Comrades-in-arms in the embattled field of the Nigerian nation space, welcome.
You will immediately observe that I do not refer to the space whose passports a number of you carry by the brief name by which it is deceptively known – that is – Nigeria. That is deliberate, and is meant to indicate that we are going straight into business. Some may consider it provocative – I am beyond arguments on such issues, having thrashed them out in numerous lectures, the most recent being on the occasion of the commemoration of the 100th posthumous birthday of the late political sage, Obafemi Awolowo, who had also referred to this place we inhabit as a mere geographical expression.
Those who fail to see in such pronouncements a challenge to strive and make that ‘geographical expression’, that mere ‘nation space’, into something approaching a nation, are welcome to maintain their stance. We shall not indulge in pointless distractions. We shall not even engage ourselves in the question whether or not what passes for a Nigerian nation today is actually built on democratic principles – it is sufficient to ensure that these questions continue to hover in some space around our heads through efforts that we all undertake – efforts such as this – to establish modalities, not only for the creation of a true nation, but for the transformation of nationhood into a democratic sanctuary for all her citizens.
My duty today is to welcome you all. It is also necessary however to clarify, in response to numerous enquiries, the purpose of this gathering, This is not – I repeat – not a political rally. It is simply a convention, the inaugural convention, of the Democratic Front for a People’s Federation. It is therefore an internal affair of the DFPF, to which of course, you, the observers, the bored, or the curious are more than welcome. In that spirit of a family fellowship may I therefore request all of you to join me in honouring two founding members of the party who have since left us since the first gathering in Benin, Edo State in 2002. One was Beko Ransome-Kuti. He was present with us on that day. The other, Chima Ubani was not, but remained a fervent collaborator from inception. Please rise for a minute’s silence in their memory. May they remain vibrant and combative in our memories.
I shall begin by thanking all those – the Council of Nigerian Political Parties most especially – who, despite the refusal of the ironically named Independent National Electoral Commission to register this party, then led by that Unregistered and Incorruptible Electoral Genius, Maurice Iwu, consistently invited the DFPF to their deliberations throughout its five years of ‘unofficial’ existence. We ensured that a representative always honoured their invitations, thus providing an important dimension to the meaning of political life and the various means by which potential contribution to the political life of a people can be harnessed. In other words, it answered the question whether political parties exist solely for the purpose of elections or can function as another civic platform that moulds, even without standing corporately for elections, the democratic character of a people. After all, the immediate spur to the creation of the party was an awareness of a need to open up a direct front for a confrontation with the ambitions of the then incumbent president who, it had become clear, had embarked on a desperate bid to subvert the constitution – such as it was! – and grant himself a third term in office, which we all knew meant a Robert Mugabe imposition on the nation. Let me use this opportunity again to felicitate all those who rose against that imminent peril, including members of the legislative houses. It was a narrow escape, and it reminds us that human freedom, which includes the right of citizens to freely choose their leaders, is constantly under threat and requires unending vigilance.
The DFPF has come fully into the lists to continue its mission of vigilance and intervention, not simply to contest political positions but to stay at the forefront of the watchdogs of democracy. I wish to emphasize that function, and it is clearly meant both as a warning, and an exhortation.Above all, the DFPF is a party for frustrated youth and uncomfortable ideas. It is an EXPERIMENT – capital letters – an EXPERIMENT that directly challenges those who grumble that there is no platform, no springboard from which they can provoke the political arena with fresh and innovative ideas. The DFPF is a Question Mark gouged into the landscape, a question that reads: is it really impossible to have a voice unless you are swimming in billions? Are we saying that only moneybags shall inherit the earth? Forget the ‘meek’ of christian theology – they may inherit heaven, but never the earth. But what of the simply impecunious? A famous British wit, asked by the border Customs if he had anything to declare, replied: ‘Only my genius’. Am I being told that the conveniently by-passed genius of this nation space cannot begin to organize from scratch, armed only with the innate gifts of the mind, chase out the decadent Moneybags and reclaim their earth? I, personally, seek an answer. If that answer is No, they cannot, then so be it. However, let no one ever dare complain that at no time was there an attempt to create an aperture, however narrow, through which they could infiltrate, re-group, then charge! Other nations have demonstrated what can be done with virtually nothing. Do not tell me that a nation of the Internet Advanced Fee Fraud, now notorious world-wide as 419 cannot produce its obverse, armed with nothing more than organizational skills, and a sprinkling of kobo from their own pockets, to rescue the nation from the political 419ers. Let technology be turned to public good, instead of its present corruption that turns an industrious people into the pariahs of the world.
