Sunday, 30 May 2010

Where is the Democracy?

Democracy Day is today, May 29. When the then President Olusegun Obasanjo created the day, there was euphoria in the air. Nigerians were glad to have civil rule in place. Quite understandably, expectations were high. After a long continuum of military rule, they hoped to have a say in who governed them - and how. With the people's representatives in executive positions and in the various parliaments, they looked forward to a better society, a better life. So Obasanjo's order that May 29 should be commemorated every year as the day on which Nigerians should ruminate solemnly on the civil governance couldn't have been faulted.

Ten years down the line, however, the question that arises is whether we have had our hope, our aspiration, our expectations realised. Your guess is as good as mine. A few days ago, the government advised us to mark this milestone in quietude and not to shout it on the rooftops. The government's spokesman added, probably for those who wish to exercise their democratic right in any extent possible, that if you still wish to scream about this day, you may well do so. It is your constitutional right. But he did not give reason why the "celebration" should be low-key. Yes, the nation has lost its leader recently. For many, the mourning is still ongoing, and for many others it is forever. But that is not the real reason for the government's saying that Democracy Day should be witnessed with a solemn restraint. There is really nothing to celebrate.

In answering the question whether we have harvested our dreams of democracy, we should begin by asking ourselves the purpose of democracy. For me, the whole purpose of democracy is that leaders should deliver on the promises they made when they begged us for votes. We did not give them power so that they could become more comfortable through lining their pockets or buying landed property. They are there in order to make us more comfortable.

But the reverse is the case in this country. As poverty and want increase manifold among the mass of the people, those in executive positions and in the parliaments become increasingly more comfortable. There is not much to show in terms of improvement in the life of the common man. The state of infrastructure in the country is appalling in spite of the mouth-watering contracts governments at local, state and federal levels dish out all the time. Unemployment has become the byword for school graduation. Health facilities are nearly absent as public hospitals continue to play their old role of consulting clinics. Any Nigerian who wants qualitative medical care has to seek it abroad. But how many Nigerians have the wherewithal to embark on medical tourism in Egypt, India, Europe or the United States?

Insecurity has more than doubled since 1999. Thousands of Nigerians have died in the hands of brigands and assassins, as well as in sectarian violence. Electricity supply is still a far cry from the promised goal. Promises made by our leaders to tackle other issues requisite for qualitative living - food, education, good roads, housing, human rights, etc. - are yet to be delivered. Why? Because the leaders would rather make themselves more comfortable than discharge their responsibilities to the electorate. Just this week a debate broke out over an alleged attempt by members of the House of Representatives to have their quarterly allowances upped from N27.2 million to N42 million each. Though the increase would have been illegal, one wouldn't be surprised if the idea was mooted by the honourables in order to test its acceptability by the public. A House that is yet to prove its positive impact on the lives of the people that made it possible for each member to be there is more interested, as many instances in the past showed, in mining more funds for personal aggrandisement. In Nigeria, nothing is impossible.

Up there in the executive rooms, the story is quite similar. Their excellencies have immersed themselves in the task of playing the power game. Consequently, the fabled 7-Point Agenda has remained a mirage, a refrain that political appointees chant anytime they have an opportunity to do so, which is all the time. The game of power, which involves playing the chess of who becomes what, where and how, appears to have more attraction to the leaders. Playing this game has ensured that not a single item on the 7-Point Agenda has been achieved in three years. Even the one that some apologists cited in the wake of President Yar'Adua's death, i.e., amnesty for militants in the Niger Delta, is neither here nor there. What Yar'Adua promised on his agenda was not an amnesty but a frontal solution to the problems of the oil-producing region, which included the environmental impacts of oil exploration and improvement in the life of the Niger Deltans. Nothing of the sort has been done. Exploration and pollution, which are twinned in the hapless region, continue unabated.

What we are seeing is the politics of appeasement for criminal elements who took arms against their fatherland. As long as the boys are kept quiet through the monetary inducement called rehabilitation, the main problems would subsist. At the end of the day, the gargantuan failure of 7-Point Agenda in relation to the Niger Delta would manifest in renewed militancy, kidnapping, robbery and other atrocities.

President Goodluck Jonathan has the onerous task of redeeming the image of the Yar'Adua/Jonathan regime. Sticking to the 7-Point Agenda as initiated in 2007 is a bad idea that should be jettisoned immediately. A piece of advice given by Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi last year, on the verge of his appointment as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, should be revisited with all seriousness. What Sanusi said was that the government had better concentrate on just two or three points of the agenda. Seven points were unwieldy, he argued.

Recently, I was in a forum where a top federal government official said that the then Acting President Jonathan had elected to address just three problems bedevilling the nation: the Niger Delta question, power and security. It was a few weeks before Yar'Adua died. With the demise of Yar'Adua, Jonathan, with a bigger mandate as president, has an opportunity to commit himself to those three items. Disappointingly, however, on Wednesday this week the Federal Executive Council came up with the funny disclaimer that it was going to do away with the 7-Point Agenda. We should, therefore, expect to see no change in government policy in the next one year. Our ears are going to continue to receive the annoying cacophony of the unwieldy agenda that has since become a quasi religion under Yar'Adua and Jonathan. Remember that it is the failure of this agenda that questions the faith of Nigerians in the ability of government to deliver the dividends of democracy. And remember that Jonathan has "not enough time," as his defenders now tell us, to do much before the general elections. As such, it is quite plausible that the gains of democracy will continue to elude us, just as we are required to observe Democracy Day year after year.

* Published on the back page of LEADERSHIP, on Saturday, May 29, 2010


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