PRESIDENT OBASANJO'S ADDRESS ON 3RD ANNIVERSARY OF DEMOCRACY DAY
MAY 29, 2002
FELLOW Nigerians, it gives me much joy and satisfaction to address you on this
third anniversary of our country's return to civil rule.
It has been three years in which the challenges were often daunting and the
choices often difficult to make. Let me salute all of you for the sacrifices
you have had to make, at one time or the other, to demonstrate your abiding
faith in the unity and future of the country.
Three years ago to this day, I spoke the hearts and minds of all Nigerians on
the exciting and humbling venture which we had set for ourselves in the
historic struggle to enthrone a lasting democratic system. Our heads were held
high, our spirits higher, and our enthusiasm to turn our nation around knew no
We had come through a most horrendous and debilitating negation of all
democratic values, and many Nigerians had paid dearly, even making supreme
sacrifices, to bring that nightmare to an end.
May 29, 1999, was the triumph of every Nigerian, and we had every reason to
expect that it would translate into major qualitative changes in our lives.
Today, three years from those heady days, our nation, in spite of hitches, can
reasonably be said to be irrevocably placed on the path of democratic
governance. And the entire journey has been full of lessons which, if learnt
properly, could be of immeasurable value to the future.
In fact, I believe that we have good reason today, to be confident of that
Our citizens have found their voices again, and their freedoms to raise those
voices against injustices and transgressions. Our people are now rid of the
perennial fear of unlawful treatment by self-imposed leaders.
Our institutions are coming to life again. Our factories are gradually, but
surely, waking up from their long, involuntary slumber. Our schools are now
staying open much longer than before. Our teachers are teaching. Our hospitals
are becoming less the theaters of death. No Nigerian citizen is restricted in
his freedom of movement, speech, or assembly. Our courts are busy again, a
clear indication that the Republic is alive and well, and that its citizens
are prepared to do what they must, to defend the rights they have won through
their own determination and will.
The world has welcomed us back with open arms, and removed the crippling
stigma and restrictions against our nation, which over the years, served to
compound our internal problems. We have established standards of conduct, to
curb the abuses that in the past had become integral parts of leadership in
our nation. We have initiated and executed policies and programmes to seek to
reverse the decaying trend in our national economy and social institutions.
And we have made and reviewed laws to reinforce the goals of national
We have introduced prudence and responsibility in the management of national
resources, and with the amounts we carefully conserved, the three tiers of
government have done more in terms of real development than many previous
governments have done in twice the time we have been in government.
But, perhaps the greatest dividend of our democratic system is that it is
still here for us to live under, learn from, and improve upon. It will get
better. Because as Nigerians, we have no alternative to it. And by the grace
of God, we cannot allow the limitations and inadequacies manifested in the
last three years, threaten its very survival.
For those who are inclined to apply a measuring scale to count the benefits
and the value of our new democracy, these may seem to be small dividends,
indeed. But they do signify much more than is immediately visible to the eye.
For they indicate that the citizens of this country know, almost by instinct,
what constitutes good governance, what their lawful expectations should be,
and what those whom they have freely chosen to govern them must do, to sustain
But no matter what our individual views may be, concerning the extent to which
governments at all levels have succeeded, or failed, to provide for the
material well-being of our citizens, one thing remains constant and true: and
that is, we are never likely to achieve and sustain any measure of material
self-fulfilment, unless we first construct a political culture that is stable,
responsive, equitable, and based on the rule of law.
Everyone knows that we have tested the limits of democratic system in the last
three years on many fronts. Instead of taking full advantage of the limitless
opportunities which the rule of law and the freedom guaranteed by our
constitution, many have embarked on conflicts over every perceived grievance
which often bear no relation to our economic or social well being. We have
experienced contradictions among Nigerians who both believe that they are
entitled to the freedoms granted by democracy, and simultaneously, tend to use
those freedoms to curtail the freedoms of others.
Some of us have stretched the limits of our democratic system in the manner
they have conducted themselves in their elected offices. There have been
numerous skirmishes, many of them unbecoming of people entrusted with mandates
by the peoples, and most of them motivated more by egos than by steadfast
respect for constitutional provisions.
Many of us have drawn barriers to dialogue and compromise around themselves,
and thereby locked out reason and statesmanship in the conduct of their
personal and official lives. A number of us have set very low standards for
our people in terms of their responses to political stimuli such that there is
now fear of violence around every political activity.
Primordial groupings, disguised as cultural or regional associations have made
crippling inroads into the political arena, and are, at this very moment,
influencing the political direction of our nation without any responsibility
for their actions. Between the vacuum created by the failure of political
parties to set standards, give political direction and impose discipline, and
the confused and erratic signals which emanate from the primordial groupings,
many elected officials have set their own standards and determined their means
Oppositions frustrated by the survive-by-all-means strategy of elected
officials have also responded by adopting extra-legal means of ousting them.
