Thursday, July 3, 2014 8:29 pm
Full text of a lecture delivered at the first Freedom House lecture in Lagos on 30 June, 2014
I would like to begin by thanking Governor Asiwaju Bola Tinubu for the honor of his invitation to deliver this lecture, and for his record of developmental performance during eight years as Governor of this dynamic state. Because Nigeria has largely squandered staggering natural resource wealth and human potential over more than half a century of independence, there is a chronic tendency here and abroad to see its national prospect asnearly hopeless. But Nigeria is not condemned to suffer endemic corruption, waste, ineptitude, and insecurity. These are the products of deficient institutions and a culture that has grown up around them. People make institutions. People produce and reproduce cultural norms and expectations. And people can change them.
I was interested to discover that Governor Tinubu and I are of the same generation, born a few months apart. Around the time he first visited the United States I first visited Nigeria.At similar points in our lives, though from very different perspectives, we have seen the promise of democracy in Nigeria swell and recede. We have seen the military come and go from government.We saw the Second Republic gasp for breath and then collapse under the weight of unchecked political greed and staggering fraud in the 1983 elections. We have seen military rule bring this country to nearly total ruin, and along the way, arrest and imprison the man elected, under its very auspices in 1993, with a broad popular mandate to fix the mess. We saw that man, M.K.O. Abiola, die needlessly and almost certainly avoidably in prison. We both then watched from outside Nigeria while the worst tyrant in Nigerian history, General Sani Abacha, took plunder and abuse of power to unimaginable depths.
At this time of growing disaffection with the performance of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, it is important that all Nigerians—even young Nigerians who have no memory of those days of dread and depravity—appreciate this lesson of their own history, and that of other countries: However troubled the national situation may become, however scandalous or inept may be the performance of elected government, there is no hope of reform or renewal under military rule. The core problem of Nigeria today is the chronic deficit of honest and effective governance. We have learned in Nigeria, and in Pakistan, and in Thailand, and in so many other countries around the world: There is no military shortcut to governance reform. The challenge lies with the civilian institutions and actors of democracy: parties, politicians, legislators, judges, civil servants, and civil society. Like all other elements of the Nigerian state, security institutions—the military, police, intelligence—are in need of reform and modernization, including significant investment in training and equipment for the challenges they confront. But it is the civilian political actors who must summon the will, the strategy, the resources, and the credibility to lead this process.
Like most Nigerians, I am worried about the future of constitutional government in this country. I have been asked to speak about the challenge posed to democracy by poverty and terrorism in Nigeria. But the core problem in Nigeria is not one of poverty. Neither is it one of terrorism. These are manifestations of a deeper and more diffuse malignancy: bad governance. Governance that is not addressing the central policy challenges of the country. Governance that has produced a weak and feckless state. Governance that is not producing an effective response to the growing challenge of terrorism, and that many Nigerians believe lacks the will to do so. Governance that cannot distinguish between the public trust and the private treasury. Governance that has seen, by some estimates, public officials and their co-conspirators steal and wastehundreds of billions of dollars of the country’s wealth over the last several decades.
The phenomenon of Boko Haram and the violent, nihilistic rampage it has been on represent only one symptom of the problem, and it is not an unfamiliar one in Nigeria. During the late 1970s and early 1980s another violent religious millenarian movement, led by Maitatsine and emerging out of the very same northeastern state from which Boko Haram has sprung, wrought havoc on the north, leading to several thousand deaths. When I was teaching at Bayero University, Kano, in the last year of the Second Republic, I was struck by the depth of inequality and poverty, and the hunger of ordinary talakawa not just for jobs, services, and basic goods, but most of all, for simple justice. That is the hope that the People’s Redemption Party, founded by Mallam Aminu Kano, represented. It was at the heart of the polarizing struggle that led to the impeachment and removal of Governor Balarabe Musa in Kaduna State. And toward the end of the Second Republic, in the 1983 national elections, even some of the more technocratic and progressive elements of the northern establishmenthad come to see the need to rein in the feeding frenzy of corruption under the ruling party, the NPN, and deliver better governance. This is why elements of that group took what was for them the difficult step of forging an alliance with the principal opposition presidential candidate, Obafemi Awolowo, giving him his vice-presidential candidate.