Now I readily admit that there can be a glut of parties on the political landscape, leading to such a congestion that it is no longer possible to see the trees for the forest. That is the nature of political life, and we do know that, sooner or later, saplings grow into sturdy trees and emerge into sunlight, while the parasitic and purposeless clutter withers away, its shallow roots drying up in the soil. What is pernicious is to deny the young saplings a chance to prove their resilience and surviving powers. Democracy was never meant to be cheap. However, as this nation has learnt the painful way, dictatorship is even costlier. Most expensive and sterile of all however is kleptocracy, which has distinguished much of the governance of this nation for over half a century, characterising both military and civilian rule. The marriage of these two forms of kleptocracy – kleptocratic dictatorship on the one hand and democratic kleptocracy on the – other is the most monstrously expensive union of all. It is also sterile, cynical and compulsively brutal.
And yet there are alternatives. But who decides what system of governance is most appropriate for a people? Only the people themselves. Not a departing colonial force, not a substitute internal force of colonialism, such as the military. Only when the people themselves, through their authentically elected representatives, signal their preferred system of governance and its modalities, can we begin to state that a democratic path is being trodden. The next question is obvious: who bequeathed to this nation the electoral system that is being practised today? Yes indeed, there has been some tinkering with it, some window dressing, that much must be conceded, but the military fabricated the scaffolding that still holds it up, and until that is dismantled, we cannot claim that we have begun the true journey towards self-rule.
For instance, what is the origin of the imposition of conditions in the acceptability formula for political parties? The Military of course. And what was the alleged purpose? To foster unity. And the plausibility ratio? Zero. The sum of such exercise? The denial of civic rights to the poor but committed, and the further empowerment of the rich but cynical. Augmentation of their ability to re-cycle themselves over and over again. The vicious cycle is guaranteed perpetuity – steal, use the proceeds to return to power, use power to steal some more, use the increased proceeds to return to power, then again…..and so on and on until society is battered into a permanent state of stupor, and the now unstoppable reprobates feel sufficiently confident to annunciate a One-Party rule by the ‘will of the people’, and the top dog is installed Life Mentor and Guide of a prostrate citizenry.
Here now is a contrasting governance model. A party declares itself committed to a specific programme, its severely limited resources geared towards that programme, one that can be effected within a small locality but may serve as a model for emulation by the rest of the nation. From the beginning, it declares itself disinterested in the overall national scene – at least for now. After taking control in – shall we say? – one state, one local government, one ward, it begins to reach out, through example, to others, gradually evolving a network of civic rule that governs and performs through mutual collaboration. There are political parties all over the world which pursue this model. If you think, for instance, that there are no political parties in the United Kingdom beside Conservative, Labour and Liberal, you had better go study that scene more carefully. There exist functioning political parties whose manifesto consists of nothing more than the greening of England, and whose field of activities is no larger than one local government in the smallest state of this nation space. Are we saying that an electoral system that accommodates such parties is not feasible in a political environment, especially one in need of drastic transformation such as this nation space?
All that should be required of such a party is a delimitation of its field and space of activities. Given the huge, monstrously huge outlay on the electoral exercise in this nation, I fail to accept that it is impossible. Under a Federal structure especially, there is no excuse. INEC must move forward and make it possible for a party to limit itself even to activities within one state, one local government. Anything less merely reminds us that a policy of exclusion still reigns in national thinking, and this is antithetical to the fundamentals of true democracy.
