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‘Nigeria’s democracy is ailing’

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Niyi Osundare


In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence, Distinguished Professor of English at University of New Orleans, U.S., confronts Nigeria’s dying democracy…

On October 1, 2019 Nigeria will be 59 years old. You are about 13 years older than your country. But does the country behave like a 59 years’ old man or woman?
To begin my answer to your question, let me borrow a line from a popular song I used to hear in the 1960’s: “A fool at forty is a fool for ever”. Yes, a fool at forty. What, then, do we say about a fool at 59? Seriously speaking, Nigeria is a 59-year old that, in virtually all aspects, is like a delinquent child. And year in year out, this delinquency looks like an incurable malaise, for there is nothing that the country seems to be getting right. And, to make matters worse, that delinquency keeps getting more and more intractable. I mean, take a look at Nigeria’s development graph in the past half-century and you discover, to your utter pain and dismay, that the dial has kept heading downward. In virtually all departments: education, healthcare, transportation, housing, security of life and property, the value system, even the degree of confidence in the corporate existence of the country. In my well over 70 years on earth, I have never seen Nigeria so bedeviled by the degree of hunger, impoverishment, and seemingly uncontrollable unemployment that hold us hostage in the present time. The country seems to have put the development trajectory on reverse: from my educated observation, I can say Nigeria has fewer factories/industries, and a less productive agricultural sector now than she did in the first 25 years after independence. Our state of insecurity has never been so grave – not even in the years after the unfortunate civil war. Put simply, the joy of life and living has never been in such short supply in this misbegotten country of ours.

Now, before we jump into any simplistic conclusion, let’s borrow some insight from the retort of that hunchback who, when asked about the cause of the crookedness of his upper-back burden, instantly told his interlocutor to look somewhere below his (hunchback’s) knees. Nigeria didn’t suddenly meet her fiasco in 2019; the rain began to beat us (bless Chinua Achebe for that folksy idiom) a long, long time ago: the patched up contraption of a Nigeria we were given at Independence plus the numerous leaks in its ship of state; the gang of thoughtless, visionless, selfish, corrupt leaders who grabbed the reins of power and instantly ran that ship aground; the locust years of military dictators who trashed our civil constitution and imposed their rule of blood and iron; the few spells of civil interregnum that blighted Nigeria with a band of civilian rulers who were anything but civil… Add to these the calamity of an oil-saturated economy which yielded petro-dollars in uncontrollable quantum, lubricated a gigantic corruption machine, and turned Nigeria into an improvident Gomorrah of sinful lucre.

From this venal slush emerged two groups made up of clever, unconscionable billionaires who have STOLEN the lion’s share of the wealth, and the vast, desperate masses pauperized and dehumanized by these moneyed crooks. It is these crooks that have largely used their stolen wealth for securing political power, and using that power to multiply their fortunes. Nigeria is a land of a few Have-Alls and a multitude of Have-Nots. In a land so lacking in equity, how can democracy thrive?

It will be 201/21 years on October 1 since Nigerians regained democratic rule of their country. What’s your assessment of it? Has democracy worked for the people?
Your question reminds me of the story of that ailing man who was asked about the state of his health, and wistfully answered his interlocutor: “I am sick, but I’m not dead” (Dear reader, please restrain yourself from adding the word “yet”)… Even at the global level, this is no good time for democracy. Just take a look at what is happening around the world. In the United States, the richest and most vociferous of the world’s republican democracies, all kinds of un- and anti–democratic abnormalities and suchlike political abominations have been happening in the past three years that would have been unthinkable for the Founding Fathers (yes, they were all chronically male!) of America’s constitutional democracy. The incubus of Brexit is rattling the rafters of the United Kingdom’s old and tested parliamentary democracy, while India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, etc are coping with a kind of democracy coloured by a somewhat jingoist populism. Slowly and steadily, a contagion of virulent revisionism seems to have gripped the world; a new solipsism whose credo and practice are manifested in the kind of astonishing cruelty that we thought human civilization has long surpassed. Without a speck of doubt, democracy is a work in progress. Hardly anywhere in the world today where that political ideal is working impeccably well.

Nigerian democracy, or, democracy in Nigeria, is still gasping, but it is on life support. The big question is: how does one resolve the terrible contradiction of/in a Democracy of Unequal People and Unequal Parts/components? How can democracy work in a country of 200 billionaires and 200 million paupers? It is a universally acknowledged fact that the solid sine qua non of democracy is a free, functional, trustworthy, and trusted electoral system. Has Nigeria ever had that? How many of our current (or past) elected officials won their seats through clean, uncompromised polls? Can you divine any trace of democracy in the callous and scandalously high remunerations Nigeria’s ruling class have carved out for themselves, and the abominable misery that has been inflicted on the rest of us? Next time our pampered, multimillionaire Senator romps royally to his constituency to speechify about democracy, shouldn’t the swindled constituents ask him/her where s/he has kept their constituency allocations, then democratically chase him/her out of town and forbid him/her to come back until s/he can bring the funds s/he has democratically collected on their behalf? Tell the democracy fable to the hordes of Nigerian humanity who pound the pavements of our cities and villages, ready and eager to work without finding any, with nowhere to lay their heads, no school for their children, no hospitals to mend their health, and no coffins for their corpses when they succumb to premature demise. Their response is likely to be different from that of politicians rigged into political fortune or My Lords of the ‘Temple of Justice’ waiting for the next bribe.No, Nigeria is no democracy at the moment. To say that she is one would be tantamount to calling that noble system of government a bad name. As things stand at the moment, our Democracy is on life support. An awful lot of medical work will be needed to give it the breath of life.

