Moving Nigeria Forward (V): Freedom of Opposition

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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.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun

How did we get here?

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The year was 2010, the month was October, and it was the first day. I crouched into a seat on the third row of the 18-seater Toyota Hiace bus at Ojoo, Ibadan and committed my trip into God’s hands. I was on my way to Lekki, Lagos where I was scheduled to be guest speaker at one of the numerous golden jubilee celebrations taking place across the country. I spent the next two hours searching the recesses of my brain for enough solid points to stun my audience with enough reasons to not give up on Nigeria. It was my intention to convince them to defy their better reasoning, ignore the voices of many who claimed that Nigeria had achieved nothing in 50 years of corporate existence and proceed with the belief that the future was bright. I don’t know how successful I was in passing that message across on Independence Day two years ago, but I know that my audience nodded with understanding intermittently. It wasn’t the easiest speech I have ever made, but I gave it my best shot and was rewarded handsomely with a fat white envelope. But wait, how did I get here?

Holidays are solemn occasions in Nigeria, but some holidays mean more to us than others. October 1, 2010 was very symbolic, as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of our independence from British rule. It was also the first opportunity that Goodluck Jonathan had to coordinate a national celebration as substantive president of the country and he wasted no time in issuing a N10billion budget.  This was going to the mother of all celebrations because we were apparently the first country on earth to attain the pristine age of 50. All hell was let loose with the astronomical budget, with even the Nigerian Senate surprisingly condemning the budget and slashing it drastically to N6billion. The common theme for Nigerians was “What is there to celebrate?” Just like all commentators of the day, I found myself rattling off endlessly on the list of failures of the country until I got a call inviting me to be guest speaker at a golden jubilee celebration. I instantly picked my topic: “Independence or In-Dependence?” and continued to develop my thoughts along the lines of our inability to break-even after fifty years until I realized that I was expected to give an upbeat presentation and not state the obvious. My heart sank!

English: Seal of the President of Nigeria Cate...

For several days, I struggled to string coherent thoughts together as I became overwhelmingly aware of the failures of civilian rule under Azikiwe and Balewa giving birth to military domination by Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida and Abacha, with Murtala Muhammed’s regime being the brief interspersing of reasonable leadership. I recalled Shagari’s civilian docility and shook my head even further. It was much easier to narrate the history of politically-motivated killings all the way from Tafawa Balewa to Adekunle Fajuyi, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Murtala Muhammed.  Political assassinations seem to be a Nigerian staple and having grown up on tales of S.L. Akintola, Dele Giwa, Alfred Rewane, Suliat Adedeji, Kudirat Abiola and others, it wasn’t much of a shocker to realize that the murders of MKO, Bola Ige, Marshall Harry and others would never be resolved.

When I finally decided to realign my thoughts and deepen my research, I began to glean some speckles of gold dust amidst the murky waters of Nigerian history. I remembered that in sports, our soccer team was ranked 5th in the world in 1994 and claimed Olympic Gold in 1996; I remembered that one of the most skillful footballers on the planet, Ronaldinho referred to a certain Nigerian number 10 as his idol; I remembered that our music has been heard across the world and the documentary on Fela Anikulapo’s life has aired successfully on Broadway; I realized that Nigerian movies have been premiered at the world’s biggest film festivals and our screen stars have rubbed shoulders with the world’s best; I realized that our writers have claimed the highest literary prizes on the planet and the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart was celebrated in 50 cities across the world. I realized that in 2001, the most beautiful girl in the world was a Nigerian teenager, as was the first winner of the Nokia Face of Africa contest; I realized that the designer of the world’s first hybrid electric car, the Chevrolet Volt was a Nigerian; I realized that the inventor of mobile polyphonic ringtones and the designer of the world’s most expensive phones and suits was Nigerian. I realized that the Managing Director of the World Bank was a Nigerian woman; and that the only African to ever be Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations was Nigerian. All in all, I realized that Nigeria had so much to be thankful for, but always found a way to hit the top of global headlines because of the failures of a handful of political hooligans and some beggarly elements. I turned my speech around, spoke from my heart and left Lagos the following morning with a renewed passion to seek out the best of Nigeria.

