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By Aare Afe Babalola, SAN
I congratulate every Nigerian on the occasion of yet another “Democracy” day, a day set aside to celebrate the return to civil rule after decades under military rule. As is customary, there will be parades across all the states and at the Federal Capital Territory to mark this special day, speeches upon speeches will be made and much effort will also be made to analyse and celebrate the ‘gains’ made since the return to democratic rule. However, while I share in the joy of the day, I am yet forced to recall a statement, which I made in 2011 on the occasion of the celebration of the nation’s 51st independence anniversary. At that time I stated as follows:
…it surely cannot be denied that what is required at this time of our national life is indeed deep and sober reflection on the part of those saddled with the administration of the affairs of the country, on the social, political and economic fortunes of our country. The occasion of the 51st anniversary to my mind should be used not to celebrate whatever gains it is felt Nigeria has achieved in the period between 1960 and today but rather should be devoted to a reflection on what could have, but was unfortunately not achieved. As Abraham Lincoln stated, a towering genius does not celebrate the ordinary. Such a person disdains paths already beaten by others. He seeks areas of endeavor yet unexplored and conquers them. The focus should be on what have we missed or got wrong as a nation?
I consider the above to be relevant today, more than it ever was seven years ago. Perhaps a little history will bring this into proper perspective.Prior to 1884, there was no Nigeria. A large area of land measuring 356,669 square miles which is bigger than England and Germany put together and now known as Nigeria was the unilateral creation of Europeans at Berlin conference without the consent or knowledge or approval of the 370 ethnic groups inhabiting the area. The inhabitants who include Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo etc were amalgamated as a country. The major objective in bringing them together was to allow for a more viable commercial enterprise and not because of any need to build a nation. This arrangement was bound to bring and indeed brought about problems of integration and forging of a true national identity. In 1948, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who later became the prime minister during the first republic stated as follows:
“Since 1914 the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite…”
In 1960, after about 10 years of deliberation at Lancaster House in London, Nigerian leaders including Zik, Sadauna and Awolowo agreed on a loose federal constitution, which would permit the different nations to develop at their own rate. In fashioning the independence Constitution they were very much aware of the diversity of the ethnicities that make up the country. They recognised the strengths and weaknesses of the regions. Yet amidst all these they saw diversity not as a disadvantage but more as a blessing to the new nations. The notion of unity in diversity was born. The national anthem itself took note of the diversity, part of which reads: “Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand”.
The First Republic, 1960 – 1966 witnessed rapid development in all areas raising that a nation Nigeria would metamorphose from the state. Each region benefited from its resources at its own pace. While the west had the cocoa plantations, the East was buoyant with palm oil production while the North had its Groundnut pyramids. Each region was complementary of each other in an atmosphere of healthy rivalry. With the income that came in, the governments at the federal and regional levels were able to provide amenities necessary to improve the lives of the citizenry. Efforts were also made to improve upon those already put in place by the past colonial administrations. Public schools and hospitals were well funded and equipped. The roads were maintained. It was a time of bliss. Unfortunately it did not last.
However, in 1966 the military carried out a bloody coup and scrapped the constitution and imposed military government which lasted for 33 years. The military regime witnessed the removal of judges from the Supreme Court down to the High Court without trial or notice, devaluation of naira, reduction of allocation to education, arrest of human rights lawyers, imprisonment of innocent Nigerians, migration of academics to overseas, increase in external debt, arbitrary arrest and abuse of power etc.
In 1999, following agitations from Nigerians and several failed promises of a return to democratic rule, the military finally organised general elections in which President Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, was voted in as President. The election result was challenged by Chief Olu Falae of the AD and some others. I had the privileged of leading over 30 lawyers in defending the President in 1999 and later in 2003. The reported decisions of the courts in those matters, at the last count were about fifteen in number. I was also present at the Eagle square on the 29th of May 1999 when the military handed over power. That indeed was a historic day marked with joy and jubilation throughout the country.
Hopes and expectations were high. The first task of President Obasanjo was to go round the world to beg for forgiveness of our huge external debt. He succeeded. He increased the allocation to education even though he could not reach the threshold of 26% of the budgetary allocation advocated by UNESCO. He addressed the issue of agriculture and propagated the philosophy of Nigerians to prefer locally made goods to imported goods. He did a lot for the judiciary, transportation by road and railway, education and agriculture and telecommunications sector.
Unfortunately, as at December 31, 2017, the gains of the past appear to have been eroded. The foreign debt has increased to USD$18,913,000,000. Budgetary allocations to education went down to 7% while the allocation to the maintenance of political structures such as the National Assembly increased astronomically. Owing to a lack of adequate funding of security agencies, insecurity has become the order of the day as safety of lives and property has been threatened more than what we have ever known. Hundreds have been slaughtered by yet to be identified persons in Benue, Nassarawa, Kaduna and some other states of the federation. Our universities are now local universities with local teachers providing local certificates for local consumption. President Buhari was quoted recently to have said that; “Nigerian graduates are worthless”. The statement is correct when applied to most of the public universities.
While significant gains have been made in the fight against the Boko haram insurgency, numerous lives are still lost to attacks made by the insurgents. Our roads are unsafe day and night with attacks by armed robbers and kidnappers. On the economic front, many businesses have collapsed owing to the high cost of doing business and lack of capital. As a result, politics has become the only lucrative business with Nigerian politicians, earnings being the highest anywhere in the world. The gap between the rich and poor has widened and continues to widen. There is poverty in the land. Salaries are in arrears, pensions and gratuities are not paid. Judgment debts remain unpaid for decades, contractors dues remain unpaid. Begging at wedding, funeral and birthday parties, churches and mosques has become the order of the day.
Were the expectations of May 29 1999 realised? I presume your answer is in the negative.
Education is the catalyst for overcoming ignorance, poverty and raising the standard of living in the country. No reasonable person would prefer a return to military rule. A civilian government whether bad or good is preferable to military government as the opportunity exists, in a democratic setting, for the populace to have a say, through the ballot, in the choice of who governs them. Therefore, I expect that all Nigerians must be interested in a democratic government which is beneficial to the people. To make this a reality, there is a need for the concerted effort of all, the governors and the governed alike, in addressing many of the factors which are holding us back as a nation. One such factor, which I have identified time and time again, is the huge cost of running our present political structure. I have questioned whether we can afford the current set up of 36 states, the majority of which rely only on allocation from the federal purse to survive.
Why do we appear so comfortable with a system in which the executive and legislative set-up at the federal level is replicated across all the 36 states with a retinue of commissioners, special assistants, assistant special assistants, aides etc? I have questioned whether we need two tiers of the national assembly, when a huge percentage of the annual budget goes to the maintenance of the national legislature thereby depriving other crucial areas such as education, health and transportation of much needed funding. Can we not borrow a leaf from Senegal, which recognised the wastage inherent in the two-tier legislative system and abolished it? Is it not possible to have legislators serve on a part-time basis rather than full time basis?
These and many more are issues which call for urgent attention and until they are address by the means of a national conference with a mandate to explore means of restructuring the country, I will continue to call for somber celebrations on occasions like this, just as I did seven years ago.
*Aare Babalola, OFR, CON, SAN, is Founder/Chancellor, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD)
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