Adebayo: Democracy is Yet to Come in Nigeria

Prince Adewole Ebenezer Adebayo came fifth in the last 2023 general election. He didn’t win, obviously.  His party, Social Democratic Party (SDP), at its first attempt, however, made a good showing with membership at the two levels of the National Assembly, including few memberships at the state level. In this interactive session organised by the Nigeria leadership series as hosted by the Africa leadership group, Adebayo said Nigeria is only making attempt towards democracy.

How do you see the state of our democracy in Nigeria right now, the election process and are there ways by which there can be an improvement or ways things can be made better?

My impression of our democracy is that democracy is yet to come. What we are having are attempts towards the democracy. So, we are like somebody who wants to study medicine and is doing premed. So, if they make the right grades, they can start medicine. We are like, in those days, there used to be A levels or higher school. You go to do your HSC1, HSC 2 because you wanted to gain admission to a university. From 1999 till now, we have being in a civilian rule but we have not managed to enter into democracy because democracy is not a permanent state. It is the presence of certain dynamics. So, even a previous democratic state can slide away from democracy. So, the tools of democracies are not complete yet. One is that the power is still not flowing from the people yet. For two reasons: The psychological self disempowerment by the people where they don’t recognize that the government have, they are the one forming the government and that the government is their servant, their commissioning agent to work for them. They still have this monarchical, dictatorial system where they think the people in government are their rulers, their leaders, their owners. Secondly, people don’t want to take responsibility for making choices in a democracy. To make choices in a democracy, you need to know the issues at stake and to make your choice of leadership based on where you stand on these issues. So, it requires continuous education. 

They have to own the government. The political parties have to arise from the people. The political parties today are even less democratic than NGOs. A man and his wife, a man and his friend. A man alone can form a political party and be the chairman: do whatever he likes and selling candidature up and down and collect from one person, who wants to be the candidate of that party, more than the money contributed by 99% of their members. So, you know that these political parties don’t exist. It’s not only the small political parties, its among the big political parties, too. You see the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) when they have argument among themselves, one governor will say I single handedly sponsored this party. I gave so so billion to the chairman of the party. So, that’s why the governors are very strong in the parties, whether it’s PDP or All Progressives Congress (APC). It’s like that. If you see the catharsis and crisis, you find a Labour Party which is a small party, you will see that it has to do with where is the money coming from?. If you look at the struggle we are having in SDP, the struggle is how to make sure that our members actually fund the party and that the party is owned by them and they make contributions to the party and the party is now a democratic party and the national working committee, chairman, secretary, all the other people in the party, we pay them salary, allowances. They are your servant, they work for you, but now it is not so. The political parties need to work on that because to say I am discussing how to broaden democracy but I forgot about the people and I forgot about political parties, you have not started. The next is the media. Nigerian media is a machinery. I am a media owner and I interact with the media. Nigerian media is a machinery. They sell out time, officially and unofficially. If you discover a cure to cancer or you find solution to homelessness, if you do a press conference, it may not show until you pay the media some money. And if somebody wants to abuse his opponent, he can pay air time and be doing defamation of character, outright lies, the media will carry it. So, whatever you do, the media needs to understand that in a democracy, the media is one of the lubricants, therefore, if you are in a university, teaching, and you are a very good scholar, your qualities will be discovered by the media and the media will highlight it as part of the leadership recruitment process for the country, whether you have money to give them or not , they will follow you. As we are talking here now in this forum, if there are any ideas that any of us brings up that are benefiting the country, the editor of the news is supposed to pick it up and flash it in the news and say this is another issue that I think can bring solution to our problem.