After spending a year in Nigeria teaching and researching in 1982-83, two things had become clear to me as the national elections approached in August of 1983. The first was the desperate need for better governance, and for fair and honest elections to bring them about. Second, related to this, was my sense that, even after the death of Mohammed Marwa (Maitatsine) in 1980 and then the bloody clashes with and suppression of the Yan Tatsine movement in the following years, the North was going to erupt again into some kind of violent insurrection, mobilizing the symbols and rhetoric of radical Islam, if there was not progress toward development, social justice, and thus more accountable and purposeful governance.
I cannot emphasize enough how important free and fair elections are to the struggle for peaceful reform. As the Second Republic was completing its first term in 1983, the country was falling apart. The landscape was littered with abandoned construction projects—buildings, roads, water projects, anything on which a politically connected contractor could collect a mobilization fee and leave the work behind. Clinics were without drugs, schools were without teachers and supplies, and the national electric power authority, NEPA, had long since been nicknamed “Never Expect Power Again”. There were pervasive shortages of essential commodities like rice and fuel because of hoarding, profiteering, and smuggling by venal politicians and middlemen.
Nigerians were fed up. They looked to the 1983 elections as their last hope for change. What they got instead over five weeks was a grotesque, escalatingcascade of electoral highway robbery. This was fraud on a wholesale level, with not only all the established tricks of ballot box stuffing and hijacking, but the purchase of electoral officers, the capture of counting operations, and in many instances, the pure invention of election “results.
No one can know what the outcome of an honest election would have been in 1983, but I believe it is very unlikely that the NPN ticket met the constitutional requirements for a first-ballot victory. As election-day neared, there was a groundswell of support for Chief Awolowo, even in parts of the North. The country appeared on the brink of a historic breakthrough. Had there been a run-off election, I believe Chief Awolowo would have won. Electoral alternation could have provided the opportunity for a turn toward reform and better governance. Surely it would have signaled to Nigerians that civilian constitutional rule was capable of punishing gross abuse of power—in other words, that civilian rule was democratic and could hold elected officials accountable. At a minimum, the ruling party would have suffered severe setbacks in all of the other national and state elections. Instead, after the gigantic, brazen electoral fraud, Nigerians concluded that the system was rotten and political change was not possible through peaceful, constitutional means.
If there had been an honest and fair election in 1983, I do not believe there would have been a military coup. The country could have been spared thescarring 15-year detour of authoritarianism, assassination, fear, and corruption on a Pharoahnic, Mobutu-like scale. Indeed, if there had been an honest election in 1964, it is likely that the chronic instability of the First Republic could have begun to be corrected through peaceful, legitimate means. Then, Nigeria could have avoided the first military coup in January 1966, and the tragic counter-coup and slide to civil war that followed.
Think of how different Nigeria’s modern history would have been if it could simply have held free and fair elections. Compare Nigeria for a moment with another former British colony that is also a complex agglomeration of peoples, cultures, and languages: India. India has a huge number of problems, and it has seen a disturbing acceleration of corruption over the last decade. There is no question that corruption and inefficiency have retarded economic growth and human development in India. But India has a serious state, and it has constructed a formidably honest and efficient apparatus for administering elections. The result has been 67 years of continuous civilian rule, and a record of stable, federal democracy interrupted only briefly by Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. Just last month, the ruling party, the Indian National Congress, got thrashed in parliamentary elections. Its electoral alliance went from 37% of the vote in 2009 to 19 percent last month. As a result, the Congress Party lost nearly 80% of the seats it held in parliament. So thoroughly routed was this party of India’s founding leaders that it did not even win ten percent of the seats, and thus cannot constitute an official opposition in parliament. By contrast, the opposition BJP, which promised better and more decisive governance, won an outright majority in parliament—the first time this has happened in 30 years.