“How time flies!” is a cliché that expresses surprise – pleasant or otherwise – about how quickly the seasons of our lives turn. Today, I am struck by the same sense of wonder that an entire 20 years have passed since the 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria. For those of us who were already adults in 1993, today brings a lot of nostalgic feelings, reflection and, of course, gratitude. From 1993 to 2013, a lot of water has passed under the bridge of our lives and nationhood. The water has not only altered the sands of time; it has also washed a lot of debris to our very doorsteps and splashed dirt on our faces.The 1993 MKO Abiola vs. Bashir Tofa election, conducted exactly 20 years ago today, is popularly termed the freest and fairest in the history of Nigeria. It was Nigeria’s first taste of a renascent democracy after so many years of military rule, coups and counter-coups. It was an election whose callous annulment shook the nation. Since then, the country has witnessed a lot of changes – for better, and for worse. However, none of those occurrences have left the country exactly the same.
The 10-year period between the coup that kicked the Shehu Shagari-led government out of office and 1993 when the presidential elections were held, were the years of the locust and the cankerworm combined. The depredation of human and natural resources that led to economic and political stagnation fuelled agitations for democratic rule in Nigeria. People earnestly yearned for relief from the abyss of despair they were drowning in and the 1993 election provided a leeway. Little wonder, then, that Nigerians invested their hopes and dreams in that election. It took place at a defining moment in Nigeria’s history, making and marring her simultaneously. Who can easily forget the hope and excitement that pervaded Nigeria during that period? Nigerians who had long been enslaved by the chains of despotic military rule were full of great expectations. They desired meaningful leadership; one to serve as an antidote to the rudderlessness and repression the then military government epitomized. Life was relentlessly harsh, as various ill-thought and poorly executed economic policies had devalued both the naira and human lives. The country greatly declined in all spheres; intellectuals and professionals migrated to other shores to seek reprieve from the strangulating hold the country had on their intellectual enterprise. Their leaving stripped the country of valuable human resources. For those who remained at home, surviving the persistent anguish came before any thought of nation building.
The various military and even civilian governments had so badly ruined the country such that when Nigerians began to clamour for self-rule, what they actually wanted was governance in which they could invest; one chosen by them and for them. Democracy was fashionable because of its many prospects – at that time, we were made to believe it held the key to a better life, a better-developed nation and, consequently, a more meaningful national existence. Thus, Nigerians trooped out expectantly on June 12, 1993. They eagerly cast their votes and patiently awaited the results. They believed, and quite rightly so, that their redemption had come.
In retrospect, we can say that the over-enthusiasm around the June 12 elections could not have been otherwise. The country was in dire straits and when Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola came with a message of hope, Nigerians were quick to latch on to it. After all, what other glad tidings would have sufficed for a people who had been cheated, robbed, raped and banished to live in the valley of hopelessness and wretchedness? Hope ’93 was born and MKO would become its symbol and an icon of redemption. MKO represented people’s longings and that largely explains why Nigerians saw their hopes reflected in him: He was rich, successful, and colourful, seeming to be everywhere at once. He was also a famous philanthropist whose generous hands spread from education to sports and entertainment, and even to the movement for reparation for Africa. MKO once said that he gave out of a sense of duty, not charity. He became the physical logo of change that Nigerians were earnestly seeking. He personalized both their innermost longing and outward craving for change to the extent that people reasoned that if he became president, he would probably not be one of those leaders whose first port of call would be to loot the treasury. MKO was set to be Nigeria’s redeemer, as it were, and people enthusiastically crowned him a messiah.
We all know how the story of that election ended. The June 12 story, actually, did not end. Its resilience is why we are here today. IBB’s annulment of that election was, among many instances of wickedness, a strategy to crush the hopes of the people and indefinitely postpone change. Change would have empowered the people and IBB forestalled this when he chose the cowardly option of annulment. The year 1993, however, was not only about annulled elections and expectations; it is instructive to note that it was a year of pushbacks and many acts of resistance that claimed many human lives and material goods. Nigerians did not merely roll over and play dead when their hopes were annulled; they actively resisted.