You were recently in the country and you witnessed the spate of insecurity all over, especially also in the Southwest states. Some have said the country is tilted towards the precipice as there seems absence of a central government and that the failed state tag is here upon the country. What do you make of such doomsday assessments?
The present spate of insecurity in Nigeria is absolutely no surprise to me, given some of the things I have said earlier on in this interview. Our rulers cannot run Nigeria the way it is being run – and the way it has been run for decades – and expect both themselves and the ruled to walk around without danger and sleep at night with both eyes closed. The wind they sowed in the past has produced the whirlwind that is now dismantling our homesteads. Come to think of it: the dreadful, dreaded Boko Haram didn’t happen all of a sudden. They are the advanced brigades of the army of school-less, shelter-less, food-less, care-less almajiris recruited and armed by political gladiators who used them as thugs and body-guards, then dumped them as soon as they attained their political goal. Behold the gory repercussions of it all: the tragedies of Chibok, then Dapchi; the sacked towns and villages, and now, Nigeria’s flood of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP); the plight of young girls whose lives, whose dreams were so tragically destroyed; the personal griefs of the bereaved, dispossessed parents many of whom never survived the heartbreak; the global shame of a country with one of the largest armies in Africa, but so pathetically, so embarrassingly unable to secure its citizens, even the youngest and most vulnerable among them. As I remember these incidents, my heart bleeds, and I ask: do they know it is Independence Day in Chibok, in Dapchi? I can hear the unspoken words of Leah Sharibu’s parents asking Nigeria’s president: when will our daughter come back home to us?

Now, on to the Fulani Herdsmen. The frightening frequency of the repetition of that designation in the Nigerian media in recent times has left me with chilling apprehensions. As I have said on other occasions, we need all the tact, all the restraint, all the wisdom we can muster to tackle this extremely dangerous development, for Nigeria cannot afford to stampede itself into another civil war. Let no one underrate the havoc and destruction that are widely caused by these herdsmen; the epidemic of kidnapping, ransom extortion, and murder, the looting and destruction of farmlands, especially in the southern parts of Nigeria, and the uncountable bereavements that have been the lot of many households. President Buhari and his Federal Government cannot pretend that they do not know what is happening – that, indeed, there is fire on the roof of the Nigeria house. How much investigation has the government done into this dangerous situation? If any, how thorough, how non-partisan? If, indeed, as we have been told, many of the so-called Fulani herdsmen are foreigners in search of green pastures in Nigeria, how did they get into the country, and what are the border patrol officers doing about this? What do we call a country that cannot secure its own borders? With the cloud of insecurity hanging over the country, you cannot but ask “Where are Nigeria’s security authorities: the army, the police, immigration, the civil defence corps, etc? What do President Buhari and the heads of these security units talk about at their official briefings?
To say the least the Federal Government’s handling of the herdsmen’s crisis has been amateurish, pedestrian, and dangerously incompetent. Tell me: Is someone in Aso Rock trifling away while the Nigeria house is burning? Say something, President Buhari. Do something.

The Ruga proposition is a ‘solution’ that is bound to compound the problem. That is why many people in many parts of the country have seen it as a poorly thought out attempt at the colonization of their own territories. And, by the way, there is crucial, fundamental question we have not been not asking: why do so many Nigerians, in this day and age, have to roam the entire country, in search of grass for cows they rear and nurture on behalf of richer, more powerful Nigerians? Why are they not in school – like the children of their rich and powerful patrons/clients? Let no one insult our intelligence with the atavistic excuse that this wasteful mis-employment of a vital group of Nigeria’s youth is a matter of culture and tradition. Genuine culture fares better; and tradition is no disempowering imprisonment.

The Americans pasture their cows, the British do; so do South Africans and Ghanaians and Australians and Argentines, Chinese and Koreans, without turning a sizeable number of their young men into cow-chasers; without plunging their countries into ‘Herdsmen’ war. Let us try the miracle of the modern ranch: green, friendly, and peaceably/equitably located. Let us stop this ethnic profiling and stereotyping, this hype and hysteria, before they plunge us into another civil war. The War of Bullets usually begins with the War of Words. Let Rwanda provide us with a tragic – but avoidable – example.

Having come thus far on the rocky road to 59, in what direction should Nigeria move to get it smooth?
I will need a mouth as big as that of an elephant to answer your gargantuan question, but I’ll try. My brief and very simple takes: let those who rule us be aware that the country they rule is made up of people. Yes, human beings like them with basic human needs. Human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and as people with dignity. Let them be constantly, unfailingly, aware of the impact of their actions – and inactions – on the people they rule; so that they will know that when they steal the funds allocated to education, they are consigning the people they rule to ignorance, illiteracy, and darkness; when they embezzle the allocation for works and transport, they make themselves liable for the daily mayhem on our roads; when they misappropriate the money meant for healthcare, they are sentencing the ruled to ravaging diseases and avoidable death; when they rig elections, they sabotage the very foundation of our democracy.

In summary, let those who rule us develop emotional – and moral – attachment to the country they rule and the people in it. And when the rulers fail to do these, let the ruled feel duty-bound to invoke their will to anger, to justice, to freedom from poverty, to life with dignity. Let the ruled learn how to hold those who rule them to account in order to slay the dragon of IMPUNITY that has become the practice of Nigerian public officials in all sectors and at all levels. Let them ask and insist on being answered. Let them master the ways of converting their rulers into leaders. Let the ruled learn how to follow by leading. Let us declare that we are tired – and ashamed – of Nigeria’s notoriety as a Big-for-Nothing Country (BNC). Let us get Nigeria to apprehend, embrace – and honour – the true meaning of “INDEPENDENCE”.


In this article:
Niyi Osundare
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