Dictatorship, National Dialogue and the Commonwealth


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Dictatorship, National Dialogue and the Commonwealth



G.A. Akinola



culled from the GUARDIAN, February 21, 2005


A basic responsibility of all governments is maintenance of peace and order. This duty has been considerably enlarged in the modern state, including dictatorships, to comprehend the welfare of the people, or the "public good". There was in fact a time when regional governments in this same country strove to provide medicare, education, and basic amenities. Nigerians were then, by and large, a happy, decent people. Then along came the military rulers. They destroyed the economy, wiped out the middle class, and created a predatory military elite. They also debased values. The hoi polloi, like their rulers, became vicious and disdainful of scruples, since survival became the main object of existence.

A major explanation for the ravages of military dictatorship was its lack of accountability. Nobody dared question how top military officers became shipping magnates and business tycoons, or acquired vast landed estates. Nor could the people avert the destruction of the federal constitution or the parcelling of the country into ever-increasing fiefs in the name of states creation. Today, five years into civilian administration, Nigeria is still practically a dictatorship in which a retired military elite, under their current leader, President Obasanjo, holds the country virtually as a privatised patrimony. But it is a "dictatorship" that cannot even guarantee peace and stability.

A preoccupation of the Obasanjo "dictatorship" and of its allies is thus stability, which it equates with preserving the status quo. It is this predilection for the current iniquitous order that defines the ruling elite's idea of patriotism. Ironically, it is the regime itself that, from time to time, heats up the polity through its ruinous economic measures and through its incompetence and abuse of state power. However civil society, including labour and pro-democracy organisations, has taken up the struggle to focus attention on the people's aspirations, as well as on the need for a popular forum at which to deliberate on the national-question issues that are at the bottom of the country's diverse problems.

But then Obasanjo seems to have set himself against the people's aspiration for a little happiness now, offering instead promises of a blissful future that is forever receding. It is also clear that Obasanjo views a radical approach to solving the country's multifarious problem as unpatriotic, since he seems to be under the illusion that he must be the only patriotic Nigerian alive. Unfortunately, the president's patriotism cannot be differentiated from his inordinate pursuit of power and its spoils; from his real estates and business ventures across the country; or from his self-interest and prodigious ego. It is this self-interest and ego, plus a sublime ignorance of his now well-known limitations, that explains his inability to see that Nigeria is in a bad state, and that it needs to be redesigned.

We already know from his interminable inflation-generating hikes in fuel prices that Obasanjo cares little for mass privation. Thus, in spite of his hypocritical display of indignation following his "discovery" that the poor pay more for kerosene than is charged for petrol, he has failed to rectify this anomaly. The question, then, is, does he recognise a commonweal above his individual or class interests? The extent of knavery, criminality and corruption that he can condone in his patrons, cronies and the high and mighty (unless they are dead); the set-back which, under his regime, the fraudulent 2003 elections inflicted on Nigeria's prospects of instituting a democratic political culture; and the additional damage to higher education through the interested policy decision to allow moneybags to establish educational commercial ventures, which they call universities, all imply that personal, class, and related considerations override the public good in the president's valuation.

It is the unwillingness of Obasanjo to confront those issues fundamental to the country's recurrent crises that represents the starkest illustration of the president's attitude to the commonweal, however. For over a decade there has been constant pressure on the government to facilitate a conference of Nigerian peoples for the purposes of renegotiating the terms of their association, and for correcting the distortions in the country's federal structure. Regardless of these problems' potential danger to the polity as long as they are not addressed, Obasanjo has maintained that as "sovereign" imperial ruler, he alone, along with his rubber-stamp National Assembly, has the people's mandate to deal with such issues, even as more and more people warned that the country was drifting perilously towards an abyss. Then, as if to demonstrate how whimsical and lacking in commitment his position on public issues could be, the president eventually unveiled his enigmatic plans for a "dialogue" by Nigerians.

For those who are familiar with a moral-cum-intellectual ambiguity in Obasanjo's actions, there is every reason to suspect his true intentions. He has, since assuming office, been vehemently hostile to the idea of a national conference. Initial indications were thus of a hurried scheme contrived to stop pro-democracy groups from organising their own alternative conference. For a major policy volte-face of this magnitude, there were no official explanations outlining the objective and the rationale of the conference, or its role in our tortuous, arduous plodding along the path to stability and nationhood. Moreover, as legal experts have pointed out, there is no enabling law to ensure that the president's "dialogue" would not, like the report of the Oputa Commission, end up as a nullity.

Are these omissions then due to the incompetence for which the Obasanjo regime has become a by-word, or are they another instance of toying with the collective destiny of Nigerians? By deciding that delegates to his national "dialogue" are to be nominated, the president has shown that he is hoping to have a conference which he can influence or perhaps control like his largely selected National Assembly. However, judging by the state of things in the country today, especially the depth of feeling of injustice about what is seen in certain quarters as an exploitative system or a latter-day, albeit local, colonial rule, and the genuine apprehension that the survival of the country may be in peril, it is unlikely that most delegates will want to be the mouthpiece of a regime that is so tragically bereft of useful ideas on how to arrest the current decadence and set the country on a course towards recovery.

Granted that there are bound to be delegates who believe that the interest of their peoples are best served by working against a genuine reform of the status quo; but for such people and groups, and indeed for the president, who is the most powerful conservative, not to say reactionary, force in Nigerian politics today, the genie is out of the bottle. Whether or not Obasanjo or his patrons want a review of our skewed, decadent and crisis-prone "federation", there is ultimately little they can do to stymie popular aspirations in favour of that review.

The Nigerian situation is somewhat like that of France in the late 18th century when King Louis XVI was forced to summon the States-General, which had not met for generations, to deal with pressing political, social and constitutional issues. From that point onwards, events assumed a momentum of their own, and escalated into the first major historic upheavals of modern times. Of course one is not suggesting that a revolution is in the offing in Nigeria. Yet one can visualise a situation in which some groups, in their bid to frustrate popular aspirations for change, decide to wreck the conference. If that happens, there may well be trouble, for which Obasanjo will have to accept responsibility. For he could have used his considerable power and authority before now to enlighten all and sundry that it is in our collective interest to deal with those issues that are at the roots of our backwardness and instability, if only he had made the commonweal, that is public good, the object of his duty as president of Nigeria.

bulletAkinola teaches history at the University of Ibadan


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