Agbakoba: Our Democracy Is Shaky, Our Political Class Very Weak, Mostly Opportunistic

Our People Are Frozen By Different Emotions, We Must Defreeze Them.

Olisa Agbakoba, former Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) and Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) President was among those who laboured to enthrone this Fourth Republic.

You were an active player in the processes in the 90s, which culminated in the birth of the Fourth Republic. Fourteen years down the line, how will you rate this process?

IT has not gone very well because the report cards show that we are still at the stage of what is called illiberal democracy. Though we have had an authoritarian regime, which you know is military government and we came from that in the years under Babangida and Abacha. And when we pushed out of that process, we became semi-authoritarian, even though there was a resemblance of civil rule. I will never describe President Obasanjo as a democratic leader, because, for instance, he applied emergency rule in a manner section 305 did not empower him to do. He removed the governors. But then it was done.

But with President Yar’Adua, there was a slight advance. The difference between Yar’Adua and Obasanjo was Yar’Adua’s respect for national institutions, acknowledging the fraud in the electoral process, the institution of the Uwais reform panel; those are good pointers to the ultimate goal of a liberal, free society. Have we moved to that? No.

So we are not a liberal democracy. Liberal democracies are where your rights are respected. A policeman will be terrified to stop you on the street; that is not happening. Our democracy is shaky; our political class is very weak, mostly opportunistic.

Yes, I know that the APC is trying hard to add a very important element to the political space, which is pluralism. Pluralism is so important because it gives you and I the choice to chose between A and B. But can we say that the APC is an opposition party? I do not think so, because I see it as a competitor for political power. I could be wrong, but that is my judgment. I do not see any ideological underpinning. I do not see APC as connecting with the relevant actors on the left of centre. I would say that we have not done very well in the 14 years we have had civil rule.

Why do you think ideology is such a big trouble for the political parties?

It should not be, because time should enable anybody to consolidate and develop. Why people like to drink old wine is because it is old, so the older you are, the more experienced.

If we look at Nigeria since 1979, though one has to be honest, to say that the military absolutely abridged our democratic experience and I blame them for the present crisis. But also, 14 years is also longer enough for us to say to ourselves, we want to rebuild this very powerful country. Nigeria is a country that should be taking its feat among the leading nations of the world because we have the natural and human resources, land, population.

Lagos, if it were to be on its own, is the 14th largest economy in Africa. So this is a lot of resource, if you bring any business to Nigeria, it tends to do well in spite of bad government. Why is it that we are unable to harness our resources so that we would not be counted on the league of tables of the most corrupt? So something is wrong whether we like it or not. As we count down to May 29, the lessons that we ought to be looking to learn is, why we are not doing better than we are doing.

In moving forward, we need to have a leader. Somebody who will kick off something, like, back in the days when we needed to confront military government, somebody came forward and that led to the birth of the human rights groups. We need our Obama. They are there but not organised. We are looking for somebody who can look at the whole mess. It is like going to the Boston marathon, where they had the catastrophe; somebody took charge, cleaned up the mess, arrested the people and put Boston back on track. So we need a leader who will take charge and put us back on track.

One reason I admire China, even though it is not democratic, I have looked at their agenda and you can see that they were very clear where they wanted to go. So starting from Mao Zedong, whose agenda was to keep China close, so that the so-called imperial West would not indoctrinate China. So Mao philosophy was that of xenophobia, the exclusion of foreign interests and foreigners from China, then up to the point that Liu Shaoqi took over. And he had a clear idea that China was strong enough to open up to the world and begin to make its mark. And because they understand that they are not a democratic country and competing for political power is a problem, when they are elected a Chinese president, they serve for ten years. They are given ten years to make a mark and then go to the Public Bureau to report, that is a model and it has made China the second largest economy in the world. So, we need to have a process. We are looking for an Obama, who is able to understand the Nigerian challenge, it is not that we lack, but that we lack a leader to organise.

Is it among this political class that you will get such a leader?

That is the mystery. But we could start the process by leaders, whether it is leader in government or outside of government. In England, you have David Cameroon, as leader of the conservatives and prime minister and Edward Miliband as leader of the opposition. I doubt that Miliband, on any occasion will accept to be minister in the government; I do not think so. The only person who I have seen in Nigeria’s political history, who understood what it was to be in the opposition is Obafemi Awolowo. So in order for us to begin the building blocks of a true Nigeria, we would need leaders at all levels, but the two most important would be leaders of government and opposition.

And that takes me to whether we need so many political parties. I have a yes and no answer. I think anyone who can float a party should be allowed to do so, but the electoral market place will make choices. You can see really, Nigeria does not have many political parties as we think, even though there are about fifty registered parties. If you look carefully, may be three or four. If they can organise and ensure internal democratic process, so that whoever wins the process is the leader of the party, then we are off the ground.

