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More needs to be done to justify the sacrifices of martyrs, others, says Ifowodo

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Profilic Nigerian poet and scholar, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo


Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo was among the young activists who fought for June 12 and got hounded into prison by Gen. Sani Abacha’s goons and later into exile. In this interview with Head of Politics, ANOTE AJELUOROU, he speaks about the unique opportunity of the declaration and how it can be a great start to reset the structures for a great country that serves every Nigerian

President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 as Democracy Day. How does that singular act make you feel after 20 years of democracy in the country?
Glad, but with a tinge of sadness – that it should have taken all of two decades and a half for that to happen. And the irony of it all: that the recognition should come from the very man many swore is an irredeemable dictator, that is President Muhammadu Buhari. As a result, some self-avowed democrats resorted to legal sophistry and attribution of ulterior motives just so as to discredit President Buhari’s bold and laudable action. But I would say better a born-again dictator than, say, an incorrigible autocrat posing as a democrat. Ex-President Obasanjo was himself a former military head-of-state who, as the luckiest man on earth, became the greatest beneficiary of the protracted June 12 struggle. The most remarkable thing about his eight years, other than a spirited effort to savage the constitution and award himself a third term, was his dogged refusal to recognise June 12 or M. K. O. Abiola, the true hero of the struggle from which he so undeservedly profited.

In an article entitled “June 12: President Buhari’s Progressive Act versus Professor Nwabueze’s Retrogressive Legalism” published on 27 June 2018 in Vanguard (also by Sahara Reporters and Premium Times), I expressed my feelings about President Buhari’s courageous act of revalidating June 12 and naming that day as Democracy Day – as opposed to 29 May which seemed to have been dictated more by an outsized ego than by our tortuous history. That the day of the mere inauguration of a government could trump June 12, never mind October 1 which, perhaps, ought to be Nigeria’s true Democracy Day, was nothing short of scandalous. But June 12 is a more justifiable alternative because it marked, I think, the beginning of our realisation of the need to free ourselves from the contrived but paralysing differences of “tribe and tongue” as our old national anthem put it (we might say now, “though tribe, tongue and faith may differ”).

But beyond the declaration and celebration of June 12, what next? Does the mere celebration answer all the national questions embodied by the sacrifices MKO Abiola and others made?
Certainly not. Even if Abiola’s mandate had not been so callously and selfishly annulled by Babangida and his gang of military opportunists, it would still have been a mere prospect of a new beginning, as I have said. No election, however free and fair, can by itself pretend to be anything other than a chance to correct some of the errors of the previous government or order, and with great fortune, to achieve some real social transformation. But the latter depends on a perfect alignment of forces at a significant watershed in a nation’s history and the moving presence of a bold and visionary leader. As heroic as MKO Abiola was in enduring imprisonment rather than renounce his mandate, and as much as his murder and the assassination of his wife, Kudirat, has put a halo around his head, we must nonetheless acknowledge that he wasn’t that kind of bold and visionary leader. Maybe he would have been transformed by the office and the epochal nature of his victory into an unlikely agent of revolutionary change, but we will never know. No, a declaration is only a symbolic gesture, but no less important for that reason. Obviously, a great deal more needs to be done to justify the sacrifices of the June 12 martyrs and living heroes.

Does the celebration of June 12 necessarily bury the ghost of that historic moment?
We will only truly lay the ghost of June 12 when we heed the message sent out so loudly by the masses that day: that deep down, beyond the political manipulations of tribe, tongue and faith or religion, Nigerians are united in their yearning for democracy, self-determination and a better life, free and fair elections that produce true statesmen and women who would serve the nation and not themselves, and a strong belief in Nigeria’s unity.

You and a host of others made personal sacrifices during the struggle for June 12. Some of you went on exile. Could you recount your own ordeal in the hands of the dictator and his minions at the time? I don’t know if I can summarise the experience in a paragraph. Imprisonment, for instance, was only a point along the line of massive and systemic violation by the military of human rights and of our collective right to self-determination. The entire atmosphere of brutal repression – the clampdown on the press, assassinations, the siege laid to the whole country -made every citizen a prisoner of sorts. Because I was held incommunicado, my greatest fear in detention was that if I died in prison, the regime would deny ever arresting me.

This fear was heightened when General Shehu Yar’dua died in detention while I was still at 15A Awolowo Road, headquarters annex of the State Security Service (SSS). That same day, I was transferred to the notorious Inter-centre bordering the Obalende cemetery where I met Femi Ojudu and Jenkins Alumona, then also of TheNEWS magazine. I was relieved when I was transferred to Ikoyi Prison, for that meant that the SSS and Abacha could no longer deny that I was their prisoner. I have tried to more objectively record my feelings in my detention memoirs which, I’m ashamed to say, I ought to have published by now.

Excerpts have been published, however, in Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing, edited by the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje; New Writing 14 edited by Helon Habila and Lavinia Greenlaw and published by Granta and the British Council, and the online magazine African Writing (www.african-writing.com/aug/ogaga.htm). I have resolved to complete the remaining third of the manuscript with the hope of publishing it by the end of 2020. As I said earlier, the siege laid to all of Nigeria by Babangida and Abacha made a prisoner of every citizen in one form or another. Oppressor and oppressed were victims of the ensuing trauma and psychic violence. I have explored this aspect in an extended short story or novella that will form the spine of a fiction work-in-progress.