They won’t have to call and say Pastor, that’s your event, you know, give us money. On the other side, the media will also highlight any errors in governance, any error in quality of persons like when I was running for president, the media kept asking me “Tell us about yourself. Tell us the school you attended.” Then I said, you are the media, you are supposed to go and find this thing out. You are supposed to be using the question you know to question me about my legibility for leadership. You should not be giving me a microphone to praise myself.  You are supposed to have discovered, you are supposed to have gone to Ife where I schooled, find my classmate, find my lecturers, check my academic records on your own. You should have gone to New York Bar where I practised, California bar; go to other places. Go to Lugulana Port of Arbitration, go to ICC in Paris, go to Australia, . Go to other places, talk to some of my former clients: is he loyal, an honest person? You should know me and then you will be questioning me based on what I have been and what I have done. That’s how media can strengthen democracy so that the way a criminal fears the police, ideally that’s how a politician with skeleton in his cupboard should fear the media. The media has to do better than that going forward. We have to deal with the other pressure groups, civil society starting with the religious groups. When I address CAN, because I’m a Christian by profession, by personal choice. Apart from being born in a Christian environment, I personally took a decision to be a Christian and when I went to CAN, I made the same point: the church is not a place where you gather voters and sell to politicians. The fact that people come to the church, you have 20 million members, 10 million members, 5 million members, does not make you another food gatherer like Iyaloja for a politician. It is a place where you first produce leaders because by the mechanism of your doctrine, liturgy and the belief system, and the close supervision of your membership, you will know who is a good member of your church, so you push them also for leadership. Secondly, when a non-member of your church comes forward to talk about leadership, you will find in them whether there’s righteousness because what is said is that righteousness exalts a nation, and when the righteous rule, the people rejoice. It doesn’t mean that when the member of your church rules, people rejoice.

If the person is not of your faith, if the person believes in righteousness which is doing justice and using public resources for the public and being truthful and dutiful in the service of humanity, then you know that this person will be a just leader.  You should also be a critic of bad leadership because you have a voice in society. This is what will deepen our democracy and other institutions – traditional institutions the same way. 

Then the NGOs and other groups, we need to come together. The civil society should be stronger more than the political party despite the importance of political party. The political parties, based on their membership alone, can never come to power. There was no way President Bola Tinubu was going to be in power or former President Muhammadu Buhari to be in power. And based on the membership of PDP alone, there was no way they would have produced Obasanjo, Yar’adua, Jonathan before they left. If I was relying on only SDP members, I would have nowhere to go. So, it means that these other social groups too be putting pressure on the political class to say, these are our priorities, these are our concerns. For example, the church should be concerned about the plight of the poor in our midst because before a person who is a Christian will call his political leader, he will probably call his pastor first and there are some things that if I meet a constituent as president, he can’t tell me but he can tell a pastor – same thing with the mosque. The pastor on the other hand, will now be an extension of putting pressure on the government to see that they spend on the poor and they do the right thing. But as at present, the politician is dictating the pace. They see that the journalists are a bunch of buccaneers and profiteers. If you can maintain a sizable budget for media, they will amplify your nonsense for you, they will give you dedicated coverage, you will lie clearly to them and they will not mind, they will spread your lies for you as long as you keep spending money.

They know that party leaders don’t have principle. Even if am not a member of the party, if I bring big money, they will throw away their members, they will take me and give me the ticket, they will do whatever I want them to do. They will change the delegate list, they will do whatever I want so long I can buy them. They know that the pastors don’t care if you bring enough money, they will let you come to their church and they will clap for you and raise your hand and you do whatever you like, they too want to have influence when you are in power. And civil society, the politician who has money can always throw money at creating groups from groups. If you ask me today what is my highest desire? My highest desire is that we should hold election tomorrow and Tinubu should go and I should come inside – that’s my desire. But beyond my personal ambition to be president, democracy is bigger than me and there are other stakeholders. Democracy is structured in such a way that majority of beneficiaries will never be in government. They will be outside the government and they will benefit from security of life and property, economic prosperity, social cohesion and peace, sound education, good health care and the general feeling of wellbeing. That is what the people benefit from democracy. That is why people prefer democracy because in a democracy, they are benefiting from these dividends of democracy and they know that if the government disappoints them, unlike a dictatorship, they can easily pull the government away, put another one. And even before pulling the government away to put another one, the fear that they may have that right to put the government away and put another one give them a leverage for the politician to listen to them when they say we don’t like this, we don’t like this. So, that is what I want us to invest in, but for a politician like me my ambition is to be president of Nigeria. That is what a politician would do but talking here as a democrat, I can recommend that what all of us need to do to build all those institutions.  Democracy has to percolate to the smallest level in our social life. That’s why you will see in a  country we call democratic, they’re even democratic at home from the way they raise their family, from the way they run school system, from the way they run association. But in Nigeria today even in family union, even in alumnus group, if you join a WhatsApp group and you see the way the administrator kicks you out because you make a comment they don’t like. So, general tolerance for democracy has to start. You cannot become a president first, democrat later. It doesn’t work. Your chance to be a democrat is before you taste power.

