Niger Republic

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

When we tapped Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of Works and Housing to be the Guest Speaker at the 2022 TheNiche Lecture, there was disquiet in some quarters.

The theme of the lecture, “2023 elections and the future of Nigeria’s democracy,” didn’t help matters. Some expected guests, particularly members of the opposition political parties, who had earlier promised to grace the occasion, stayed away.

I had a discussion with one of them who accused us of mischief. He alleged that we were trying to give the All Progressives Congress, APC, and its presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a head start on the 2023 elections by saddling Fashola with that responsibility.

I know where those who held that position were coming from. Fashola is not just a minister in President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet, he is on the front row. Besides, many see him as one of the APC ideologues, a poster boy of the Buhari administration, and as former governor of Lagos State, who directly succeeded Tinubu, the APC presidential candidate; it was a risk inviting him.

But I was also confident that in his intellectual offering as the guest speaker, patriotism will trump partisanship and the big picture, which is the future of the country’s democracy, will be brought to bear on the discourse.

I dare say, I was vindicated. Mounting the rostrum, Fashola declared from the get-go: “The theme chosen by Acclaim Communications Ltd for this year’s annual lecture, which is “2023 ELECTIONS AND THE FUTURE OF NIGERIA’S DEMOCRACY” was perhaps too tempting for me to resist, and the invitation, issued since April 20, 2022, was more than timely, which is not easy to say these days for some speaking events.

“Given that we are 20 days to the formal commencement of campaigns for the 2023 general elections, this year’s lecture coming 170 days to the first of the elections in February 2023 provides a potential platform for many possibilities.

“However, I have elected not to be partisan, and instead chosen to be even-handed. I believe this is the challenge, albeit self-imposed that the theme of the lecture now presents.”

He kept to his word so much so that even when he was talking about the dividends of democracy, he didn’t limit it to the Buhari era but started from 1999.

“While there is a lot of work still to be done, it is proper at this point to also highlight the successes our democracy has delivered because the democratic experience since 1999 came at great cost,” he intoned.”

One of such dividends is the fact that: “Our democracy delivered access to telephone service for many Nigerians,” a signature achievement of the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency.

But despite his deliberate attempt not to pander to partisan interests, the audience were agitated. The complaints were two-fold.

While some accused the minister of being clever by half for explaining away the failures of the Buhari-led APC administration, others accused him of tactically blaming Nigerians, the very victims of bad governance. To such people, Fashola should have been courageous enough to call a spade a spade rather than providing an alibi for Buhari’s failures.

One of the guests pointedly said she was disappointed. “This is not the Fashola that was Lagos State governor. He has changed.”

Many who came for the lecture saw it as an opportunity to speak truth to power, which explains why when we called for a feedback from the audience, almost everybody wanted to talk.

Of course, that was not going to be possible because of the limitations imposed on the event by time. So, when we limited the number of people that were going to make comments, some were offended and accused us of shielding the minister.

A guest sent me a WhatsApp message afterwards which seemed to capture the mood of many.

“Congrats on a successful outing! The only drawback is that the people were not allowed to speak out. It was a high table affair. By tactically caging us, Fashola was allowed to put the Nigerian people on the defensive and get away with it, whereas the Nigerian problem is, squarely, that of reckless politicians and government, or, leadership, as Chinua Achebe would put it. That is why APC promised us heaven on earth but delivered hell.”

To say that Nigerians are angry and exasperated at their parlous lot is an understatement. But that is where 2023 elections come to the rescue. It should not be about hurling insults and abuses but taking informed and deliberate civic action that will lead to the desired change. That is the beauty of democracy. It affords the people the chance to change the status-quo by electing new leaders.

Fashola said that much. In raising the question of “how can democracy, especially the 2023 elections, make our lives better and our country greater,” he gave an unambiguous riposte: “The kind of people we elect will determine the quality of policies, budgets, programmes and projects that are designed and delivered to us.”

Fashola’s assertion that “democracy is simply concerned about the popular participation in choosing a leader or set of leaders” and “does not guarantee that the leader or those leaders will deliver or indeed are able to deliver on what we want”, is correct. What makes the difference is the diligence and willpower of the people to make the right electoral call. Where issues of religion, ethnicity and other fault lines are allowed to trump competence, then the mistake of 2015 will be made again and the people will have themselves to blame.

In recruiting leaders next year, Fashola emphasized that the issues must revolve around, “What really is it that we expect from those we elect and what do they promise to do before we vote, and what have they done for us?”

He further queried: “Did we vote for, or did we collect tricycles, sewing machines, generators etc. from them? If we did, can we legitimately expect that the budget from which these things were procured will also provide healthcare, drugs and diagnostic equipment in our health facilities?

“If they have sponsored weddings for our families, financed the burial of our dear departed ones or paid school fees for a whole community, do we understand that these things or some of them are funded by the budget from which we also expect good schools, good roads and other public infrastructure and services upon which our prosperity depends collectively?”

In a society where the leadership has deliberately weaponized poverty and illiteracy, the issues Fashola raised present a chicken and egg dilemma. Nevertheless, they are germane questions.

Never mind the rhetoric of winning elections without exaggerating our problems or disrobing our country before the global community, because truth be told, Nigerians are in dire straits.

It also goes without saying that there is a distinction between Nigerian government and Nigeria. Disrobing the Buhari administration is not the same thing as disrobing Nigeria. After all, APC as an opposition party did worse to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014/2015.

That said, it takes a lot of courage for a high state official to resist the temptation of playing partisan politics with the opportunity TheNiche lecture presented. For his patriotic reflex and steadfastness in upholding the tenets of democracy, Fashola deserves applause.


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