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How to make democracy work in Nigeria – Gowon, Kukah, Weah, Utomi

* Despite challenges, military coup remains unattractive in Nigeria – Gowon
* How and why we aborted first coup
* keeps mum on why he reneged on return to civil rule in 1976

By Clifford Ndujihe, Deputy Political Editor

IN SPITE of numerous challenges, former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, retd, Wednesday, said that military coup is unattractive in Nigeria and urged Nigerians to deepen and sustain democracy by exercising their franchise in the 2019 general polls beginning next week.

Gowon’s call for deepening democracy was echoed by Bishop of Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church, Matthew Hassan Kukah; Liberian President, George Weah; and Founder of the Centre for Values and Leadership, CVL, Professor Pat Utomi.

Democracy

They spoke at the 16th CVL annual lecture and international leadership symposium themed: ”Is Democracy Making Life Better In Africa?” held at the MUSON Centre, Lagos.

Gowon, who went down memory lane, chronicling how he joined forces abort the first military coup in Nigeria, and became military head of state by accident, said without good civil service it will be difficult to ensure delivery of ‘democracy dividends.”

Said Gowon, who chaired the symposium: ”In 10 days, Nigerians will go to the polls to exercise their franchise to elect a new president to lead the nation for the next four years. This will make the fifth successive cycle in 20 years that citizens of our nation would have unfettered say in deciding who leads them. This has not always been so in the history of our soon to be 59 years old nation, given our record of military interregnum since independence in October 1960. But it is commendable measure of the depth of our growth and development as a nation. Indeed, it is a graphic illustration of my personal answer of ‘yes’ to the question of the day: Is Democracy Making Life Better in Africa?

”My answer to this question is a distinct and resounding yes. I look around and see that a good number of participants at this symposium have lived the history of Nigeria either on account of age or by learning and might be tempted to conclude that my answer is a contradiction in terms. Why? Because I was a General in the Armed Forces of the Federal republic of Nigeria, which had a record of interventions in governance. Because I accidentally became head of state by virtue of the power considered to issue forth from the barrel of a gun, which is very undemocratic. And because no general elections held during my nine-year, two terms plus one year grace of tenure as military head of state for overstaying my term, not because I did not want but because as the press put it that I reneged on my promise to do so.

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”To take this position is to miss the important point that governance by the military is not necessarily anti-democracy. While I was on board a ship MV Aureol headed for Nigeria from Liverpool in December 1965 during which about three coups détat took place successively within two weeks in West Africa, my co-passengers asked if I thought another coup was possible in Nigeria. I initially discountenanced the idea before I philosophically admitted the possibility but insisted that the few patriotic ones amongst my colleagues in the army would do our best to ensure the return of democracy. This is the mindset of a democrat even in uniform. Soldiers by training, serve as protectors of democracy, which by its basic definition remains government of the people by the people and for the people. By the time we arrived Nigeria, the January 13 coup took place, I joined forces with other patriotic officers to ensure that the coup did not succeed in Lagos and in most parts of the country.

So what went wrong and Why did I ‘renege on my promise to return to civil rule? Answers to that question are outside the immediate scope of today’s event but suffice to say that in 20 years, Nigerians, military and civilians alike, have continued to act in ways that make military incursions into politics both unnecessary and unattractive regardless of the challenges of our democracy. By extension, it can safely be said that by our collective resolve to continue to vote and ensure that our votes count, we all are agreed that there are inherent benefits in entrenching democracy. The Nigerian example, again, by extension, has continued to spread across Africa, thus solidifying the tenets of democracy.

”One sure thing, though, is that democracy cannot be strengthened in the absence of enduring structures like the Judiciary, the legislature, the public service among others but the strongest I consider being the public service. I speak from experience. Back in the 60s and 70s, my government benefited immensely from the experience of the rich pool of our civil servants, who were very well trained by the colonial administration and the government of the first republic. A good civil service is one that is totally committed to the government of the day regardless of the political party in power. In this regard, the military also falls within the ambit of ‘good’ public service. Civil servants, by simple definition are custodians of policies and repository of institutional memory. The the civil service that I knew and worked with embodied these ideals.

”Public service in Nigeria significantly lost the pride of place with the mass and premature retirement of dedicated officers, particularly by my immediate successors in office. Many died virtually penniless, having lived lives of contentment and luxury that their salaries could support. Many of their successors learnt not to take what could then be considered as ‘oath of poverty’ and consequently replaced national interest with personal interest. This, naturally, caused many to begin to owe allegiance to power or ethnic or religious blocs that tend to promote their self-serving interests. In turn, this promoted the growth of cronyism and deep rooted corruption…

Whilst the political restructuring of any nation is all well and good, it equally must be emphasised that without true reform of the public service, such restructuring efforts will almost come to naught. In a restructured entity, leaders will tend to work with and respect the civil service as an institution, else they should forget about spreading the proverbial ‘dividends of democracy.”

We need long period of democratic stability for growth – Utomi

In his welcome remarks titled: ”A Harvest of Paradoxes,” Professor Utomi, who noted that poverty was growing in Africa and Nigeria on account of bad leadership, and sit-tight leaders who plunder the countries’ resources among others, there is still need to deepen democracy in Nigeria.

”If Africa is to embrace development, it must enjoy a lengthy period of political stability that is garnished with integration into global economy. This opportunity can come if the continent subscribed to liberal democracy in all its ramifications.” he said.

Free press, independent judiciary, legislature, key to virile democracy – Weah

On his part, President Weah, who was represented the Liberian Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr. Eugene Nagbe, spoke on the ”Imperatives for Making democracy Work for thr the People – The Liberian Experience.”

He said: ”Democracy can only work for the people if we create and strengthen institutions of the state apparatus to ensure good governance” and take care of young people because ”the message inadvertently communicated most times to most young people by the society around them is that they are not needed. We dole out negligible portion of state resources to institutions and programs that should cater to their welfare.

This usually results into disillusionment with the system, a situation that can be tapped into or exploited by unsavory politicians.

Corruption, inequality and other social vices make people across the world to give up on institutions and governments that are supposedly democratic. In fact, rising inequality has become the trend across Africa and the world today. This has left the least educated and the weakest of society, the youth, very, very vulnerable and distrustful of the system.”

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He made a strong case for free press. ”Like one writer said, ‘journalism and democracy are names of the same thing’. In fact, a free and unfettered press is an indispensable requirement for democracy. This is why the Press itself must not become instruments for the furtherance of selfish and parochial political interest at the expense of the greater good of the society as a whole.”

Noting that with all its imperfections, democracy works for the people if the imperatives of good governance are inculcated into the national fabric, Weah urged the creation of democratic institutions that allow the practice of fundamental rights under the law, and also an economic environment which caters to the basic needs of everyone. Policies that aid poverty reduction must be engendered, as extreme poverty is a threat to democracy anywhere.”

Democracy creates opportunities, possibilities – Kukah

Also, Kukah who also stressed the need to entrench democracy, said it is unfortunate that many dictators are now claiming to be democrats.

He picked holes the comment attributed to former US President Barack Obama that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men noting that strong men in US and some parts of the world had helped to enthrone strong institutions and wondered what Nigerian strongmen did with their strength.

He said democracy remains the best form of government because it reduces everyone, irrespective of status and class to one vote per person and offers opportunity for the poor to get to the top.

Urging people not to expect much from leaders, he said democracy is not meant to be about physical infrastructure, rather ”infrastructure of the brain is the most important infrastructure. Democracy opens the frontiers of information, we can dream and the beauty of democracy are the possibilities that lie ahead.”

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