Democracy: What happened to the original heroes?
I was going to ask questions about the safety of the democracy we celebrated last week (Friday, June 12) when it occurred to me that we should ask the first question, which I asked on this page on April 30, 2016: ‘Where are the original fighters for democracy?’ On the GuardianTV platform this week, I had asked in a brief commentary: ‘How safe is this democracy?’ I had wanted to follow up on that salient question of safety of democracy in the country when the oracle nudged me to ask for the whereabouts of the original fighters for democracy at this time.
I have no doubt that we need to be concerned about the safety of the democracy we just celebrated. From sundry symposium interviews to the several colloquia on the 27th anniversary of the iconic June 12 (election) now our ‘Democracy Day’, concerns have been expressed about the quality and safety of the 21-year-old (uninterrupted) democracy (1999-2020).
‘The world must be made safe for democracy’. President Woodrow Wilson used these words in 1917 to justify his call for a declaration of war on Germany. The words implied that Germany’s militarism threatened then democracy everywhere. Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Progressive Movement, was the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921). After a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War I, Wilson led America into war to “make the world safe for democracy.”
In other words, about 100 years ago, the United States of America entered World War I, not only to protect its diplomatic and economic interests but also, in the words of President Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy.” More than four million American men and women served in uniform during World War I. The then U.S President believed that democracy is the most essential aspect of a stable and prospering nation. He also believed that the United States had to play the pioneering role in promoting democracy and peace throughout the world.
This is the origin of the context of the safety of democracy. There is also some connotation here that militarism has always threatened and will always threaten democracy as we have in Nigeria at this time.
I will return to this debate on whether democracy is indeed safe in Africa’s most populous nation in the face of rampaging militarism, which President Woodrow warned about in 1917. But I would like to us to examine how the disappearing act of the organic fighters for democracy has triggered the growth of militarism and diminution of democracy in the country. And the starting point is asking for the whereabouts of the authentic fighters for this democracy. I am talking about the civil society activists and media men and women in the trenches and in front of the moving military trains – who confronted the monsters who signed away June 12 victory and enthroned one bespectacled General Sani Abacha whose saving account and assets in different parts of the world have so far-fetched the nation some $5 billion.
As I noted in the 2016 piece on the heroes of democracy, this is still not a time to read from the book of lamentation about the safety of democracy in Nigeria. We have been told that democratisation in Nigeria is still some work in progress. Really, from the insensitive attitude of the federal lawmakers who are breaking the laws, notably the law on monetization of benefits by buying cars they have collected money for, by approving all sorts of foreign loans the president asks for the country, it is clear that all is not well with our brand of democracy.
And if the governing Party could not put its political acts together to deal with stigma of the a President of the Senate carrying the awesomeness of the Gavel to the Dock daily in a corruption charge, then how safe is democracy in Nigeria that James Laxar says “globalization has effectively paralysed to an alarming extent”. As I said today is not for democratic diagnosis. It is a time to ask for the whereabouts of the civil rights movements, the civil society organizations, (CSOs) including the non-governmental individuals (NGIs) that fought the military ruthlessly to deliver this 21-year old democracy to us in 1999.
On Thursday February 18, 2016, I sat in the auditorium of the Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja when Mr Dare Babarinsa publicly presented his new remarkable book, ‘The Nigerian Century’. And there in front sat Mr. Nosa Igiebor, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Tell (newsmagazine), the two masters of ceremonies did not even know to the extent of linking him to Mr Babarinsa, a co-founder of Tell. Mr Igiebor was among some dignitaries that were not recognised by the MCs in good time before they left. Some of the comperes these days know only politically exposed people. None could link Igiebor to the struggles for democracy in Nigeria at the book launch. They didn’t know him, among other unsung heroes of democracy.
As I sat behind him listening and watching events, the other picture that flashed through my mind was that of Mr. Bayo Onanuga, another icon of this democracy who could have sat there too without proper recognition. There are so many heroes of this same fragile democracy that even young reporters do not know anymore. Bayo Onanuga, immediate past managing director of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) was honoured when June 12 date was recognised two years ago. How many of us remember again that Tell and The News/Tempo, among others, had to resort to guerilla journalism in a fierce battle with the military authorities before and after June 12, 1993? How many representative democrats can recognise Comrades Bayo and Nosa for their epochal contributions to democratisation in Nigeria? There are many more journalists and indeed civil society activists, non-governmental organisations and individuals who were part of the struggle for democracy, especially from General Ibrahim Babangida’s through General Sani Abacha’s to General Abdulsalami Abubakar’s despotic regimes. When the military and security intelligence operatives picked up Dapo Olorunyomi’s men on the platform of Premium Times for their journalism the other time, did anyone recall the role of the iconic Dapo in bringing about this democracy? Has anyone ever remembered the role of Newswatch (newsmagazine) at the time? Has anyone remembered the arrest of Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed and Dan Agbese because Dan Agbese interviewed David Mark who disclosed some June 12 details and had to flee into exile? Has anyone linked Dr. Kayode Fayemi to the defunct Radio Kudirat?