An outcome of this situation, and one which we sadly live with today, is the
conspicuous deviation from standards of decency, and respect for law and order
by political leadership on all sides, and the recourse to organised violence
in pursuit of political goals.
No credible election can be conducted in an environment where fear,
intimidation and violence abound, and the people will not respect any
leadership, which emerges from such elections. Without credible elections,
there is no credible democratic system, and all democracies have breaking
limits, beyond which anarchy, unending and pervasive violence and even
national disintegration, are the only outcomes.
Fellow Nigerians, the scenario I have described is familiar to all of us, and
I know that it worries all of us, leaders and citizens alike. But it is
necessary, on this important anniversary of the triumphant reclamation of our
democratic legacy, that we take a realistic stock, assess the journey so far,
and examine what the future portends.
It is for this reason that I confess to some uneasiness today, concerning the
disturbing signals that abound around us. I have absolutely no doubt that, in
time, Nigeria will become a prosperous country. I am certain that, in time,
our roads and hospitals will work as they should, our power and water will be
constant, our children will graduate from school and be certain of gainful
employment, our cities and rural areas will be free of violent hoodlums, and
there will be enough food at affordable prices for everyone. I have absolutely
no doubt about this.
What worries me as I speak to you today, and as we approach the coming
elections, is the pervasive pessimism in the land. There seems to be a general
feeling that we, as a free people, are incapable of conducting elections that
can be judged by all to have been free, fair and successful. It is said that
the two major democratic elections that we have held in the last twenty-three
years, since 1979, have been conducted under the severe supervision of
soldiers. It is said, also, that the only election conducted during the same
period, with a civilian government in power, in 1983, was a veritable
disaster, and this seemed to have repeated the earlier electoral experience of
There are doubts everywhere concerning the readiness or willingness of our
present day political elites to play by the rules. It is a sad commentary of
our conduct in the past that Nigerians live more in fear of violence than
excitement at the opportunity to exercise a choice in who governs them. It is
even sadder still that many Nigerians are fast losing faith that future
elections will allow them to exercise genuine choices, and many will be
consigned to the role of paid voters or paid thugs as their only contributions
to the electoral process.
We are told there are "experts" in these matters who sadly derive pride from
their so-called skill in transforming obviously criminal behaviour into a
dubious civic virtue. They are said to be capable of converting campaign stone
into electoral bread. They are adept at inflating voters' registers, with a
view to filling them subsequently with ghost names. They are professionals in
ballot stuffing, and in the manipulation of genuine election results. They fan
ethnic and religious prejudices and insist that no sensible citizen may aspire
to political office without a huge war chest brimful of often ill-gotten
money, or without a private army of hoodlums whose duty is to enforce the will
of their paymasters on the electorate.
For such men and women, programmes and policies are meaningless. Knowledge,
intelligence and experience are irrelevant. To these men and women, the
contest for the support of the electorate is not to be based on the ideas of
the contestants for office, or on their ability to persuade their fellow
citizens that they can make a genuine difference if voted into office or on
their track record. Instead, they thrive on the basest and lowest forms of
sentiment, and hold the view that the only thing that matters in an election
is victory, no matter how it is achieved. And in the end, it is victory to
serve interest of self or a clique, and not victory for the service of the
The end result of this sub-culture of deceit and cynicism is that it makes
nonsense of all the principles and values which we all cherish. It exposes us
to the ridicule of the civilised world. It creates the misleading impression
that we as a people have not reached the age of maturity, and cannot be
trusted to govern ourselves, without supervision by the military. And it
ultimately destroys the very basis of democratic rule, which has always been
that at appropriate intervals, the people must have the right to freely choose
those who will govern them.
Fellow Nigerians, I totally reject this view of politics, and I know that a
great majority of Nigerians do as well. I am convinced that this great country
has a large number of men and women of integrity, vision, and commitment who
do not have vast war chests or vast private armies, but who are prepared to
serve their country selflessly, if given a chance. These are the men and women
we should seek out and support. For it is through them that we can redeem
ourselves, and demonstrate to ourselves, and to the rest of the world, that
our commitment to democracy is strong and unshakable.
Nigeria must rise up to the requirements and expectations of her citizens and
the world. One very important way to achieve this speedily would be for us to
drastically reduce our inclinations and (not) allow our political behavior to
be unduly and dangerously influenced by ethnicity and religion.
Incumbents in political office at all levels must not see their current
positions as a permanent, God-given right which may not be challenged by other
citizens. They must be prepared, if they desire to be returned to office, to
go back to the electorate and show what they have contributed to the growth
and development of our country, and what they would do, if returned.
