Speaking Truth to Power from Abroad


A conference on Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy held at the Blavatnik School of Government, and organised by the African Studies Centre, Oxford University, raised some serious concerns about the vulnerability of the nation’s democracy, even after four transitions, reports Olawale Olaleye

The current occupant of the Rhodes Chair in Race Relations at the African Studies Center, University of Oxford, Professor Wale Adebanwi sure knew how to attract the right people for any particular cause. This too was not different. It was Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy held at the Blavatnik School of Government of the prestigious university.

The list of guests was no doubt, rich and both politically and academically intimidating. There was Professor Larry Diamond of the Stanford University, USA, the keynote speaker; former Vice Chancellor Igbinedion University, Eghosa Osagie; director of the Center for Democracy and Development Abuja, Dr. Jubrin Ibrahim; Prof. Peter Lewis of John Hopkins University, USA; Adigun Agbaje of the University of Ibadan and Okechukwu Ibeanu of INEC.

Also in attendance were a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Aliyu Modibbo Umar, who is also a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University; Zainab Usman of the World Bank; former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Kingsley Moghalu; a former aide to President Olusegun Obasanjo, Professor Akin Osuntokun; Prof. Ebenezer Obadare of the University of Kansas, USA; Publisher of the Ovation Magazine, Bashorun Dele Momodu and Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, amongst others.

The conference was in two sessions. There was a morning leg that was kicked off extensively by Professor Diamond, before other speakers took their turns to speak. There was an interlude dedicated to colleagues at the university, who had passed on and it provided some sober moments. The other leg, however, which caught the fancy of a majority of Nigerians present, was the evening session, which featured Governors Kayode Kayemi of Ekiti State and Aminu Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State.

Interestingly, the choice and combination of Fayemi and Tambuwal was also curious. This is because while Fayemi is the Chairman of Nigeria’s Governors Forum (NGF), Tambuwal is his deputy. Even more interesting is that, whenever the talk about 2023 presidency comes up, whether true or not, names of these two always come up.

Thus, either way, the choice of both talents was not a bad one especially, that as governors, the two are active players in the nation’s current experience. While Fayemi had been governor before a break that took him on a ministerial adventure and returned to office as governor four years after, Tambuwal was speaker of the House of Representatives before he decided to have the governorship experience.

Combined, they each could boast of over 10 years of active participation in the nation’s twenty years of democracy. This is arguing their position as political office holders otherwise they have been around and active all along the nation’s democratic voyage but in different capacities.

Finally, when the evening session came, the hall was stark ready – filled to the brim. Fayemi was the first to speak as Tambuwal was caught in a typical Lagos traffic in faraway United Kingdom. He joined midway, long after Fayemi had spoken.

Boasting a rare candour, Fayemi chose the platform to speak truth to power, albeit in Oxford, the United Kingdom, about the nation’s democracy. With detailed, comprehensive and academic recollection of the journey so far, Fayemi feared nothing about Nigeria’s democracy was irreversible and therefore warned of consequences if caution was not observed.

“What we established in 1999 is the right to choose our leaders via the ballot. What we must not do is assume a teleological link between elections and democracy. The notion that once you have elections, all else will follow is no doubt a pipe dream that is now obvious to all and even now, there is nothing irreversible about democracy in Nigeria.”

Deliberately, knowing the import of that particular line, Fayemi too paused, observed the pulse of his audience in a smooth communication flow and clearly, the message sank, and then, he soldiered on. “It’s also why our theory of change must not assume that democracy is a destination with a clear road-map. The deepening of other factors like the economic wellbeing of the citizens, ultimately, developing and strengthening the political culture or the civic community that can stand between populism and dogma is the most critical success factor,”he said.

Contending that, “A cursory look at our current electoral journey in the last two decades clearly point to elements of consolidation and deepening of our democracy,” Fayemi maintained that “other aspects of the journey raise serious concern.

“For example, in 2015, we crossed a major turning point with the first alternation of power since 1999. Political science literature regards this as a clear evidence of democratic consolidation.

“In that same election, the opposition – APC – won election in two thirds of the 36 governorship elections, wrestling power from PDP in no fewer than 12 states. In fact, PDP only managed to retain only two governorships in the entire northern region of 19 states – Gombe and Taraba.

“By 2019, although the APC retained the Presidency, it had lost six critical governorships in Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Imo, Oyo and Zamfara States and nearly lost the most populous state – Kano – which went into a re-run and only gained Kwara and Gombe. In the 29 states, where elections held in 2019, APC won 15 and PDP won 14, a much closer contest than the picture often painted.”

Making a subtle case for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), he noted that, “Clearly, the Election management body is improving in the technical aspects of its operations but elections are not simply technocratic; they are inherently political.

“It is about who gains power, who loses power and a lot happens in that cocktail. But we all should also be worried with what we do with power, once gained. So, democracy is more than just the ability to choose one’s leaders.”

He was of the opinion that the current phase of the nation’s democratic struggle was not just about maintaining the sanctity of the ballot, but also holding those elected accountable and stimulating civic engagement in the public realm, in a way that democratises ownership and improves the quality of life of the people.

“We must banish the idea that governance is something performed by a team of gifted performers or strong men, while the rest of the citizens are spectators or complainers.