The second thing would be how you govern. We need to have people, who are able to lead in various aspects of the Nigerian economy, whether it is oil and gas, transport, justice and police. That is how you create a country, but now, it is a big distance for a lot of Nigerians. What I hear a lot of Nigerians say is that they do not feel happy. They expect more from their government. And while it is true that President Jonathan has done quite a lot, but I think if I were part of the process, I will be advising how government can create a programme that touches people; that is the gap. The SURE-P programme would have been used, but I do not think it is effective, as it should. There is a need to make people happy. That is the challenge.

There is this argument that our inability to move forward as a nation democratically is due to the constitution, do you subscribe to this?

No, because when I was NBA President, I brought a legal expert in the world, George Anderson to talk about constitution and federalism. Durkheim, who is the father of modern sociology, tells you that man is always conflicted in anything that is organised. So in a family, there is conflict. If you have a polygamous family, there is double conflict. If you have a Christian-Muslim marriage, there is conflict; if you have a Yoruba-Igbo marriage, there is conflict. So, there is always going to be conflict. So, people who study political system would first apply the panacea suited to the diagnosis. If you go to a doctor, and you have malaria, it is the lab test that will tell the doctor what to do. The doctor has all the medication. If I apply the lab test to Nigeria, when the result comes out, it will tell me that Nigerians are a very diverse people in terms of religion, language and ethnicity. So when people are diverse, you have to find a system that manages their diversity, so that once they are one, they have enough space. For instance, if I’m a polygamous man with four wives, it will make sense we live in the same compound with four bungalows, with each of the wives and their children living in a bungalow. There will be peace. Therefore, in the Nigerian case, what will suit Nigeria best is federalism. And in federalism, you have two brands, strong centre and weak centre with strong regions. And having looked at Nigeria, I will prescribe a loose federal system and when I looked at the constitution, I see that the federal government has so much power under the exclusive list. I will look for how to take those powers out and give to the states. I can see that there are about 250 ethnic groups, but I can see about six blocks, Yoruba are one, Igbo another, Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri. So Dr. Ekwueme was right in his diagnosis, that Nigeria should have six regions. But are we prepared to follow Dr. Ekwueme’s prescription? We have not accepted it. Some want it, others don’t. Remember the civil war was caused by the same problem. Nigeria’s problem from the beginning is the failure to apply the best political system suited to us.

If you go to tinker with the constitution, which is only the legal aspect of the system, you will fail. All what is happening now, tinkering with the constitution without first of all building the true federal structure that is needed, we are not going anywhere. So, the constitution will be effective if we get the kind of federal system we want.

Ojukwu was right when he said it in Aburi that Nigeria should either be a confederation or a loose federation. That is the challenge that we face and I do not understand why politicians do not see that, because it is so simple. And what we need to do is gather at a table all the key actors and ask if we agree that we have a diverse nation, therefore we cannot be like the UK, we would copy the American example, where a Lagos State policeman chasing a criminal gets to the Ogun State border and cannot cross over because he has no authority. That is the kind of federalism that I recommend. If we do that, lets put a constitution that reflects that, otherwise constitution on its own will not work.

The democratic process stands on the tripod of the executive, legislature and the judiciary; can you x-ray these institutions individually in these 14 years?

Generally poor and I am not referring to this government. Somebody like President Obasanjo was a brilliant, energetic and visionary person, but bad belly pulled him down. He had a clear vision of what to do. He is one leader who I think having being there before and having a second bite, he saw all the problems. But he was consumed by his third term agenda, so that did not work. But on the whole, we had weak institutions, executive, and legislature.

Apart from this Seventh Assembly, which tends to be more vigorous than the others, I do not think that you will say from 1999 to date, that the National Assembly and state legislative houses had done anything. So I am not going to give the legislature a strong mark.

Judiciary is a disaster, absolute disaster. People feel that they are not getting quick justice from the court. If you have a simple case that takes five years to solve, then that shows that the judiciary is not doing well. Again we salute the current CJN and the previous one, who understood the challenge of making the judiciary responsive. If the courts are sitting late or not sitting at all or the judges are not writing judgments, it is bad. For instance, if the Guardian that is supposed to come out on a daily basis comes out ten times a year, they have failed. Some judges in Nigeria do not do anything. So the confidence that people have in the judiciary is low. We hope that the current CJN will turn around the poor image of the judiciary and we hope executive and legislature can improve their performance. But for now, it is below average.

What suggestion will you give to the National Assembly in moving forward?