That democracy has to be in your DNA and inside your bone marrow before you even get there. When you access power, you become a lesser person than you are, the temptation to use the power. So, it is good to make sure that people who are not democrats don’t taste power at all. If you have any tendency that suggests that this person is not a democrat at heart should not come to power. To do that, we need to produce as many people in our society that understand democracy. Democracy , we must confess,  is alien to us. We had liberties and certain privileges in our traditional system but they did not arise from democracy. They arose from the benevolence of our leadership and the general characteristics of honour that our leaders were by our traditional religion and traditional belief system they needed to have. We need to start democratizing our society generally. Let ideas be the lead, let principles be the determinant of what we do, and let freewill, free expression, respectful exchange of competing ideas be there.   The most important position in a democracy are the smallest ones. The party agent is as important as the national chairman of the party. Having a good counselor, a conscientious local government chairman, a good commissioner is as good as anything. It’s even better for you than having a president. So, because many of the things you need are at the grassroots level and what is the untold story of Nigeria’s leadership crisis and governance deficit is that at the lowest level of governance, local government municipal level, they have collapsed and we can tolerate a charlatan for councelor, we don’t care; we can tolerate a charlatan for local chairman; we can even tolerate a charlatan for governor but we only worry about the president.

You said we should invest in leaders like churches do on pastors, it seems APC is already doing in Lagos, they are investing in their leaders before you become governor. 

You see, the first one has to do with leadership recruitment, whether with church model or the Lagos model. I am not saying the Lagos model is fantastic but it is far better than in other states where everything is downhill. When I went to see a former head of state when I was running for office and we were having a chit chat, the person said look, I have governed the country the best and I say yeah, I concede that and that’s a problem, because you govern long ago, it shouldn’t be the case, our best should not be in the past. So, by working (head of state) to see that people came after you are not as good as you, you owe me an apology for that. What I am saying is that leadership recruitment is not only for presidency. I started earlier with the army institution and that of the church institution.

Every institution has perpetual succession and human life is not perpetual. Therefore, the challenge is always to recruit somebody who is loyal to the system, who understands the system, who has competencies that are required to perform and get certain outcomes and who has no ethical challenge and then surround them with other people. That’s the whole idea. So, in selecting leadership for Nigeria, you have to first have somebody who believes in Nigeria. It’s not everybody who’s brilliant and who is full of ideas that you can make president. Some don’t know how to serve the public. I can be brilliant in my law firm and I want to be a senior advocate, or a chief judge. I am concerned about my career and I will do anything to succeed, that doesn’t mean I am good for political leadership. 

I can be a fantastic banker, that doesn’t mean I am going to be a good leader. The measurement for a good leader is that the person has public spirit. They can work for the public far more than they can work for themselves. Some people, if they become a banker, if they work in a bank because they’re working for profits, they are working to be CEO or they are working for their career in the Army, the university, they can do very well because I want to be a professor before I am 40 years old, they work very hard but if you give them a public duty to do, he may not want to do that as they centre around their own career. So, leaders know all of these things and they start looking for general principle to select good leaders. It’s not that hard. It is not that we try to select good leaders in Nigeria and we didn’t succeed, no, the decision taken by the leadership of Nigeria was that they will not take a risk. They will keep the status quo among themselves and they will keep rotating the power among themselves even when they run out of talent, they will say, even if he is totally uneligible person, just put him there and if occasionally they interview three people, they will drop the smartest person like a hot cake and say I don’t want him, I want a calm person, I want a person who will not disobey me. I want a person who will be there and I will continue to do whatever I am doing as the rest cannot question me. Its applicable in business too. When you go and interact with captains of industry, they don’t want anybody who would want accountability. Many don’t want that.  If they have certain privileges, they want to keep them, people want to owe banks money and not pay as they want to be in charge of AMCON. So, it cuts across. The same thing with workers, any person who comes to leadership who is going to say everybody come to work on time, or he is a no nonsense person, civil servants would go against him. So, it’s a general repentance, it’s not an indictment of a section. All of us now have to do that.