One other feature of Hope ’93 we are not likely to easily forget is the campaign song. The ‘MKO-is-our-man’ jingle – remember it? That catchy tune was a song of lamentation from a figure that symbolized the aspirations of many Nigerians, and we shall call him/her Citizen X for the purpose of this piece. In mathematics, X stands for the unknown and will here represent millions of faceless Nigerians who remain impoverished under the deteriorating Nigerian structure. In that jingle, Citizen X aptly articulated the manifestations of the many problems bedevilling Nigerian in a way that facts, figures and data graphically represented on endless bar charts and pie charts would never appropriately convey. Citizen X’s lamentation captured the agonizing conditions of Nigeria using the best rubric – human indices – in a way that all of us could – and still can – relate to his angst.
He sings: no work, no food, no house, no light, no potable water, no viable means of transportation. He laments that there are neither functioning schools nor resources in our hospitals. The entire country, in short, was dysfunctional. This jingle, though a campaign massage for a candidate who was seeking the highest office in the land, spoke factually to the Nigerian situation of 1993. Now, let us fast forward to the year 2013 and ask how things are different. Are we better off as a nation? If so, how far have we travelled from the point of citizen X’s lamentation? Do we now have better employment indices? Is there food security through the length and breadth of Nigeria? Is our housing problem a thing of the past? Do we have potable water in our cities and rural areas? Is there regular and uninterrupted electricity supply? Do we have improved transportation facilities? What of education? Do we have more and better schools? Are our hospitals any better?
How many of the various yearnings of Citizen X in the campaign jingle – which also represented the yearnings of Nigerians – have been realized? The question of infrastructure is just one chunk – albeit a huge one – of the many factors afflicting Nigeria. Apart from physical infrastructure, how far has Nigeria gone in the provision of social and political infrastructure? The question of social and political institutions is germane because they determine whether the infrastructures Citizen X desired and articulated will be realized or not. It is therefore pertinent to audit how much democracy has done for – or to – Nigeria. Have we indeed travelled far or have we merely been circling around the same mountain, barking at the same wrong tree and yet still hoping for a better outcome in our national lives? At this time, let me pose the question again: From Hope ’93 to 2013, when Nigeria has now attained 14 years of unbroken civil rule, how far have we come as a nation? If 1993 signified Hope, what can we say for 2013? Angst? Or what exactly?
Question: Is 1993 better or worse than 2013?
The oil boom of the 70s was one of the critical junctures of our national life. It was a great chance to set the country on the path of development that ended up as a missed chance. Opportunity was turned to dust because of the short-sightedness of our leaders. The succeeding years did not fare better and we still grapple with basic issues up till this moment. In the period that followed the 1999 return to civilian rule till now, we have seen semblances of boom. Telecommunications, for instance, has revolutionized our social and economic lives. There was a time when the Nigerian banking system was on a steady rise. The stock market was once a choice destination for every Nigerian that had money and was willing to invest. Many of these ‘booms’ have more or less fizzled out and Nigerians have lost more than they have gained.
The country remains impoverished by many indications. We have blamed various factors for this, most of which are planked on the forces of institutionalized corruption, poor leadership, maladministration, and how they collaborate to cripple us. We also know that the quality of followership itself has not helped matters. Nigeria, as a whole, is in a state of steady decline. The sad part of this is that we are hardly digging our way out of the rut. Instead, our energies are expended on promoting mediocrity packaged as excellence. For instance, these days, what the political class dubs ‘dividends of democracy’ is largely the statutory duties of state administrators overblown out of modest proportions. The wider issues that challenge Nigeria’s development, such as dysfunctional state institutions, are happily neglected. The result? It is all around us: a broken down system that is programmed to self-destruct.
Robinson and Acemoglu in their seminal work Why Nations Fail have brilliantly given all the reasons why some nations are rich and others are poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, and food and famine. They correctly argue that institutions matter for development and prosperity. Their submission that institutions which hinder development come about and persist because they benefit powerful elites is truer of Nigeria than any other nation.