The work is too huge. It is giving a load a baby cannot carry. So the National Assembly on the basis of its present constitution and workload it is carrying, is simply unable to do it. There is far too much work to do than the resources that they have. If you look at the exclusive legislative list, which is their work plan, they cannot carry it. The equivalent of the question you are asking me is like, the current resources you (Guardian) have; you are told to produce three papers a day. And I am a cause and effect person and logician. I asked, what is the cause of poor performance? I identify it and apply solution. When the cause ceases to have effect, the effect ceases. If the effect of too much were poor performance, we would withdraw that too much work and add more manpower, so that the load being carried can be delivered or shelved. It is far too much work. Do you know how many bills are in the House, from diverse areas, including things that should be dealt with at the state levels? The issue of marriage is a matter of state, insurance, trade, arbitration; these are all simple things, not even political. Basic health, it is a local government work. But you have the National Assembly creating all kinds of institutions and parastatals, and they are not doing well. And the National Assembly is spending all the time over-sighting.

We need to take down the workload, so that the load you are carrying is light and you can become a specialist. But everything there is just scattered; if you look at the National Assembly, what they do generally is, bills are tumbling in, and they go through first, second reading. And how many bills really get passed, very few.

And the presidency is far too big, loaded with too much work. How do you think the IG can monitor Nigeria for crime, it is impossible. But if you devolve the power of the IG into 36 mini IGs and each would have power to deal with crime at their level; and each can check with his troops, and if the concern is that the governors will misuse the authority, you can limit the function of the police to law enforcement, not political. It is a political process that enables governors to misapply their powers. And the governors could also be restricted from controlling the police in time of election. So I will say that federal police structure remains, then we have municipal policing. LASTMA, for instance, is a municipal Police; the fact that they call it LASTMA does not mean that it is not a Police. What it does not have is arms. So we should stop pretending. We see Yellow Fever pretending that they have authority to cover the whole country, but LASTMA is the one that we know. Even though LASTMA misbehaves, it is more active than the Yellow Fever people. So it is distribution of power in a way that makes sense and makes every institution to be active.

Some have argued that the cost of governance is too high, what is your opinion?

It is because politics became a game that was not properly defined. People found out that it was a quick way to make money. It is not a new thing. It goes back to the days of gold rush in South Africa and the oil discoveries around the globe; there were barons of the US who chased resources. Today they are called the Carnegie; these were near thieves hundred years ago. All the big names you hear now. Nobel was an explosive maker, but as a result of his guilt of making explosives that kill people, he devoted his money in a will that promote peace, that is why we have Nobel Peace Prize. But what is important is that somebody must check it.

For instance, in the late 1800 in America, Rudolf could see that money was in the hands of very few. He passed the anti-trust legislation so that no one person could control all the money. Now, in Nigeria, nobody is passing any quality-control legislation, whether for business people or political people. So they have all run amok; take MTN for instance, it ought not to be dominant as it is. Why do you have bad services, it is because the regulator like NCC does not care. So also in politics, there had been no restraining factor. No opposition, number one, nobody tells them they cannot do this or that, so very soon they learn from the military about personal power, and Obasanjo is a good example. Personal power quickly subverts national institutions; so that the president could call the governor of Central Bank to say, give me two million dollar or NNPC to ask for funds. Therefore, we do not have strong institutions to check bad behaviour. We have been unable to make boundaries of political power. That the president, this is your own, you cannot go out of this, and down the line.

When people see staggering sum of money, they are going to grab it and when they grab it, nobody does them anything. And they call it security votes and nobody does anything, they will just be packing. Thus, it is not surprising that all the governors in Obasanjo regime stole what they liked because nobody could restrain them. If you were my commissioner for finance, if I say go bring all the money in the account, you will do so, even though you know it is unreasonable. That is what has gone wrong and the reason they are paid large salaries and they have become unrestrained. It is like a horse escaping from its cage; in law, we say it is an unruly horse. So the problem is, nobody can check them, nobody, is it Nigerians. Do Nigerians have the energy; they are too poor, sick and jobless to put the right amount of pressure on them. The man looks around, nobody is stopping me, he takes one million, two, then it is no longer million, he goes to billions, next thing he would think about is trillion, that is the thing. That is why it is very important that we have an Obama that will say this has to stop. Enough is enough; we got to stop and restrain ourselves and let us follow the rules. That is what I hope can happen and I do not have the faintest idea how that could happen.

It is said that if the leadership is not flowing in the right direction, the people can force it to move in the right direction, but here we have a situation where leaders are not moving in the right direction but the people feel unperturbed?

