When the announcement was made on Monday July 23 that Pastor Tunde Bakare, presiding overseer of Latter Rain Assembly, convener of the Save Nigeria Group and former Vice-Presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), had been summoned by the State Security Service (SSS) on account of statements he made in his church sermon on Sunday, Nigerians did what they do best – criticize. However, as against the usual trend, the criticisms were divided into two classes: those who criticized the SSS for pursuing harmless citizens while ignoring the real threats to the society, and those who criticized Pastor Bakare for his truthful and honest stance on national issues. For all intents and purposes, I stand with Pastor Bakare on this issue, though I don’t always agree with his sentiments.
In his church sermon, titled ‘How to change government peacefully and make society better’, which sounded more like a ‘state of the nation’ address, Pastor Bakare argued that President Goodluck Jonathan would be better serving himself and the country if he resigned from public office before the Federal House of Representatives acted on its threat to impeach him on account of alleged selective implementation of the 2012 budget. Bakare also seized the moment to speak out against the mismanagement of public funds by the current administration, which has equally struggled to stem the tide of insecurity in the country. He stated that “Mr. President may be doing his best, but the impact is not felt anywhere except in the bank accounts of oil vultures, his corrupt political allies and corporate cowboys” and that “in spite of the president’s promises to deal with insecurity head-on, this government appears helpless because it cannot see the linkage between corruption and violence”.
As an educated citizen, I cannot seem to find the link between these harmless words and the need for a summons by the nation’s top intelligence agency. Where did Pastor Bakare err? Was he wrong to highlight the evident flagrant display of corrupt practices in every arm of government? Was he wrong to mention the fact that the president’s genuine or staged efforts to curb violence in the country have not yielded much result? Was he wrong to suggest that it is more honourable for the president to step down from office than face public disgrace by his political stooges? Or was he wrong to educate his church members about the need to be vigilant and watchful of political scoundrels who promise transformation but deliver destruction? What exactly was Pastor Bakare’s offence? Quite understandably, the SSS has a responsibility to sense violence before it erupts and to quell it, but did Pastor Bakare indeed cross the line?
In the United States and other progressive democracies, there is recognized freedom of opposition, not only enshrined in the constitution, but practiced by the people and recognized by law enforcement agencies. The essence of having multiple political parties is for different groups of people to demonstrate their interest in national progress by championing causes that matter to them and pressuring the ruling government to address societal challenges in manners that are acceptable to the people.
In the United States for instance, John McCain, presidential candidate of the Republican Party in the 2008 elections has been a vocal antagonist of President Barack Obama’s cautious foreign policy, specifically concerning Libya and Syria. McCain vehemently condemned Obama for not acting strongly enough to arm the opposition during the Libyan uprisings, and has been even more vocal during the ongoing Syrian crisis. He has called Obama a ‘weak president’ and has questioned his vision for American leadership in the world, yet none of these have warranted any summons by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), because McCain is understood to be demonstrating his citizenship rights. This same custom was practiced by Francois Hollande, the erstwhile leader of the French opposition, who routinely criticized Nicolas Sarkozy’s domestic policies and eventually toppled his government, and Ed Miliband, the leader of the British opposition Labour Party who has regularly criticized Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
For any democracy to thrive, there needs to be total freedom for the opposition, and Nigeria is no exception. Since 1999, we have struggled to unify the discordant voices in opposition to the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with as many as 63 political parties emerging at the peak of Nigeria’s political jamboree in 2011, yet none of these contraptions have been able to highlight comprehensive differences between the PDP’s and their approaches to domestic and foreign policy. One cannot help but conclude that the Nigerian opposition has grown only in size but not in wisdom. In spite of the growing respect accorded to the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), largely based on Governor Babatunde Fashola’s exploits in Lagos state, there would never be a toppling of the PDP unless opposition parties can get over their money-driven agenda, formulate definitive policy differences and embark on nationwide public education drives to sensitize Nigeria’s ignorant population about the ideals of a progressive government and their efforts to change the status quo. Whether or not the CPC and the ACN get over their personality contests and merge into one dominant force to capture the north and the west, the future of the country’s opposition rests on their ability to define a different approach to governing the country, not hoping for superstar governors to independently lift them out of oblivion.
While the few educated Nigerians in the opposition who have the potential to lead public education drives on domestic and foreign policy are getting their act together, they should probably also include modules in their curriculum for engendering public appreciation of the opposition. As has been established in the past, perhaps the most dangerous effect a ruling government can have on a populace is the political and economic subjugation of the people such that they find it hard to recognize and advocate for ideal conditions. The military and democratic dictatorships in Nigeria’s history have had precisely this effect on the generality of Nigerians such that heroes like Pastor Tunde Bakare, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Professor Pat Utomi, Chief Dele Momodu and others who have attempted to speak out in favour of the people are routinely derided by the same people whom they seek to defend. None of these patriots can be said to be posturing for personal benefits as they have each made names and fortunes for themselves in this corrupt climate, yet they serve as public defenders at the risk of their lives and freedom. Nigeria will indeed rise again, but the road will be much longer if we do not learn to accord respect and give freedom to the opposition from the government, and from the people.
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