“During the days of military rule, some soldiers declared with more than a touch of hubris that politics is much too important to be left to politicians. By this they meant that the military had the right to be political players since politicians had generally proven inept. Ultimately, the military proved to be no better at politics and governance themselves. But there is a fundamental truth to the saying that politics is too important to be left to politicians.

“It is about redefining politics itself, transforming it from a rarefied craft reserved for a select few professional politicians, to the protocols and relationships that undergird personal, communal and social wellbeing. In other words, politics is the management of human relationships, interactions and aspirations in the service of the common good.

“It is not something mysterious that only ‘politicians’ do; it is how citizens operate. Politics is a civic responsibility. It is how we engage with each other. The pursuit of good governance means that politicians can no longer be left to their own devices.

“Seen in this light, the mutual estrangement of government and civil society will end. The civil society will continue to express the communal instinct to regulate power but the chronic antagonism that poisons relations between the state and civil society will be replaced by mutual respect and positive tension.

“Civic engagement means that the state can access a much larger pool of wisdom and knowledge made available by a new rapport with civil society. In return, participatory governance will become much more practicable across all levels of governance,” he stated. Summarising the 20 years journey, Fayemi contended that,“In addressing the question of successes and failures of our democracy in the last two decades, my reflections this morning really centres around understanding the relationship between fighting against and fighting for.

“While much of what we did during the years in the democracy struggle was constructed as a struggle against unaccountable power, it was also a struggle for accountable power – a struggle for life, for liberty and for the pursuit of happiness – as the American credo would have it.

“Our resistance at the barricades was consequently not only to stop power from violating the commonwealth and the people’s will, but also one geared towards putting it in the service of the common good to create a life more abundant.

“The context and process of that journey to democratisation is, however, as important as the eventual outcome. Whether we agree about the successes and challenges, I believe our discussion this evening should not simply be one of transition from military rule to a political society, but the extent to which we are able to achieve full citizens’ participation in our democracy.”

He maintained that the discussion for that evening should also focus on the making of leaders and citizens in a good society, adding that, without the active citizen participation, the legitimacy of the political institutions would continue to decline.

“For this reason, I believe strongly that political leaders – be they politicians or activists – should worry because their ability to lead effectively is being seriously undermined by the desertion of the average citizens from the public space, deepening our crisis of legitimacy and empowering alternatives to democracy especially, populist demagoguery.

“Yet, this lack of legitimacy cuts both ways: when we the people withdraw our trust in leaders or discountenance politicians, we make our democratic institutions less effective and risk making ourselves ungovernable. In spite of the progress made so far in Nigeria, this risk cannot be over-emphasised.”

His Sokoto State counterpart, Tambuwal, who was also a special guest, however, spoke extensively about institutions, which he identified as the biggest flaw in the nation’s 20 years of democratic journey. He said the lack of institutions that could be trusted and dependable had eroded the gains of democracy since the return to civil in 1999. Reflecting on his personal experience, said it was only by building strong democratic institutions as against strong individuals would democracy be sustained in Nigeria.

He also chipped in that in spite of two decades of unbroken democracy in Nigeria, elections in which Nigerians could vote and be voted for had never been free and fair.

“I refer to institutions, I refer to the only base on which we, like any other truly democratic society, can build upon and the cover under which we, like any other truly democratic process, can get protection from the whims, madness or even cleverness of any single individual, who might have his or her own interests or flaws.

“Institutions, not individual protect collective interest and grow the Commonwealth in a fair, legal and lasting way. The best individual can do is to help build institutions. The lack of institutions that one can truly trust and fully depend on, perhaps, is the biggest flaw of our 20 years of democracy.

“I can tell you that building systems that take all voices into consideration is hard work and it can be frustrating. Believing in democracy means taking time to persuade and build consensus rather than seeing those who disagree as enemies to be overpowered.

“It means agreeing to accept the will of the majority, when your side does not win. The temptation to circumvent the process through violence will always be with us and must be fought.

“I am however optimistic, because of my experience first as a lawyer, later as a legislator and then as a governor has given me the rare opportunity to mix with people from all areas and persuasions of Nigeria and part of what this experience has shown me is that we have people that can build institutions.”

According to the former Speaker, “We have peoples that understand the importance of strong and legitimate institutions that can work for all. The other importance that my experience has shown me is thanks to my mental curious and physical travels to meet Nigerians across Nigeria and indeed outside Nigeria is that our fears, our desires and aspirations as a people are more similar than some want us to believe.”

He, therefore, called for the exclusion of partisan politics from tertiary institutions, saying, “l am of the opinion that spaces of learning should be areas immune from partisan politics and I also feel that discussions in these places never be based on or motivated by pure partisan affiliations.

“It is my view that a university or any other citadel or institution of learning should be dedicated to, and should accommodate only rigorous rational reflections that can illuminate minds of all to the betterment of the society.”

Not unexpectedly, the commentary and question and answer session was the icing on the cake. Drawn between jokes amongst guests, who played up their friendship and familiarity, the conclusion was that the nation’s democracy even at 20 was still a work-in-progress and as such, all hands must be on deck to keep the sanctity of an effort that didn’t come cheap.

Another thing that was evident even in the countenance of everyone present was the desire to have a decent society, that an average Nigeria could be proud of and call his or her own.

But like other conferences and similar events, which propounded ideas on how to move the nation forward, the fear that greeted this occasion was if anything would be taken away and applied for practical purposes in the journey to an egalitarian society? But that’s yet to be seen. Perhaps, it’s also too early for results.