That is a big mystery. I do not know how to answer that, but I do know that under the military, we moved as we did, because we were angry about what was happening and our anger was expressed in the form of when we should have real democracy; why should the military abuse people and so on and so forth. It was very clear and we had the people behind us, even though a lot of them were afraid because I remember the crisis of silence when Abacha took over all the five fingers of the five leprous political parties as Bola Ige called it. We then said that we must stop it because Abacha had used silence to conquer Nigerians. But he got Dan Kanu to organise youth earnestly asking for Abacha, to say to him to come to contest. We ourselves went mad. So there was a cause and we organised a two million-man match on 29 of March 1998 and that was the first time when there was a shrink in Abacha’s camp.

Now the rain was beating everybody commonly, so that it was understandable if I went home to my wife to complain of the things these people are doing, or, if I went to the church and everybody had a common agreement that those were our enemies, the soldiers. Today it has changed. If you have a brother who is a minister and I am asking you to come to join a crusade, you will not come. That is one problem.

Another problem is the role of pastors and traditional leaders; they have killed Nigerians. I cannot point to one pastor that have ever spoken and galvanised people. If pastor so and so can galvanise five million people at crusades, should it not occur to him that he can say something about what is going on? So the human right movement had had its time. There is a time for everything, that opportunity that opened was our time. It will not repeat itself because when politics came, the politicians immediately took the space. Then the politicians have discovered that being in bed with traditional rules and pastors is the most effective anti-dote to keeping the people quiet. If six or seven pastors that I know decide to shake Nigeria, there would be some difference.

If you have Tunde Bakare in many places, I think there would be some difference. But everybody is keeping quiet, all buying jets, enjoying themselves, flying around, there is no difference, they are close friends to the politicians, where do you think the revolution will come from? The revolution is always organised.

People are frozen by different emotions, most by fear. So what we need to do is to defreeze them. We have one hundred and sixty million Nigerians frozen. We need three or four people of diverse backgrounds to defreeze them, but the most powerful now is the religious leaders. They are the ones who can say to Nigerians, common, all right; we will do a, b, c, d, but they are not doing it. They are not. If we can appeal to the pastors, they should stop taking money from their congregation, and challenge government because we know what they are doing. We know it, even though I am a catholic, I know what is happening. What is happening is that the pastors have gone haywire. You know it yourselves and they are making a fortune. If the civil societies are unable to do anything, traditional rulers are unable to do anything, labour is unable and the religious societies are unable to do anything, that’s unfortunate. Revolution is not caused by one mass revolt, it is caused by those who feel aggrieved and have the power to mobilise. But if those who have the power to mobilise are themselves immobile, then we are in for big problem. In any society, ninety percent of the people are neutral, but once they are galvanised, like Martin Luther King galvanised them, they will move. The seeming peace and quiet is not to say that people are not angry, otherwise, most polls I read show that people are not feeling good about themselves.

The message is, let the pastors use the pulpit to galvanise, rather than making money.

You sound tired; do you regret past efforts in this struggle?

Not, at all. My regret is that we made a big strategic error. You know, when God parted the River Nile for his people to pass out of bondage, that was a massive miraculous opportunity. Let us assume that the passing over lasted for one hour and somebody says I cannot pass, ones it is closed, it is closed. Having being part of the struggle and having shaped the debates, it came to pass that the military government knew that they needed us to move forward. In particular, given Abiola’s tragic death and the circumstances around it, we then said that we would demand a government of national unity, because Gen. Abdulsalam made it clear that he was in for a short while and wanted to do election. But we said no, we wanted a government of national unity and a Sovereign National Conference. Those were two very idealistic and proper demands to make. But sometimes, demand is made strategically. Our mistake then was, we, the younger ones did not see what older pro-democracy people like Abraham Adesanya saw. So, while the older ones were seeing this, we were still fighting. When the river parted, the opportunity to go into politics came; we refused because we felt if we crossed we would soil our hands. We allowed vagabonds and people who were opportunists to cross and they went in and they spoilt it. And people have said how do you know if you had crossed, that it will not be the same and I said I not so. I know that if we had been there at the earliest opportunity in 1998, things would have been different, that was a very huge error and I regret that.

Other than that, I will do everything again because it is annoying. It was a world record, Abacha, how can one man say he was presidential candidate to five political parties. Even till today, it makes me very angry. I think what we did was fantastic, none of us has any regret, except this one that I have just described because we should have participated. Many guys died, imprisoned and many went on exile. We should have participated to take our struggle to a logical conclusion. Some of those in government now, when they tell me where they were during the struggle, I have the biggest laugh. And some of them would say we are enjoying what we would have been enjoying, which is bad language, because I would not have gone into government to enjoy. This shows it is all about chop-chop.


Olisa Agbakoba