We have seen people making speeches but once they get to office, they do nothing, no change. What can we do to start holding office holders accountable?

Why is there no change despite all these ideas and speeches? Speeches are not difficult to make, it is the ideals to become reality. The problem in Nigeria so far is that people don’t change in their behaviour. They can change their words of mouth, but hitherto, even up to this point, it doesn’t matter what your character is, what your past is. There’s no memory. Nobody’s going to question you , so it makes many people who are outside government to just believe that if I am outside government, I can say whatever I like, there is no question when I enter government, I behave like other people because in reality, many of the people who said this and that, if you look at their lifestyle, if you look at what they have done, it wasn’t consistent with what they are saying and that is why when I started the beginning of this intervention, I said that as far as Tinubu is concerned, you can be his worst critic or you can be an opponent like me, but you can never say that he’s not doing what he said he would do. Of course, there were times in the past when he would criticize President Jonathan for removing subsidy just a little amount of subsidy reduction and he would criticize for not having sympathy on the poor and all of that, but when he was governor of Lagos, he imposed tax on everybody. So, even at that time, it was obvious to the people that those criticisms of Jonathan were not genuine because if you look at the behaviour of Jonathan government in terms of subsidy, in terms of fiscal management, in terms of taxation, Tinubu was tougher. 

With your beautiful ideas, how were you planning to win the election without a strong structure like in PDP and APC, you have 774 local government areas, how were you planning to implement a winning strategy?. Even if you eventually make it, how were you planning to rule Nigeria with all the senators and House of Representatives that would surely give you a hard time?

How did we plan to win without structure? We knew it was difficult to win without structure. However, when we audited ourselves, we were present in all the local governments, even the big political parties. When it comes to legal structures, they didn’t have more structures than us but they had illegal structures, things like vote buying and other things. We thought that leading a campaign where the country was tired and going round the country as we did but we did not know that the political elite would divide themselves into both incumbent and opposition. That got the people of Nigeria to be in need of more help in discerning that when you look at these big political parties, they were all part of the incumbent but the interpretation people gave was that as long as you are not in APC, you are an opposition. Our campaign was run on the basis that if the Nigerian people can choose between the people who have been ruling since 1999 and what they have been doing wrong and how they don’t have ideas and then compare with our ideas but we learned our lesson and realized that no, the message doesn’t sink in within nine months of campaign. If we were to do that, it should have started much earlier and that the elite whom we are trying to take power from, they were clever enough to divide themselves into three. The APC, PDP and Labour, all incumbent. They all have been the same system before. They took all the oxygen away and, now we are going back to work on our grassroots.

As to how would I have worked with the National Assembly successfully if I had won? What we believe was that a momentum that was going to push a first timer to become president will also push a lot of first timers to become members of National Assembly. So, I wasn’t the only one running. The party fixed candidates in other places and then there were other candidates from other political parties that were not from the government side that we had had discussions with, we were 14 political parties that had had one year of coming together, so we thought that with different parties, and the way the election was supposed to go, even ADC would have at least three senators, Labour would have some, but it turned out that that’s not the case at all. So, we have learnt our lesson, but I will not say the lesson we learnt, because you don’t make the mistake of running 2027 on the lesson of 2023 because every election system bring its own new challenge.

The media, ordinarily, should strengthen the government but for our media today,  some of them  are partisan as they are spreading fake news and promoting their own person. Is there a way to moderate their activities whereby they will obey the law of the land truly?

The media is a constitutional entity. They are mentioned in the constitution. The media is permanent government and they are one of the few professions, media and law. They are the two professions that are mentioned in the constitution. So, they need to recognize that. You will see that in situation we find ourselves in Nigeria today, it is not only the media that is messing up, even me as a lawyer, my profession is messing up because it is my profession that will occupy one arm of government, judiciary, all of us there are lawyers. 

