Thursday, June 12, 2008

'Better late than never'

THE "Democracy Day" has come and gone. As President Yar'Adua enters the second year of his four-year tenure, I have a simple message for him and his administration: I fear that what currently keeps the Nigerian state and Nigeria's ruling blocs together is the massive revenue that accrues from our crude oil. Put differently, I fear that should crude oil production, or sale, or revenue, suddenly decline significantly, the ruling blocs would fall apart; and the state would collapse. Since these entities currently exercise almost complete hegemony over the nation, they would drag the country with them, to catastrophe.

That is the mortal danger we now face given this level state irresponsibility, delinquency, unseriousness, deception and insensitivity to the pains of Nigerian masses; and the diversionary bickerings between and within the blocs. While the ruling blocs engage the nation in essentially self-servicing issues, they continue to loot the nation's resources, a fraction of which could radically improve the human condition in this country. To the state governors and local government chairpersons I say: You are living in obscene and insensitive affluence in the midst of mass poverty because of the power of the billions of naira and petro-dollars you collect every month from crude oil revenues. Your power has no other source.

"When accidents occur", my late father used to say, "passengers revert to their mother tongues". The resolve of the nation, today, should be not to allow an accident to occur; or to prepare itself so that should an accident occur, then those responsible would not be in the position to pretend to be leading a rescue operation. That is for the nation. To President Yar'Adua, I repeat the banner headline of The Guardian of Thursday, May 28, 2008: "Nigerians ask Yar'Adua to wake up". Better late than never.

President Yar'Adua gave the country an agenda, a list of developmental problems on which his administration would focus during its tenure. Many critics attacked the agenda, but by and large, as months went by, there seemed to be an unstructured agreement by critics and supporters alike that the regime should be judged by what the President said it would do. To be fair, Yar'Adua did not create the problems of Nigeria. It is important not to forget this simple truth. But, then, he would put forward by his party, in opposition to rival aspirants and contestants, to head a new government. And he accepted and has not, at least in public, regretted his decision. I am saying all this in order to be able to emphasise, honestly and as someone who knows him, that however good President Yar'Adua may be as a person and however impeccable his antecedents, he is overwhelmingly responsible for the failings of his regime.

To be fair, again, we have to start with the promise made by the regime and not what we think its agenda ought to have been. The agenda presented to the nation was, and is, as follows: steady provision of electricity; security of life and property; land reforms; food security; quality education; effective transportation system; and poverty alleviation through wealth creation. The guiding principle is "the rule of law" to which the regime would adhere.

I have read, and heard several reports, analyses, reviews and opinions on the progress President Yar'Adua's government made in its first year in office. I have also reflected on the matter. My own verdict is that except in the sphere of "rule of law", and the President' personal style, no tangible progress has been made. I use the word "tangible" (or should I say "visible"), because, as the President and some officials of his regime have insisted, you need time to plan before acting. Perhaps the time spent on drawing up the plan may not have been wasted, and the plan itself may be regarded as progress. But this is purely academic. The point is that we have not seen much, and have not felt much, that suggests that the seven-point agenda is, indeed, an agenda.

Is this assessment too harsh or subjective? Perhaps, since I am "extremist". Then, let us turn to The Guardian with a long tradition of objective, liberal, balanced and yet sophisticated and magisterial assessments of governance, institutions and epochs. I refer to The Guardian's "National Democracy Day" editorial titled "One year of the Yar'Adua administration". The paper recognised the significance of the probes being conducted and revelations being made; it recognised the "robust" performance of the judiciary, it recognised that Yar'Adua's presidency has been "more courteous, less abrasive than Obasanjo's. It however added that "unfortunately the people's expectations remain largely unmet". The economy, said the paper, "has been relatively stable, with inflation in the single-digit range, even if macro-economic stability has not translated into measurable difference in the lives of the people".

I commend The Guardian editorial to President Yar'Adua and his government. But they should underline this precise statement: "In general, however, the Yar'Adua administration has been remiss in dealing with the country's political and socio-economic problems. Not a few Nigerians consider the administration to be rather slow in terms of service delivery. The majority of the people continue to live below the poverty line. Access to basic necessities is difficult. The people are dispossessed and disempowered". The government is likely to dismiss the views of "extremists". It may also dismiss the verdicts of its enemies within the ruling blocs. But it should not dismiss the views of liberal outfits like The Guardian. Better late than never.

I said that the nation is being diverted - perhaps deliberately. One obvious case is the current search for a new Constitution. "Whatever happened to the minutes of the last meeting?" asked Kayode Komolafe in his back-page column in ThisDay of Wednesday, May 7, 2008. Komolafe listed the times the country has been taken through the ritual of constitution - review or constitution - making since 1979. We have the following: the 1979 Constitution under which the Second Republic (1979-1983) was governed; the 1989 draft constitution produced under General Babangida, the 1995 draft Constitution produced under General Sani Abacha; and the current 1999 Constitution produced under General Abdulsalami Abubakar.

You may argue that these Constitutions were produced under military dictatorships. I agree, but then, the production of each Constitution was preceded by public debate. If the constitutions are "military" documents, we cannot say the same of the massive memoranda, submissions, documents and records from which they were allegedly articulated. This regime can go back to the documents and records. Komolafe recalled the work of the Political Bureau set up by General Babangia in 1986.

The Political Bureau worked for 16 months, touring the entire country, conducting popular debates and gathering thousands of memoranda. It sponsored or facilitated workshops, seminars and symposia by professional, academic, civil society and trade-union groups. The Bureau persuaded the Babangida regime to allow the participation of "outlawed" groups, including the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). It commissioned special papers on various subjects. The documents and tapes are still in the state archives, I believe. Beyond this, members of the Bureau, most of whom are still alive, have their personal copies.

One of the first acts of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, on assuming power in 1999, was to inaugurate an all-party committee to review the Constitution which, strictly speaking is the 1979 Constitution as amended by General Abubakar's regime. The committee went round the country, organising hearings and seminars and receiving memoranda. In the end it produced a revised Constitution. Next, the government set up a Political Conference to produce a draft. The Conference was permitted to use previous draft Constitutions, including, in particular, the reports of the President Committee.

The Political Conference ended in semi-stalemate. But materials were gathered and reports were produced. Finally, the National Assembly constituted itself into a Constitution Review Committee. The debate on the drafts came to an abrupt end over the "Third Term" agenda. But documents had been gathered and drafts of a new Constitution had been written. All these exercises were sponsored by the state. But within the civil society not less than five draft Constitutions were produced and published between 1999 and 2007. Their authors are eminent, experienced and respected Nigerians. Now, the current National Assembly is embarking on yet another round of constitutional review, a costly exercise that may again end the way those before it ended. The National Assembly is doing this as the Electoral Reform Committee set up by President Yar'Adua is conducting debates and hearings and receiving memoranda.

What President Yar'Adua or the National Assembly ought to have done was to appoint a committee to put together a draft Constitution from the mountain of materials that the Nigerian State has in its possession. The draft would then be sent to the National Assembly, with the understanding that there must be a rig-free referendum before a new basic document is foisted on the nation and that this referendum will not be guided by the fascist principle that the "majority" - because it is the "majority" - should be allowed to kill the "minority". The referendum to usher in a new Constitution should be based on the dual principle of democracy and equitocracy.

Thanks to Chief Anthony Enahoro for reminding the nation of this principle.