By Hamilton Odunze
A LITTLE more than a decade ago when I started writing columns, I wrote an article that was initially published by Vanguard and subsequently published by other media in and outside of Nigeria. In that article, I was critical about the foundation of Nigeria as a nation. I argued that the foundation of Nigeria as a nation was from the get-go compromised by the selfishness of the British imperial government and by the gullibility of Nigerian leaders. I made the argument that the British did not have enough manpower to properly manage the affairs of diverse people; therefore, they formed an entity from a mosaic for easier administration and convenience. That entity is Nigeria.
I also argued that Nigerian leaders were naïve and gullible. Otherwise, they should have known that Nigeria can only be viable in the long run if all parties accept their differences and consciously create an egalitarian society by laying an all-encompassing democratic foundation. Right after that publication, I was inundated with readers’ reactions. While many supported my views, some accused me of insinuating the disintegration of Nigeria. In fact, in the book “Sons of Lugard,” the writer used my argument about Nigeria’s foundation as a nation to support his opinion that Nigeria with its present configuration is destined to fail. I brushed off that mischaracterisation because it was breathtakingly irresponsible and dangerous.
I do not want to sound humdrum with an old argument. However, my assertion then was that the foundation of a nation determines how it grows, prospers, and takes care of its citizens, its future, and most importantly, how it survives the scourge of despotic and repressive leadership. This assertion has been true for thousands of years and will continue to be true in the future. John Quincy Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, once said that: “Democracy, pure democracy, has at least its foundation in a generous theory of human rights. It is founded on the natural equality of mankind.” Since the foundation of America, it has remained a poster nation for strong democratic values. Suffice it to say that the United States of America as a democratic nation will survive the test of time.
Today, America is facing tests of its democratic values under President Donald J. Trump. The bitter truth is that regardless of how established and strong, it is only a matter of time until it is required of a nation to dig into its value bank to survive intolerable leadership. Great civilisations have crumbled because they had no moral or democratic equity to draw from when it was needed. The Roman Empire crumbled under Romulus because it had no moral fiber to survive his disgraceful leadership. Only ten months after the accession of Romulus to the throne, a mutiny arose and he became the last Roman Emperor as the empire fell.
A more recent example is the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev did not articulate some of his radical policies that were aimed at making the Soviet Union a more democratic society than the one he inherited. First was the Glasnost, or openness. This policy aimed at eliminating some of the oppressive elements of Stalin’s regime. For example, it offered new freedom to Soviet citizens, political prisoners were released; and newspapers were allowed to publish criticism against the government. The second reform Gorbachev implemented was the perestroika. The perestroika was supposed to loosen government grip on the Soviet economy. Gorbachev believed that private initiative would lead to innovation and economic growth. The USSR did not have the democratic structure to support these new and ill-conceived policies, and the result was the fall of the Soviet Union with Gorbachev as its last leader.
In a handwritten letter to President Trump, President Obama said, “We are temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection, and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.” President Obama got it right. From the get-go, America’s founding fathers laid a strong foundation for democracy. It is the major reason why American democracy and global influence will survive beyond President Trump.
While it is true that the United States has strong democratic institutions and traditions to survive retrogressive leadership, Nigeria is not blessed with such strong democratic institutions and traditions. That is why every bad administration sets Nigeria back. Yet, any real discussion about establishing those institutions and traditions quickly morphs into a rabid and ferocious discussion about its linguistic, geographical, and cultural composition.
Contrary to the beliefs of many, Nigeria is not doomed, but it needs a new democratic foundation. Any government that is serious about the future of Nigeria would start by establishing vital instruments of democracy that will stand the test of time. As complicated as this sounds, yet, without a new democratic foundation, the Nigeria of our dreams will not materialise. But let me be the first to admit it is a herculean task.
The Buhari administration is not building strong democratic institutions for Nigeria. The administration has a misplaced priority—either because it does not understand what Nigeria needs or it lacks the capabilities thereof. It is focused on its own version of fighting corruption. But building these democratic institutions is akin to biblical injunctions—”seek ye first the kingdom of God…and all these things shall be added unto you.” A democratic society cannot fight its way out of corruption without first building infrastructures for democracy to thrive. The United States of America will survive beyond President Trump because it has very strong democratic institutions just as President Obama pointed out. On the contrary, Nigeria does not.
*Mr. Odunze, a publuc affairs, wrote from Lagos.