They must mobilise their constituents and encourage them to register as
voters. They must persuade them to discharge their civic duty of going to the
polls on election dates to exercise the most important right they possess,
which is the right to express an opinion on who they believe should govern
them. They must resist the temptation to see political office as an investment
from which they expect personal monetary returns. And they must actively
discourage the use of violence or the threat of violence as a means of
achieving victory at the polls.
As we approach elections, we should bear in mind that our Constitution and
electoral laws provide that political parties are the only instruments through
which citizens may canvass for votes. There is no room for independent
candidates. Consequently, this imposes a grave responsibility on our existing
political parties, and those that will be formed. The parties must see
themselves as the agents through, which the necessary discipline is imposed on
Fellow Nigerians, we stand at a major cross-road. The manner in which we
resolve the inherent disparities will determine the future of our politics.
This will be the most supreme test of our commitment to the survival of a
credible democratic system, and every Nigerian has a role to play in this
immediate task. Beyond the resolution of these immediate issues, the political
arena will now assume higher levels of activity, with the forthcoming local
government elections and general elections next year.
At the Presidential Retreat on the Electoral Process and Violence which was
held in Abuja early this year, all participants agreed that the most serious
threat to our democratic system is the entrenchment of violence in the
political process, and it was recommended that all leaders, including
political party leaders, immediately find solutions to it. Indeed, the Retreat
even explicitly traced most of the communal and religious conflicts we have
witnessed to cynical political manipulation by leaders to carve areas of
exclusive political control.
Regrettably, even low-level political events such as recent party ward
congress across the nation have manifested the seriousness of the threat of
violence, which is both a confirmation of the observation of that retreat, and
a major indictment of the political leadership in the country.
I am convinced that finding a solution to this specter represents one of the
biggest challenges facing our nation today. Political violence is the
manifestation of the worst form of corruption in a society, because it erodes
legitimacy and respect for governments, and citizens become cynical and
indifferent in their attitude to civic responsibilities and obligations. I am
also convinced that we can and must, find a solution to it immediately. In the
consultations I have had in the recent past, I found a huge reservoir of
support and goodwill among many Nigerians on the need to take some decisive
action in the area, and I intend to facilitate, along with my party, another
avenue where it will be tackled.
In this regard, I am pleased to note that the three existing parties have been
meeting to work out a joint code of conduct, with the necessary sanctions in
the event of its breach, that would guide the general conduct of party
members, during the campaigns and the coming elections. It is my hope that the
new parties will see the wisdom in this course of action, and voluntarily
participate in this effort.
In this context, I am pleased to announce that the National Assembly has been
presented with a Bill for a law intended to prohibit violence in the conduct
of our national politics. I have written to all party leaders about this Bill,
asking for their support and for them to encourage party members in the
National Assembly to consider it expeditiously and pass it into law. Among the
unique features of this Bill is the provision to compensate victims of
political violence by the resources of the perpetrators. Also, there is no
immunity from prosecution by virtue of holding elective office, since the Bill
provides for prosecution of such persons after the expiration of their terms
Fellow Nigerians, this is the time for us all to prove the cynics wrong and to
demonstrate that we in Nigeria do cherish our freedoms, freedoms that we have
earned through our sweat and blood. We must collectively show the world that
we do not need the intention of the military, nor of any other agency outside
our shores, to conduct elections that are manifestly free and fair in Nigeria.
We must prove, especially to ourselves, that incumbent civilian
administrations can indeed conduct elections in which they could be losers,
and that the highest and noblest objective in politics, must be the good of
the people, and not the convenience of those who govern.
Let me reiterate that while it is an obligation of governments to continue to
seek the material improvement of the lives of its citizens, we must not lose
sight of a far more fundamental duty of government, which is to provide
comfort for all the people, in an environment of equity, justice, fairness,
and adherence to law and regulations. It is impossible to speak of a climate
of collective material well-being, in the absence of a just political order.
Material development will come. But we have to be willing and able to achieve
it through political means that fully satisfies our commitment to freedom of
choice and of assembly.
Governments cannot, alone, bring this about. It is the obligation of all
citizens, men and women, the young and the old, to constantly strive to create
the political environment in which development can flourish. On this third
anniversary of the revival of our freedoms, and of our administration in
office, I invite you all, fellow compatriots, to join me in the patriotic task
of achieving, this time, what has so far eluded us in our democratic history:
free elections in which free citizens participate, and in which, without let
or hindrance, they freely choose who shall govern them. We, as individuals,
can never achieve this on our own. But together, and by the grace of God, we
shall surely triumph.
Now, a word on the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, otherwise
known as the Oputa Panel. That commission as you heard and saw yesterday, has
handed over the report of its nearly three years of fruitful work.
On behalf of myself, the federal, state and local governments and the people
of Nigeria, I want to once again thank the chairman and all the members of
that commission for doing a good job.