All nations that are wealthy today – and some of them are not as rich as Nigeria – have developed institutions that enable prosperity for all based on the scope of their skill, education, dreams and ideas. These institutions free them from the whims and caprices of narrow and selfish elites. In our case, we have only encouraged institutions that hamper growth and development and consequently breed impunity. One of such is the corruption industry which has ensured that the easiest way to become a billionaire in our clime is pilfering public funds, and not through diligent enterprise.
In the 20 years between June 12, 1993 elections and today, Nigeria has earned enough money to create a Dubai in each of the six geo-political zones and make our citizens some of the most prosperous people on earth, but what we have instead is collapse of infrastructure, deepening poverty (70% rate from 45% in 1999), social dislocations, high unemployment rate and violent crimes.
One of the sorest spots in the Babangida administration was the $12.4b gulf windfall which we have not been able to do anything about, among several other allegations. We have lost count of countries that have made returns to us from the various Abacha loots, yet only God knows if we have not been re-looted. When Obasanjo came to power in 1999, he set up the Kolade Panel to review the contracts awarded by the 8-month administration of Gen. Abubakar Abdulsalami. That panel discovered that Abdulsalami looted more than Abacha month-for-month, but nothing happened. Obasanjo himself went on a corruption binge, which made Transparency International, a body he chaired the Nigerian chapter of before assuming office, decorate Nigeria as the most corrupt nation on earth under his watch. The $16b power project scam stands out among other trophies of corruption in those eight years like Halliburton, PTDF, the National ID scam, Siemens, and the 3rd term heist. Today, Obasanjo is gallivanting around on another leadership recruitment exercise for the country.
Furthermore, the present administration has not explained to us how oil marketers amnestied almost N3 trillion naira from our treasury (a House of Representatives report says so) in a year we allocated N245b for subsidy. Not a single head has rolled in either the Ministry of Finance or the NNPC and we’ve seen on television how the trial of the ‘subsidy thieves’ could very well be mistaken for The Night of a Thousand Laughs.
The state pardon granted to former Bayelsa Governor Chief DSP Alamieyeseigha perhaps says what the official position on corruption is. The EFCC presently lies comatose at the sight of political corruption, baring its fangs at only petty crooks. People now look up to Britain to help us deal with our corrupt like it did in the cases of James Ibori and Erastus Akingbola.
Corruption festers at all levels of government in our country today with the tin gods called governors running their states like personal estates and neglecting the welfare of the people. We hear statements like “My jet costs only N7b!” as the official anthem of governors blowing fortunes within the Nigerian airspace on frivolous trips. The 18 percent monthly allocations to our local governments have become money flushed down the drain. Our governors have mostly turned that to slush funds while the council officials pocket a large chunk of whatever is released to them. Expecting any meaningful development from this paradigm is the equivalent of waiting for the 8th wonder of the world.
The consequences of a malfunctioning system are everywhere. Nigeria runs a system that is so badly fragmented – from agriculture to manufacturing to transportation and infrastructure, there is no clear link that enables one aspect of the economy corroborate another, and effectively, too. The various parts of the country cannot leverage on each other’s individual strengths to derive mutual advantages. The physical and social infrastructures that should enable interregional trade are largely missing. Businesses hardly thrive and cottage industries that are supposed to provide an employment base are virtually non-existent. Overall, we run a country that appears to thrive from time to time, even though it sits on a foundation of nothing. We have continually frittered away both money and opportunities due to our national myopia. Our problems persist; our redemption appears more and more elusive.