There is much, a lot to be said for a political party that conserves and focuses its energy on demarcated areas. If there had been one such, one whose energies were not dissipated over a wide swathe of intractable terrain with a plethora of variegated issues, some self-cancelling, each of which requires a specialized strategy that is attuned to the specific area, the shameful siege and sack of Anambra, the enthronement of godfather politics of thuggery aided and abetted from the very pinnacle of power, may never have occurred. If there had been a state- focused political opposition party, Anambra’s variant in Oyo state, where a self-declared king of thugs sacked the legislature, put its members to flight and took over the governance process, would perhaps never have been thought of, since a political party is based on public will, supervision and participation. Again, that disgraceful episode took place with the full connivance of the the centralist incumbent of Aso Rock, whose party chairman declared in loud and clear terms that the people of Oyo state should consider themselves inmates of a garrison and thus learn to obey their garrison commander, a notorious baron of thugs and enforcers. The opposition was in disarray, is energies scattered in trying to maintain a presence throughout the wide expanse of the nation space, subjugated under a centralist control. Unity? Let us back away from this outworn, hypocritical cant and its conniving system. Centralization is the doom of true democracy.
But I must not forget the most recent contribution – from my own state Ogun, described by someone at a recent press conference as a state that has produced ‘the best, the bad, and the baddest’. A well entrenched opposition party, focused on governance issues in the immediate, would have mobilized by now and swung into action to stymie the current rape of democracy, where a minority sneaked into the legislative chambers in the early hours of the morning, sacked the absent majority and proceeded to pass a number of bills at a record pace. There were no ordinary bills. One of them had been a subject of passionate contention that moved beyond the borders of Ogun State to become a national concern. The governor of that state was so sure of his grounds, so certain of the rightness of his cause that he challenged opposition voices to a debate on television on that very issue. That opposition accepted the challenge and the nation awaited the event with bated breath. Then, guess what? The party of the government position swung into preventive action. Mind you, it must be conceded that this was an improvement on both Anambra and Oyo states. They did not invade with armed thugs and arsonists – oh no, my state is extremely sophisticated and civilized. It was, you might say, a bloodless coup. No bones were broken, no fires were lit, no vehicles smashed or buildings destroyed. Just as with those other exemplars, they had a subverted police as accomplices in inaction. The police did not simply sit on their hands however, they sealed up the legislative chambers to ensure that the majority could not assemble and unscramble the devilish work of a handful.
Let the nation understand the full import of this deed. Under the presumed legality and protection of what purports to be decisions of the law-making chamber, the executive is now empowered to conduct the promised debate on its own terms – alone. By itself. A silent monologue, but one that is manifested in the execution of those bills that have been allegedly passed without debate, be it a debate in the legislative chambers or in the promised public arena. Let us simply say, to revert to our earlier premise, such conduct would have been a little more difficult, slowed down in fomentation, were it confronted by a more locality-focused political arm of restraint, and intervention.
The declared goal of national unity in the current centralist frame of politics and governance has thus fostered nothing but disunity but, most distressing of all – impunity. Civic energy is unequitably restrained, and the power of dictation handed over, without constraints, to the will of an insatiable engorgement centre. From electoral practice to the very constitutional terms of association is only one leap into a more egregious fraud. A nation that lacks the courage to collectively interrogate and intervene fundamentally in an imposed constitution is a fraud unto itself, in political terms, a non-entity. It lacks pride, has forsworn civic dignity, or else is part of the conniving forces against itself, which of course is indicative of satisfaction in short-term gains. The DFPF has a responsibility to contest this gross act of public indecency that actually commenced in a show of coyness. You do recall, I hope, that the constitution was so coy that it never presented its shape or form to the people, not even when the nation trooped out to vote.
The constitution was so shy, so inhibited, that she stayed hidden between the military bed-sheets until the act of rape was transformed into consenting consumation. The progeny of that fornication are with us today – militricians everywhere, manipulated into all sensitive positions where they preside over a now rampaging orgy of incontinence, unelected and proud of it. Their civilian partners and beneficiaries are of course content.
