(Vanguard of Sunday, May 7, 2000)
It is unsettling to believe that we are having problems with making our democracy work. Yes, what is wrong with having problems? Even the United States of America whose presidential system we opted for in 1979 still has problems. The difference between us and the United States is that while they see problems as challenges to be confronted, analysed and tackled frontally and decisively, we think that problems are created by God who must in His good time, remove them! This stupid posturing will make us wait forever. Is there no law of sowing and reaping and can we not learn from this simple but unique experience of the farmer?
Problems are created by men, not God, and men must solve them. Man must recover from the hugest of hoaxes that man proposes but God disposes. The reverse has always been the case. God proposes but man disposes. God proposed a way for us to live in His creation and se4nt prophets to teach us. We have always disobeyed; always, so to say, disposed.
The problem we having treading the road we agreed to take in 1979 is one of our own making. Please forget that the military stopped the clock of democratic time from ticking for the better part of the twenty years after we made this choice. But why must we forget that we chose a road we are finding problems in walking?
Let us go back to the brief before we took this road of the presidential system of government. We had practiced what Britain bequeathed to us until the military murdered sleep in 1966. Then we fought a war to keep Nigeria one and botched the plan to return government to civilians in 1976. In 1975, General Murtala Muhammed replaced Gen. Yakubu Gowon, and set in motion the programme of return to civil rule. I want us to visit that day in Lagos, on October 18, 1985 when he set the agenda for Nigeria of the future, the Nigeria of today which we are messing up as if God endowed us with memories to forget with, not memories to remember with.
On that fateful day, 50 Nigerians were expected, but one was absent. Thet later came to be referred to as the 49 Wise Men because they had the responsibility of fashioning for Nigeria a constitution that would ensure that the abuses of the past, the indiscipline of the past, were removed. We are still bathed in abuses, and have refused to change our name from Indiscipline.
But let us stay with Murtala Muhammed. He told this gathering of eminent Nigerians that the fear of the predominance of one region over another had been removed to a large extent by the simple constitutional act of creating more states. He x-rayed the old order – major political parties with regional and ethnic support; uneasy coalition of two parties at the centre; interest of party leaders supplanting the interest of the public; cut-threat political competition based on a system or rules of winner-takes-all… He said there was a need to discourage institutional opposition to the government in power. There had to be firmly established, the principle of public accountability for all holders of public office. Most important was the need to eliminate over-concentration of powers in a few hands. As a matter of principle, power should be decentralized whenever possible, as a mean of diffusing tension.
Read that last sentence seven times because Murtala Muhammed and his colleagues knew why Nigeria would not develop, would not grow. They knew that we had a federation that operated as a unitary government, what with his experience in the army and the culture of central control!
But Murtala Muhammed would not leave our wise men to choose that type of government that would resolve the problems that would not help development and growth. It was as if he knew what we wanted. He knew what had happened in the First Republic and he seemed to be moving to the conclusion that the system had failed us!
This Westminster arrangement did not seem to ensure security of tenure. Murtala Muhammed wanted more lasting structures. He therefore told the wise men that Nigeria must have genuine and truly national political parties. There must be an executive presidential system of government in which the President and Vice President are elected with clearly defined powers. There must be no doubt in the arrangement that both of them will be accountable to the people. There must be an independent judiciary and its key role in making the new system should be incorporated in the Constitution.
Murtala Muhammed, with Gen Olusegun Obasanjo who was second-in-command and had to see to the full implementation of the programme after Dimka killed Nigeria’s nascent hero, created more states, reduced inflation, overcame the congestion of our ports, and started the journey to Abuja.
Some twenty years after, we have not even started crawling and we are behaving as if we have been doing this job and operating this system of governing for hundreds of years. So we wake up one morning and use our powers to change officers in the name of due process. We removed the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly – for understandable reasons. And we removed Enwerem as President of the Senate because he was too soft with the Executive. And we planned to remove Okadigbo as President of the Senate because he was too tough for the President. And we declare a senator of the Federal Republic persona non grata in a state of the Federation because he was being a nuisance that he has always been to draw attention to himself! One thing running through all these true-to-life drama pieces – INTOLERANCE!
Most painful is that we have not even taken any lessons on what to do with our current outing, and how to behave in public. Aren’t we the cause of our problems? Refusing to be taught and refusing to learn?
One of the architects of the choice imposed on us in 1975 when Murtala spoke is, by the grace of God, the President of Nigeria today.
It would be painful indeed, and most unlike him, to be mentioned in attempts to weaken the very institutions he helped to build. It was he himself who saw the programme to fruition, supervised the different stages of disengagement, handed over to President Shehu Shagari and went to Ota where he proudly accepted to be referred to as a chicken farmer.
If I have told people all along that President Obasanjo can never be party to the removal from office of Dr. Chuba Okadigbo as President of the Senate, I submit that I have always cast my gaze to the role he played some twenty years ago when he was part and parcel of the choice we were forced to make. What better answer can emerge from him then than that silence is the answer for a fool when he was recently asked whether he was involved n the plan to remove the Senate President from office.
How can he be part of this enterprise when he worked for strengthening institutions that would make democracy, the type we were made to choose work? No, he can’t. He won’t.
(Published in Vol. 1 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 75-78; Lagos, 2003).