In the space of Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy, two strong military men have and are still presiding over the country. Is this a good thing? How exactly has this experience advanced or hindered the current democracy?
I guess that in the case of one, General Obasanjo, we can give a definitive answer: not a good thing! I have already hinted at one reason why. Fate has always been too wayward in the way it has chosen to smile on this one man out of nearly 200 million Nigerians. Always holding himself out to be Nigeria’s uber-patriot and sole guarantor of her corporate existence, he has nonetheless never been able to use the extraordinary privilege of ruling Nigeria twice to move us any closer towards self-actualisation and peaceful co-existence.

With regard to President Buhari, the jury is still out. One thing is clear, however: the two men are as different from each other in the matter of integrity, a moral compass and personal example as are night and day. Also, President Buhari evinces a clearer will to right the wrongs of the past, to return us to the ethic of governance as service to nation and the people, to accountability and responsibility, which are necessary for moving the country beyond our current deplorable condition. Given the extent and duration of the rot, and the near helpless state of the country when Buhari was elected to his first term, I think it is fair to say that four years are not enough to return a final verdict. If we must go by numbers, that would be comparing Obasanjo’s 11 years to Buhari’s five (approximately). I believe that by the end of Buhari’s second term, it will be clear that his second coming was a good thing for Nigeria.

Nigeria still operates the unitary constitution the military bequeathed her. As a lawyer and someone from the largely marginalised Niger Delta, how do you see June 12 as Democracy Day in relation to agitations for restructuring the federation as recently canvased by Mr. President himself who had earlier dismissed the idea in his first four years in office until the last moment?

What President Buhari’s evolved position shows is that he is a gradualist, and an extra-cautious one at that! Given our harrowing experience of misrule, it is understandable that we are impatient with any gradualist approach to solving our problems which are gargantuan and cry out for URGENT solutions. I see a direct line from Buhari’s moral or epistemic revalidation of June 12 to his changed view on restructuring. And that can only be music to the ears of a citizen from the Niger Delta, the region that bears excessively the burden of our unitary-state-posing-as-a-federation. No one needs to be reminded that the Niger Delta crisis, especially the tragedy of the militarisation of its creeks peaking with the judicial lynching of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8, was the non-electoral parallel manifestation of the June 12 struggle for democracy. And that it was the Niger Delta, more than any of the other geo-political regions, that raised the cry for restructuring, fiscal federalism, and just and equitable relations between the federating units to such high decibels that no Nigerian could fail to hear it.

Through this twin action, if nothing else, President Buhari has signaled his intention to focus on statesmanship, on nation-building, and it is one reason why I believe we must withhold judgement until he serves his second term. There might just be greater hope for Nigeria than we’ve seen since June 12.

And how exactly should the country be restructured if the idea were to be accepted across the country, as it now seems, and President Buhari were to seek to implement it before the end of his second term?
I think it would be presumptuous to prescribe any one way of restructuring Nigeria before the representatives of the people, freely and fairly chosen and convened for the purpose have met to decide the terms for rewriting the articles of association for a new Nigeria. This is not to say that anyone who has clear ideas and expresses them now does the country a disservice: ideas are never too soon! What I mean, however, is that we are best served, in general, to speak of the principles for a framework of restructuring. In my opinion, the general principles are what matters most for now; the rest would be the fine details of constitutional provisions to give life to them. And as for the principles themselves, they are too well known: the federating units as the primary centres of power; the radical devolution of powers and functions to the federating units; a fiscal or revenue generating and allocation formula that unequivocally respects derivation; the centre or federal government as primarily responsible for the security and defence of the nation, external affairs, currency and monetary policy, customs and excise, communications and any other functions that it may be asked to assume without derogating from the (inalienable) rights of the states, etc.

This, of course, will require a restructuring of our present system of unviable states but there are calls for a return to the regional system that worked so well from 1957-1966, even if not precisely along the same lines (six to eight geo-political zones have been proposed). For me, the need to return to the parliamentary or prime ministerial system, which is far more cost effective and ultimately more flexible and dynamic, should be part of any discussion of restructuring. The fact that elections are local and governance is shared (the executive is part of parliament) reduces some of the more egregious problems of the presidential system, especially in a poor country with weak or non-existent social institutions.

Furthermore, it is more flexible and dynamic: that elections can be called any time means that a suffering populace does not have to wait for four years to change a bad government. By the same token, a good government does not have to be restricted to two terms: it can be re-elected for as long as it does not betray the trust and confidence of the people. That way, visionary state/regional and federal governments with truly transformative and people-centred agendas can have the needed time to actualise their programmes or bring them to irreversible points.

For the truth is that in a country like Nigeria with the most rudimentary infrastructure, eight years is hardly enough to conceive of, begin and complete the sort of massive physical and social engineering projects (railways, a network of inter-state highways, massive power generation and transmission, new and upgraded schools and universities, massive water works schemes for safe pipe-borne water, diversification of the economy from oil to agriculture and agro-business and solid minerals, etc) which alone can lay the basis of an industrial revolution. These, I think, are some of the more important ideas and principles for a framework of restructuring.


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June 12Ogaga Ifowodo
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