Did any young reporter and/or activist remember to interview Mr Sunday Dare, the current sports minister as one of the guerilla journalists (on The News/Tempo platform) of those dark days? Has anyone seen his book on this guerilla journalism beat? Do people know that Babajide Kolade Otitoju of the current TVC Journalists Hangout fame was part of the struggle for democracy in a northern bureau of the News/Tempo? Does anyone remember that yours sincerely was chased out of Abuja by the Babangida’s boys in July 1993 as editor of Abuja’s premier newspaper Abuja Newsday? Who recalls the exclusive stories the Abuja Newsday did on June 12 debacle: “Abiola’s son, IBB’s daughter in hot romance”, “IBB, Abiola in secret meeting” inside Aso Villa in the heat of June 12 struggles?
Can anyone remember Comrade Chima Ubani of blessed memory? There are some prominent ones such as Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, Shehu Sani and some NADECO Chieftains but there are more significant contributors and sacrificial lambs such as Baguada Kaltho who paid the supreme sacrifice. Does anyone recall the travail of Dr. Amos Akingba whose Opebi Lagos house was touched by the Abacha’s men?
There are other heroes and heroines of this civil rule called democracy (apologies to Uncle Bola Ige). But this is not just about heroism. It is about its decline at the moment. I mean why is the nation so bereft of solid input from the civil society organisations (CSOs) to issues in democracy these days?
I am quite concerned that there is too much quiet about the many concerns that are assailing this democracy and the civil society organizations including the media are not on top of the situation. May be the situation is on top of all of us! There are now more columnists than reporters of the gory details of the Fulani herdsmen’s atrocities. Journalism is remarkable only when the people, especially elders, experts, rights activists, CSOs, youth movements mobilise to get the front pages daily for a long time. That was how we got this democracy. The most significant body in this civil society movement has always been the students union. Even before independence, student activists from tertiary institutions had always been the arrowheads of civil society actions. But now, the student unions in Nigeria have their headquarters in the nation’s capital, Abuja where they regularly assist even troubled and corrupt government agencies to defend their positions. It is a tragedy. The civil society organizations have always been strategic to getting the critical mass of protesters and agitators for the right thing to be done. Where are they now?
Now we have a national legislature that works hard to touch the treasury with all their ‘legislooting’ strength. We have had sordid revelations about how men of yesterday have been looting our treasury. We have had details of the horrendous Panama papers. There is a permanent national energy crisis (power outage and allied matters); there is inexplicable cash crunch in most of the 36 states of the federation, as the governments of the states cannot pay regular salaries anymore. Even the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has lost its vibrancy. Come to think of it, the mother of all professional organizations, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and even the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC are all reticent.
It will be recalled that even in the heat of the General Abacha’s tyranny and plans to metamorphose from military head of state to civilian president around 1996/7, there was a coalition of bold Pan-Nigerian elders called G-18, (from G-5) later G-34. The influential group was led by Dr Alex Ewueme and membership included Professor Jerry Gana, the late Abubakar Rimi, Alhaji Sule Lamido, Chief Don Etiebet, Alabo Graham Douglas, Jim Chief Nwobodo, the late Chief Bola Ige, Chief Richard Akinjide, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, the late Chief Solomon Lar, Alhaji Lawal Kaita, etc.
This group braved all odds and submitted a letter to the then Head of State, General Abacha inside Aso Villa, asking him to forget the idea of contesting election. They also made the letter available to the press. The way the NADECO operatives organised themselves in those days was remarkable and facts were always available early enough to the news media. This was a country when men had chests. So, is the god of the belly responsible for the subdued way we are? Why our young men just noisy on the social media platforms? To the young ones who want to live by bread alone, as the old banana trees are dying, won’t you wonder about the suckers that will grow or you don’t want banana at all in your time? And so is a Nigerian world at such a time like this without a Gani Fawehinmi a world of anomie and political correctness?
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