Whither Nigeria? Who is Afraid of the Question?

Whither Nigeria? Who is afraid of the question?

A question is often a request for information, which can be provided by way of an answer. However, questions are not always asked solely for the purpose of obtaining an answer. Questions can be asked for a variety of reasons: to open a dialogue, demonstrate knowledge, show interest in a topic, steer another person’s thought in a particular direction, invite confirmation of a preconception, trigger debate, obtain an answer, or even commence a joke. Some people advise against asking a question when what is expected is not an answer. So when we ask the question ‘Whither Nigeria?’, for what purpose are we asking? Is it a cry of frustration; or a rhetorical question that does not need an answer; or a genuine question for which an answer should at least be attempted? The word ‘whither’ means ‘to what place’, or ‘to what state, condition, outcome or degree’?

The question ‘Whither Nigeria?’ is a direct question that asks: where is Nigeria going as a country? This is a question that a number of people are not only uncomfortable answering but which they are uncomfortable to have others ask. There have been agitations for a “sovereign national conference” for quite a while now to ask and seek to answer precisely that question. Such a conference represents, for its proponents, an opportunity to renegotiate the nature of Nigeria’s federalism and the role of the state. Those that disapprove of the concept of a sovereign national conference claim that they do so because such a dialogue will duplicate the proper role of the legislature. It is debatable though, the extent to which the legislature performs its proper role in shaping Nigeria’s democracy.

In seeking an answer to the question, the overriding focus should be on the place, condition or degree that we desire to get to, rather than the protection of turfs. The alternative is untenable: if for whatever reason the legislature decides not to ask the question or seek the answers to it, a country of 182 million people becomes hostage to the whims and caprices of less than 500 people. Whatever one’s views are about the merits or demerits of a national conference, it is perhaps best to put the question, as to whether or not to have one in the first place, to the people through a referendum. Thankfully, we are finally developing an electoral system where votes seem largely to count. Unfortunately though, we don’t have a provision in our Constitution that allows referenda to be undertaken. There is an urgent need to put such a provision in place.

Ecuador has successfully used the mechanism of referenda to shape all major public policies. Just 10 years ago, Ecuador was the quintessential “banana republic”, apart from being the world’s largest exporter of bananas. It was a society characterised by political instability, inequality and a poorly-performing economy. A referendum was used to introduce a new constitution which recognised human rights and accepted the plurality and cultural diversity of the country. This has doused political tension, led to unprecedented economic growth, and given the president approval ratings in excess of 70%. Holding a referendum is a means through which the voice of citizens can be heard directly. It is particularly effective for issues that go to the very heart of nationhood, such as giving up sovereignty to join a regional economic grouping or reconfiguring the role and nature of the state. It is particularly effective when there is insufficient confidence that the legislature will act in the national interest.

Nigeria operates a federal system. The concept of federalism tries to solve a basic challenge: how to ensure that every part of a large country receives public goods, without sacrificing local accountability; and it is widely recognised that the state has a major role to play in the development of any nation. The notion of questioning the role and nature of the state, as a sovereign national conference would, enjoys the support of Rousseau who argues that in seeking electoral reform, it is always necessary to go back to a first convention. In The Social Contract, he says:

“Before examining the act by which a nation elects a king, it would be proper to examine the act by which a nation becomes a nation; for this act, being necessarily anterior to the other, is the real foundation of the society.”

A national conference could help to clarify the role of the Nigerian state and seek to shift the purpose of political power from predation and primitive accumulation to the provision of security and prosperity. Rousseau argues that there is a need to ask and answer the question of nationhood before we start to focus on electoral reforms. It is arguable that it is the absence of this prior debate that has stalled the Uwais electoral reforms.

Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution should be made justiciable. Whether it would ever happen, without a debate on where we are going as a nation and a reconfiguration of our law-making processes, is another matter. If, by some miracle, it is indeed possible to make amendments to the parts of the current constitution that address issues of nationhood, one area to focus on must be an automatic conferment of locus standi on all Nigerians to cost-effectively and quickly test that constitution through the courts. The ordinary citizen must have the ability to ask hard questions and obtain answers. The issue of locus standi leads me to a major issue — the need to fundamentally reform our legal system. Our current system has grown out of a culture of impunity fostered by the military over many years. Indeed, some of the judges that presided over the worst excesses of the military era are still sitting in judgment over Nigerians today.

Additionally, a number of questionable laws have been inherited and new ones enacted to try and replicate the authoritarianism of the military era. For instance, Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution guarantees every person the right to freedom of movement. Yet at the end of every month, most state governments restrict movements for three hours for the purpose of what they call “environmental sanitation”. Any law on which such restriction of movement is based is patently contrary to the constitution and is a legacy of military impunity. However, it is necessary to first break that environmental law, and most probably be assaulted by power-drunk officials, before locus standi can be conferred to challenge that law. This is despite the fact that imposing a “sanitation day” is an admission of the failure of the state to collect solid waste, for which it collects monthly sanitation levies!

Without the use of referenda, the legislature is perhaps more strategically placed to bring about change than any other arm of government. It can impeach the executive and change the laws that the judiciary must apply. Recent focus on the legislature has been with respect to their salaries and allowances, and, given the quality, quantity and relevance of the laws that the current National Assembly has passed, many would argue that a part-time, unpaid, legislature would serve the country best. Having the powers to ask hard independent questions, hold the executive to account and make laws in the public interest for the judiciary, without enjoying the current benefits of office would truly be a game-changer. Membership of such a legislature will be less attractive to political jobbers and charlatans and more attractive to people with the interest, intellect, courage and passion to ask hard questions and obtain answers.

We need to revisit our appointments system. A body resembling President Jonathan’s erstwhile Presidential Advisory Council (in purpose, rather than membership) can play the role of Plato’s Nocturnal Council. Such a council must be truly independent and their role must be to “rescue the public interest.” The selection of members must be based only on merit. However, for this to happen, there is the prior need to have a debate about the place of merit in the context of ‘federal character’.

Although I have vented some of my own perosnal frustrations, the fundamental issue in my commentary is the need to ask the question and try to seek honest answers to them. It is possible to ask these questions through referenda, a national conference, the courts or a properly functioning legislature. Some Nigerians may not like some of the answers to some of the questions, but who is afraid of the question and why? It seems to me that the freedom to ask hard questions and seek genuine answers, no matter how unpalatable, are the hallmarks of true democracy. Voltaire approach to debate is worthy of emulation: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Let the people decide ‘Whither Nigeria’!

Adapted from an article first written in March 2012 for the Iju Public Affairs Forum