My decision to appear publicly before the commission was informed by my
personal belief that we must seek to clarify the past and find the ways of
moving forward, by making amends where and when necessary. It was motivated by
my belief that the commission was set up to help us come to terms with our
past and not to blackmail anyone. We are determined to carefully go through
the various recommendations made and see how best we can take on the
responsibilities that have been assigned to the agencies of government.
The Federal Government accepts the recommendation of the Commission that a
popular version of the Report will be made available for ordinary Nigerians to
make the human rights culture part of the lived experience of every Nigerian.
Furthermore, the Government will soon announce the membership of an
implementation committee, which will oversee the implementation of most of the
aspects of the recommendations, which tally with existing Government policies.
This committee will, among other things, liaise with the relevant ministries
to harmonise their views on how to make the Report available to Nigerians and
the international community, after the release of the White Paper by the
Also, mindful of the need to keep the nature of our struggles in the popular
mind, the Government is happy to accept the recommendation of the Commission
in respect of concrete efforts at immortalising our heroes and heroines. In
this regard, May 29 of each year will henceforth be Democracy and Human Rights
Day. I believe this annual reminder will enhance the attention given to human
rights. It will still remain a day of thanksgiving, reflection and
Fellow Nigerians, our freedom from the colonial yoke in 1960 marked the birth
of modern Nigerian nation. Since that time, the task of nation building has
entailed agony for a large number of Nigerians at various times. The tragic
civil war is an extreme example and a particularly painful illustration as
confirmed by the Commission, which observed that mere mention of this episode
evoked intense emotions from a wide segment of the society today, it is not
really important who, was right or who was wrong. The most significant point
would be for us to establish what is right and what is wrong, and live by the
principles that so derive from such awareness. Let us judge the sad episodes
of our history as phases of growing pains of our nation.
In fact, the broad picture of the Commission's findings is that in the course
of nation building, many things went wrong as communities turned against
communities, social groups against other social groups, religious groups
infringed on the rights of other religious groups, individuals impinged on the
rights and freedom of other individuals, political associations have been
violently intolerant of other political associations, and our national
institutions fought each other in battle for supremacy and control.
If we work from this broad picture, any attempt to chronicle transgressions in
our society and apportioning blame for them would reveal that history indicts
us all. Let us realise and fully appreciate that the greatness of our nation,
indeed of any nation, its unity and strength, are as resilient as the weakest
link in the chain. It is only natural that the perceived strongest chain,
which is the leadership of the day, gets the maximum blame for the
shortcomings of the society. But it is equally true as a Nigerian saying puts
it that it is the crooked tree that makes an amateur look like a professional
climber. This is a sad reminder of the observation. The truth here cannot be
entirely denied in our relationship with deviant and erring leaders who have
risen in our midst.
However, the findings of the Commission provide us with the opportunity to ask
ourselves some very fundamental questions relating to whatever sins or
omission and commission we may have committed as individuals and groups. This
is a situation where none of us can play the game of sitting on the fence by
using the defects of the system - out there - as excuse. We must admit that
the system is the sum total of our collective attitudes. In fact, we owe the
system an apology. The suffering of every victim is the suffering of the
society. The perpetrator of any violence and misdeed owes apology to the
individual victims, but ultimately to the nation as a whole.
When we draw the historical lines of transgression in our society, there are
the victims and the beneficiaries and there is no one in our society that
these lines do not cross, directly or indirectly, by omission or by
commission, or even by derivation such that all of us have in time either been
wronged or have wronged others.
For the nation's journey of restoration to commence in earnest, we must all
identify our roles in making Nigeria what it is today. At this moment in
history, I, as chief executive of the Federation, and being at the pinnacle of
leadership in the country, am prepared to accept that the proverbial buck of
the blames stops at my desk. I therefore wish to offer my full apology to all
Nigerians in general, and to direct victims in particular, for all misdeeds
and transgressions perpetrated in time and in the course of our evolution as a
nation and a society, which, by omission or commission, have caused
unwarranted suffering to individuals and groups alike, marred our
relationships within the society and retarded the progress and development of
For the sake of the living and the dead, let us put bitterness behind us and
ask God for mercy and forgiveness, so that we can walk tall as a people and a
nation. I call on all segments of the Nigerian society, from individual
members of families, communities, professional bodies, and indeed the entire
society, to embrace reconciliation and forgiveness.
I believe that this new chapter of peace and reconciliation should be set on a
special foundation. I am therefore calling on all Nigerians, irrespective of
their faiths, to embark on three days of prayer and lasting, beginning from
next Friday, the 31st of May, to Sunday the 2nd of June. Let our prayers focus
on forgiveness by God and forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation among
ourselves. Let us mark the experience of these three days as the beginning of
genuine spiritual regeneration, righteousness, reconciliation, love and
brotherhood in Nigeria.
May God bless each and every Nigerian!
May the Almighty bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
I thank you.