same vein.
However, it scores a point above the National Constitutional Conference of 1995 which was summoned by the federal government, and ended with several of the members engaged in running down other members. Many of them were bold-faced opportunists from the clamorous group who have always thought they could equate volume with density, or substitute noise for substance. Their grotesque antics left an indelible stain of shame on the proceedings of the conference, and showed the deliberations for the hocus pocus that they truly were.
Their contribution to the conference in terms of worthwhile efforts was perhaps only a niche below that of another group of delegates who became so disenchanted with some of the decisions that they resigned. But then, not all of them were heroes; some of them subsequently sneaked back to the official accommodation provided for them, and continued to stay there as bona fide members. But they were, all the same, still a shade above the “moles”: who borrowed deep into the ground and were seldom seen except on paydays as they scurried to the bank.
One could not but remark, however, on the commendable sense of responsibility and high standard of decorum which attended the participation of distinguished patriots like the former Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme throughout the course of the conference. Even when one could not agree entirely with some of his views, their good purpose could not be faulted.
Also among the tiny group which genuinely believed that some effective tools for nation building could be fashioned out of the scraps and oddments which constituted the reasons for the conference, was His Highness Oba Dapo Tejuoso, the Osile of Oke-Ona, Egbaland, in the Southwest. He dutifully put the prestige of his elevated position on the line in the whole-hearted embrace of what he saw as yet another opportunity to render service to the nation. And also in this group must be included Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, scintillating and irrepressible as ever, whose individualistic stance often disconcerted both opponents and supporters alike. They and a few others made a valiant stand for their principled views till the very end, though they should have sensed that only a searing disappointment awaited them at the end.
You see, that meeting was convened to diffuse the clamour for a replacement for the debacle of June 12. Ironically, several of the members genuinely believed that they could use it to defeat the purpose of its existence. But they had merely submitted themselves collectively for the role of a cat’s paw. Their nominations to the conference afforded it an unmerited measure of dignity and credibility. It toned down the harsh, ugly outlines of the contraption which was patently devised to frustrate the empowerment of a genuine democratic choice. We can only sympathize with those who actually believed that the conference could serve as an instrument for the establishment of a decent form of governance. Without a doubt,. they took themselves a bit too seriously from the start. They lost sight of the fact, if they had indeed ever perceived it, that it was all a ruse to establish and prolong the tenure of its creators. Thus they prescribed an end to the Abacha regime on the first day of 1996. There must have been raucous laughter in Aso Rock
.But we are getting there. The National Dialogue by the National Summit Group was more focused and had a healthy estimate of its position. It was not constituted by government but by concerned Nigerians. Now we are talking to a purpose, but one hopes subsequent meetings would be confined to specific single objectives – like the unity of this country, which has not been heard of much lately; the structure of governmental apparatus including the earnings of our legislators; subjects that should be on the exclusive list and those that should not; sections of the Constitution that should be justifiable; and, of course, this subsidy thorn in our flesh. This would set a viable agenda for the Supreme Confabulation that has been tossed up and down, and this way and that way, all these years.
The Dialogue of Eminent Leaders of Thought in Nigeria, organized by the National Summit Group touched on several issues, as it appeared to me. There was not enough creation of awareness for the meeting either. Subsequent ones should be more focused still, to the point of its even appointing committees to examine some issues very closely, or following up and supporting some pro-active efforts like the litigation now being pursued for the abrogation of the Constitution by Professor Wole Soyinka and others. Time out.
Echoes: (08103679851: David Ebiri.) Your column (last week) was as instructive and courageous as it was delightful. Thank you, sir.
And thank you too, sir. Unfortunately, this column has to go on a short recess. We hope to return to this theme at no distant date. See you on the other side.