How can people of conscience and a sense of self-worth continue to wallow in the obscenity of the present take-home pay of the average legislator? Is this just? Is this decent? Just what does this nation produce that it presumes to sustain such a bloated caucus of legislative leeches? The treasury groans. Public services are under heart seizure. Institutions are pauperized and degraded, the gutters run with filth while the legislators run with the money. How is it possible that a people refuse to insist that they sit together no matter how, and demand of themselves: is this system the best for us? Can this putative nation afford a pack of full-time legislators?
Centralism masquerades as Federalism, and under Centralism, all crimes are possible, all diseases fumigated. A number of more advanced nations survive with part-time law-givers. The nation is progressively sucked dry, while a minority is so lubricated that they slip out of grasp when their hands are caught in the till, elbows deep. Let this party resolve to overturn the iniquitous arrangement by which the ‘national cake’ is swallowed entire by those whose appointed task is to serve their employers – that is, the sovereign electorate.
We are living a nightmare. Once, it was sufficient to prepare oneself against rampaging armed robbery. Now the casual wayfarer has to confront a now proliferating menace – kidnapping. On the roads, in homes, in places of worship and most recently even hostels, the menace is ever present. Five National Service Corps members, all female, were kidnapped only last week, and the event has already slipped from the front pages of newspapers. A human sensibility towards horrors and daily degradation is blunted. The nation is becoming inured to a daily routine of brutish existence where the once unthinkable, the unacceptable, has become the norm.
These, and other social anomalies, will occupy the creative minds of the committed of this new party and their associates until the full transformation, the re-humanization of the nation. Now what should be the modus operandi of the party towards the attainment of this goal?
First, there must be no question of a purist isolationism – that way lies atrophy and death. There are parties whose manifestoes, written or unwritten, are very much in the spirit of the DFPF’s. There should be close collaboration with such parties on a pragmatic, purpose directed manner. There should be constant consultations with them, and even a joint programme of political activities wherever possible. Mutual criticism there must be, but conducted as far as possible, internally, and constructively. Dissent, where public, must be couched in accents of rational discourse, not acerbic condemnation.
Next, there are individuals who, by force of circumstances, have strayed into disreputable parties with whose non-programmes there are simply no areas of convergence. Such individuals must be targeted and weaned away wherever possible, shown where they truly belong. It cannot be an overnight process and thus, no overnight conversion should be expected. Measured arguments are a stronger weapon than strident denunciation.
Within this category, there are also elected members who were encouraged to stand elections on other political platforms, since the DFPF was not registered and they ran the risk of losing their constituencies. Such individuals must be soberly informed that there is now a home to which they should return. You may find that their constituencies have become enamoured of the temporary association they have formed and will not even hear of their departure. Again, the skills of persuasion become essential, not accusations of betrayal. The party must treat each such obstacle on a case-by-case basis, know where to be persistent and where to cut their losses.
No skills of persuasion are needed however towards candidates or parties that comport themselves as enemies of the people. Identify where they are weak, cultivate the electorate and take them head on. It is the electorate on whom the skills of persuasion are needed. Conserve your energies. Use your scanty resources judiciously by going after those constituencies that are clearly hungry for change and cry to be relieved of unwanted encumbrances. Form local alliances with like-minded parties and be prepared to bargain over political turf, yielding ground only where a frank, objective assessment indicates that the other has a more popular and enduring following. Do not be afraid to yield to popular will. It is indeed honorable and productive to do so.
Scrutinize the credentials of elected individuals who however wish to part company with their present political parties. Defection is two-edged. There is defection on principle, there is defection for opportunism. DFPF should not be a rubbish-bin for the rejects of other parties but should even take pains to woo those who have demonstrated a progressive commitment beyond the political ideology of their present parties.
There are numerous other situations that task membership, demanding other sets of responses. some of them cannot be advertised openly but will feature in the special political clinics that will be run by the appropriate organ of the DFPF.
Last, but certainly not the least, the resource list of natural allies includes professional societies, civil society organizations, especially those involved in Human Rights. Every opportunity should be seized to become involved in their mission, every one of their constituencies inundated with this partisan option that is so radically different from nearly all others. The DFPF is the party of the future, but with this difference in general time apprehension – the future is very much upon this nation. The hour for you all is – NOW.
Convener, Democratic Front for a People’s Federation