 Now the idea of people exploiting politicians, they are exploiting themselves because they don’t realize that the politician has no money to give. People used to tell me in those days when we started, you are not spending money. I said look, I am spending more money than most of the politicians you are mentioning because they are spending government money, your money. I am giving you money I made from my profession. If you think that you can fool a politician by collecting their money, you are fooling yourself. Because that’s your social welfare money that is being spent on you ahead, that is why you have no leverage, especially for the youth and women, they give one time wrapper for everybody. So, once you buy them wrapper and T-shirt, then you are welcome and youth like all these. Even people posting on social media, many of them are being funded by politicians. I know the economy is hard but we need to know that the solution to your problem comes from having political leaders that are good which means you need to make contribution not encourage money politics. Campaign finance which is very crucial, campaign finance starts from financing a political party.

Given the huge finance associated with campaign in Nigeria, how can one do that successfully without the inputs of the moneybags?

When you start a political party, you start with money, just like you are starting with a church or a mosque. It’s a public institution. Your contribution should be based on your contribution to the party, not waiting for money from the skies. You asked if I had won, how will I have done with the public service? I will deal with politicians, public service is very easy. They work for the government, they are not the government. The civil servants are there to carry out professional technical administrative duties, they don’t make decisions in government. So, the decisions are made at the government level. The problem with government starts with ministers. If you have a good minister, you can professionalize the public service, you choose permanent secretaries and are directly appointed by the president, they don’t grow into it. When you get to level of permanent secretary, even though you are director, the president has to choose you as permanent secretary. So, politicians have a lot of influence. The corruption of the political class is aided by the corruption of the public services and the corruption of public service is tolerated because the political leaders don’t want civil servants who will say no, that is why if you go to many states, the people they elect as their governor used to be the collaborator of the governor, it will be the Accountant General or the Auditor General of the state. That’s the person the governor will say since we both committed a crime together, okay, you go and succeed me because you cannot probe yourself. At the federal level, you will see that it is easy for the government to control if the aim is to control the civil servants. Now, when it comes to the labour unions, they are democratic institutions and it’s good to give workers a voice. However, unions don’t run the civil service, they only speak in terms of the welfare of their members,that’s all. So, labour unions like NLC, TUC, ASSU, they all talk about the welfare of their members. They are not running government and if my government will keep to labour law, fulfill our obligation to labour, you won’t see labour having any serious voice in my government because the welfare of the workers, their dues are paid to them so they don’t need the union to talk. However, the area where the union will love us is our commitment to chapter two of the constitution because they will realize that the problems they were having with salary not being enough, poor living wages has to do with controlling inflation and providing social services. So, they will love us for that. Now, how to make local government work, that is not difficult for me even now as we speak. All over the world, I am one of the well-known experts in local government administration, right from the union of local government in Africa as far back as 20 years ago. I have been consulting for local governments all over the world. We used to hold the Africities and even in Nigeria today, despite political differences, I give a lot of support to local government administration. So, I know how local government should work and I advocate for them when they have issues with the Federal Government. More so, I consult for them. This is not a partisan issue, this is a structural issue. Whichever party is in local government, they must work and across party line. They have not been working because they are not real, you don’t believe in them and the governors just appoint them by hand and they seize their resources and then use it to argument state resources or divert them outright. So they will work with me.

Instead of this presidential system, why can’t we try Parliamentary system which is less expensive to run?

We have tried parliamentary system before. I am a student of it and I observe it works in Canada. I observe it works in UK. I don’t think it can work in Nigeria. It can work but I think it’s easier to operate the presidential system than the parliamentary one because the parliamentary system is not stable. No government has tenure so it’s just by coalition. If you know what Balewa went through. Balewa had to work with a lot of undesirable elements in order not to lose majority. If you look at the argument between Babatunde Jose as MD of Daily Times and that debate he had with Balewa where people were talking about the corruption at P&T when they sold that land at Ijora way, that was the First Republic and they were asking him to discipline the minister who was involved. He called Babatunde Jose and said how can I discipline the minister? I am in a coalition government. I told his party to remove him, they said they were not going to remove him, so, if I remove him they will withdraw and we have to call another election and there are so many other problems. The parliamentary system is more democratic than a presidential system, however, a presidential system is more stable and that was why at the Constitutional Assembly in 1977, everyone who was alive – Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano — all of them who were in the parliamentary system, voted for the presidential system. So, I think if we obey the presidential system, it will work better. That is my own point of view but as the country goes on later, you can have a hybrid system like South Africa where the president himself is also automatic member of parliament, then he can be called to parliament to be questioned. you can do that.

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