Chidi Amuta

Published in Daily Times, September 9, 1991

So much is being said, in terms of volume of opinion, about the ongoing transition to civil democracy. But I am afraid the entire discourse by our elite sounds like an orchestra of the deaf, “so full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (apologies Mr. Shakespeare) Or better still, if the discourse on the transition by the most vociferous segment of our elite signifies anything; it is a certain fanatical cynicism about the entire exercise. The recent announcement of the creation of nine additional states served, once again, to animate the cynical school of commentators.

Operating obviously from a preconceived notion that the Babangida administration could devise means of perpetuating itself in power, our compatriots went to town soon after the states were created. The upshot of all that was being said and written last week was that because Babangida and the AFRC decided to create the new states so late in the day, the President must have something up his sleeve. He must have a hidden agenda. It did not quite matter that so far, the transition programme has progressed with considerable success given the constraints of our environment.

To the cynical school of commentators, it is not so important that our local governments are today run by councillors elected by our kith and kin in the villages; that a majority of our countrymen and women have identified with the two parties in spite of their strange origins. Equally unimportant to my fellow elite is the unprecedented steps being taken to prune down the armed forces and thus reduce, even if only in statistical terms, the danger of civil society being once again invaded by an overblown and discontented military.  Within limits of reason, there would appear to be no grounds for doubting the sincerity of the administration on the transition. The latest testimony, to my mind, is the dogged manner in which the President insisted that primaries for governorship elections will hold simultaneously in both the new and old states alike.

This, ordinarily, knocks the bottom off all cynical reservations. But it did not. And that is cause for concern. Is there a possibility that the transition programme is in danger more from habitual cynics than from functionaries of the present administration? To insist, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that the Babangida administration may be taking the nation for a ride is, to my mind, suggestive of a more lethal hidden agenda than anytime else. It is, in fact from this school of cynics that Nigerians need to seek protection, for there is something ultimately dictatorial about fanatics of all classes – ideological, religious, and political. It is, in addition, extremely cheap and mischievous to infer that because some Nigerians have in the past expressed the view that Babangida has given himself too little time for the monumental tasks implicit in his reform agenda, those who have expressed this view aim at perpetuating the military in power. In 1989, this writer looked at the enormity of the tasks ahead and averred that perhaps 1992 was too early a date to complete a historic reform of such a magnitude.

I have not changed from that basic position. But the situation today suggests differently. President Babangida has, to my mind, lived up to most of the promises he made to the Nigerian people within the limits of what is humanly possible to date. On record, he may have instituted by far, the most far-reaching and enduring changes in the Nigerian landscape since independence. On the basis of this impressive record of achievements which will culminate in the inauguration of the Third Republic at the end of this transition period, Babangida should have no reason to wish for more.

The fact that the more habitual cynics latched on to the creation of new states to express doubts about the sincerity of government on the transition is quite interesting. Ordinarily, the transition, in order to be meaningful, must encompass a transition of values, of notions of equity and justice. It would have meant little to the citizens of the new states that we organized elections with clockwork precision and swore in governors and president in an atmosphere where vital and very significant segments of our populace were carrying the burden of alienation and injustice. To use the state creation exercise as an excuse for rabid cynicism about the transition amounts to questioning the basic justice and equity which informed the exercise. If at any point in time, there are genuine grounds to doubt the sincerity of government on the historic question of instituting a people – oriented democracy, it will be the duty of enlightened civil society to cry out against such abomination.

There is as yet no evidence, to my mind, that would suggest such breach of faith. Nor does the international political climate favour any entrenchment of dictatorships no matter how benevolent. In fact, part of our saving grace as a society and which is why we have been largely isolated from the pro-democracy whirlwind blowing around the world, is the fact that the Babangida administration instituted, from the start, a process of democratization and has been following same with creative determination. Nevertheless, the fact that the transition programme is on course should not foreclose public discourse on the programme. On the contrary, the transition challenges our elite to a more rigorous discourse on different aspects of our society.

A sampler of undiscussed issues: How do we institutionalize the supremacy of civil authority over a politicized military? What is the essence of social democracy? What is national republicanism all about? How will a democratic Nigeria fit into the international free market imperative? How do we undergo a transition from crass materialism to a productive, saving culture? How do we institutionalize the rule of law by strengthening the judiciary and the press? How do we reduce government monopoly of those channels of cheap patronage which lead to public sector corruption…?  Questions. Questions… all crying for rigorous debate by an enlightened citizenry.

As elite, the best way to ensure that the transition means anything is to begin to anticipate, through serious dialogue, the implication of the Third Republic with a view to making it a success. Those who cannot contribute meaningfully to this sharpening of consciousness that would help create an ideal Nigeria should come out of their privileged – cocoons and join either of the two parties. Or better still; let such persons stage a civilian coup ‘al la Boris Yeltsin if the military refuse to leave.