On this solemn occasion of Goodluck Jonathan’s first anniversary as President, I have found myself treading that familiar path to ask myself how we found ourselves once again complaining bitterly about the state of our nation. We never really liked Umaru Yar’Adua because of the circumstance of his emergence as President in 2007, but Nigerians almost unanimously supported Goodluck Jonathan’s noiseless push to succeed him as President. We somehow believed that he was going to be a different brand of leader and his first few utterances as President seemed to prove us right. When he declared his interest in the 2011 race, Nigerians voted for him en masse and they knew what they were doing. The race was a clear popularity contest between Jonathan and three-time contestant, Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected Buhari. We were not hoodwinked. We liked Jonathan because we knew very little about him and the very little we knew appeared to be good. So, did we make a wrong choice back then? Hindsight is 20:20, but at the time, Nigerians did what they thought was right.

A lot has changed in our history over time. Gone are the days when one naira exchanged for $0.55 in 1980, now we speak of N159; gone are the days when we overwhelmingly sent Ghanaians packing  in 1983 and laughed at their worthless currency, now there are almost more Nigerians than Ghanaians in Ghana and the Ghanaian economy rolls on like a locomotive engine. Perhaps the peak of embarrassment that Nigeria has received from Ghana, besides the fact that Ghana’s only oil refinery seems to be thriving perfectly with oil imported from Nigeria, was the coming of the Ghanaian Deputy Energy Minister to Lagos in 2009 to deliver a lecture on “How Ghana Kept the Lights On”. What a shame on us! Gone are the days when young Nigerian students received mouth-watering scholarships to study in the best schools in the UK and returned to lecture at Nigeria’s universities; these days, people who are lucky to escape to Uganda and Gabon are swearing to never set foot on Nigerian soil again.

English: Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Abubakar Tafawa Balewa visited the United States in July 1961, he was accorded the highest honours in the land; received personally at the airport by Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President of the United States, met at the doors of the White House by President John F. Kennedy, accorded audience before a joint session of the US Congress (one of only 112 people ever to do so in US history), awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree of Laws by New York University (America’s largest private university), granted honorary citizenship of the cities of New York and Chicago (America’s two largest cities), granted audience with the UN Secretary-General and cheered endlessly by joyous Americans. These days, Nigerian politicians are being carpeted sheepishly by British lawyers, ridiculed and convicted while we struggle to explain our inability to bring them to judgment on their own soil. Far behind us are the days when Obafemi Awolowo built the Cocoa House (then Africa’s largest skyscraper) from the proceeds of agriculture, far behind us are the days when Nnamdi Azikiwe and Odumegwu Ojuwku fought tirelessly for equal representation of the Igbos; far behind us are the days when Ken Saro Wiwa gave his last drop of blood for the emancipation of the Ogonis; these days, Tompolo, Boyloaf, Asari Dokubo and their fellow militants strut confidently in the corridors of Aso Rock in defiant demonstration of the fact that their struggles were for personal aggrandizement.

So on a day like this, when there couldn’t be a clearer diversity of opinion between Nigerians in the corridors of power and Nigerians on the edges of rickety Lagos buses on the achievements of Goodluck Jonathan, it is appropriate to look backwards before looking forwards. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency almost makes Olusegun Obasanjo look like a saint, but this is really not about Goodluck. True, he has done next to nothing to establish his credibility, but our challenges precede him and would possibly outlive him. No one can say for sure how we got here, but we find ourselves in a very desperate position and urgently in need of salvation. The call rings ever louder for true patriots to arise and take their places in politics, in business and in the civil sector. 2015 is far too long for Nigerians to wait for a comprehensive overhaul; we stand the risk of pandering yet again to the sweet talk of some phony politician who might have never had a belt to keep up his school shorts. The time is ripe for us, especially the young generation, to lay out a clear agenda for our future and design a roadmap for getting there. Nigeria belongs to us and our children and Goodluck Jonathan will not always be here to listen to our complaints. We have to reclaim our country by all means and shape her as a prime destination for progressives. We may not know exactly how we got here, but we can hardly move on into a bright future without a clear understanding of the past and a firm rejection of the present. Nigeria deserves better.

You can follow Faith Abiodun on Twitter @FaithAbiodun