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Is democracy making life better in Africa? Ask Gowon, Kukah, Utomi, and George Weah

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It was a gathering of the elite group last Wednesday, inside the Shell Hall, MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos. It was the 16th edition of annual lecture and international leadership symposium put together by Pat Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL).

The organisers actually meant to climb the shoulders of the enlightened speakers at the event to see clearly the extent to which democracy has contributed in making life worth living, or otherwise, not just in Nigeria, but also on the continent of Africa.

The speakers were drawn from within and outside the country and from various sectors of the nation’s economy. General Yakubu Gowon was the chairman of the day. Bishop of Sokoto Diocese of the Catholic Church, Matthew Hassan Kukah and Liberian President, George Weah were speakers, while Professor Pat Utomi, founder of the CVL, moderated the discussion session.

Those who spoke as panelists were Muiz Banire (SAN), principal & founding partner, M.A. Banire & Associate; Emeka Izeze, a former chairman/editor-in-chief, Guardian Newspapers; Prof. Ibidapo Obe, former vice chancellor, University of Lagos; Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, CEO, Arise Network;  Prof Ebere Onwudiwe, chairman, O-Analytics and Femi Falana, (SAN) a  human rights activist.

They all spoke in tandem on the urgent need to deepen democracy in Nigeria and on the African continent.

 How I became head of state by accident – Gowon

Gowon, former military head of state and chairman of the occasion, told the story of his journey into the military and how he became an “accidental” head of state.

He said he had joined forces to abort the first military coup in Nigeria, and thereafter became military head of state by accident.

According to him, “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.

“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 d’état 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, within some hours, 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 civil service that I knew and worked with embodied these ideals.”

Gowon also recalled that “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.”

Need for free press, independent judiciary, legislature – Weah

President George Weah, represented by the Liberian Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Eugene Nagbe, spoke on the ‘Imperatives for Making democracy Work for the People – The Liberian Experience,’ 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.”

Making a case for free press, he said: ”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.

All hope not lost – Utomi

In his remarks, Pat Utomi, the convener and moderator for the day, captured the essence of the lecture with his ‘Harvest of Paradoxes’.

He said: “In a few days from now, Nigeria is scheduled to have general elections. The uncertainty accompanying it long caused many investors to hold back. And the misery in the land is palpable. Not long before, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had the first truly contested, even if disputed elections, since Patrice Lumumba was killed nearly 55 years ago.”

Utomi added: “…It is logical to expect that government of the people for the people, by the people will produce policies and implement them with such passion that the best outcomes for the people will show. Yet, the result from Africa’s turning to democratic ways has not been flattering. Why is democracy not enabling the ‘Great Escape’ from misery and the inequality that defines life in a country with a fast-growing Private Jet market, but which has overtaken India as the biggest domicile for poor people on earth, Nigeria just having overtaken India on that unpleasant statistics frame, as the Brooking Institution announced in 2018.”

Utomi noted that “a scan of the political environment throws up a glaring absence of the usual excitement that accompanies electioneering in our polity. The fanfare and usual razzmatazz missing this time around raises the question as to whether  the electorate have probably lost interest and by extension disillusioned that politics can truly midwife the most needed growth and development aspirations of Nigerians.

“The story is similar across the continent because of failed promises from political leaders who are unable to change the foggy future of their people.”

Professor Utomi, who has tasted the bitter pill of the ruthlessness of “mean” politicians, who think public office is their patrimony, strongly believes that there is the need to deepen democracy and its ideals in Nigeria and on the continent at large.

“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.

Democracy is not about provision of road infrastructure – Kukah

Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic bishop, Sokoto Diocese, was his cerebral self at the event. He did not disappoint. While his lecture lasted, he threw the audience into sessions of hilarious moments with his verbal jibes. He did not even spare General Yakubu Gowon, who was chairman of the event. He poked jokes at him.

Kukah stressed the need to entrench democracy, lamenting that dictators are now parading themselves as democrats.

Differing from the view canvassed by a former president of the United States of America, Barack Obama that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men, Kukah said that such thinking may no longer be in vogue nowadays.

According to him, “Things have changed. Strong institutions are very important, but what matters most nowadays is the proper use of the brain; the power of the brain. The world is changing. Some people are parading themselves as president of 200 million people, but a small boy, Mike Zuckerberg is shaking the whole world and controlling 2 billion people.”

Kukah pooh-poohed the equation of democracy to mere provision of physical infrastructure such as highways, beautiful buildings, etc, saying “infrastructure of the brain is the most important infrastructure. Democracy opens the frontiers of information, we can dream and the beauty of democracy is the possibilities that lie ahead.”

The cleric however, noted that strong men in US and some other 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.


Zebulon Agomuo

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