To return to the question I asked earlier, are we better off in 2013 than we were in 1993, or does it merely seem that way? Why is it that Citizen X’s basic needs in 1993 are still Citizen X’s basic needs in 2013? Why are Nigerians still dealing with the same nagging issues at the same unsophisticated level they were in 1993? During the presidential debate of 1993, MKO vowed that in five years’ time, no Nigerian child would go to bed hungry. Two eventful decades after he made that bold assertion, Nigerian children are not only going to bed as hungry as ever, some of them are now sitting on bare floor classrooms and are practically being threatened with extinction. A recent World Bank figure put the poverty rate at 65.7 percent. This figure is a source of puzzlement for even the officials of that institution who wonder why, despite the much touted increase in economic activities and decline in the poverty rate, the effect has not reflected in the lives of the common Nigerian. Ours is a classic case of economic development without growth.
The human indices of Citizen X in 21st century Nigeria loudly dispute all the figures Nigerian officials excitedly bandy about as proof of their executive productivity. With all the evidence of dwindling quality of life around us, our leaders still celebrate the delusion that we are the fastest growing economy in the world. It does not quite matter to them that every aspect of our lives says otherwise. The figures are fine, but the people are not. As we have often said on this platform, no one in his right senses can conclude that Nigerians are poor because our people do not work hard. Indeed, they work hard but productivity is low and the cost of doing business is very high. Neither can anyone blame the daunting poverty of the majority of our citizens on lack of natural resources in certain parts. The resources are all over-abundant but they have been used hitherto to enrich the elite. Our people know it and feel it. Our poverty is OPTIONAL. The primary reason our people are poor is because their leaders make poor policy choices, and they do so because of their apparent lack of capacity as Chief MKO Abiola succinctly put it in his Epetedo Declaration on June 11, 1994. Hear vintage MKO:
“We are sickened to see people who have shown little or no personal achievement, either in building up private businesses, or making success of any tangible thing, being placed in charge of the management of our nation’s economy, by rulers who are not accountable to anyone. Enough of square pegs in round holes!” So, today, 20 years after the hopes and aspirations of the poor Nigerians who trooped out to vote on June 12, 1993 were dashed, our major problem remains the leadership’s apparent lack of will, courage and capacity as well as integrity to secure this nation and manage it well. While excruciating poverty pervades the entire landscape of our nation, the poor majority have no means of holding the government accountable, just as the Good Book says:
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (NKJV): ):
1Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: And look! The tears of the oppressed, But they have no comforter– On the side of their oppressors there is power, But they have no comforter. 2Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead, More than the living who are still alive. 3 Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, Who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
Top on the list of the vulnerable and the oppressed is the Nigerian child who still cannot get qualitative education at all levels in 2013 if his or her parents are not part of the monied class. Recently, the Minister of Education announced that, as things stand, universities are currently experiencing a shortfall of resources and cannot afford to take in more candidates. But that is even at the university level. Basic education in Nigeria, purportedly free, is merely poor education given to the children of the poor so that they can remain poor and ignorant. While we speak of the decline in the quality of education, we should also talk about the rate of unemployment in the country. Unemployment figures are rising and the World Bank recently published that the unemployment rate in Nigeria is at a shocking 56 percent. The NLC leader says it could even be up to 60 percent. If we were to add this figure to the number of those who are not gainfully employed, we would be further shocked. We have an army of youths that are angry and frustrated. Their band grows daily as the means to redress their angst shrinks. As a nation with a high proportion of youths, our army of unemployed youths is tantamount to playing with matches near combustible material. We are inadvertently raising an army of crime entrepreneurs.
The issue of medical care is another recurring deficiency in our society. For one, it is no longer a shame that our leaders are always quick to run out of the country to take care of their myriad maladies. In fact, it seems more fashionable to die abroad than at home. For the rest of us who have no options beyond Nigeria, it is a matter of leaving ourselves in the hands of God. The First Lady of the country has travelled consistently to treat an undisclosed ailment and she gleefully celebrates the God who kept her alive in a foreign hospital, sustained by modern machines and well-trained doctors. Her medical bill was paid for by the sweat of taxpayers who are themselves dying at home.
Let’s talk about power supply. This is one sector where Nigerians, youth and non-youths alike, earnestly demand a change. This also happens to be where they are consistently let down. There are sordid tales of corruption in this sector that run into billions of dollars, much of it stolen by the so-called Fathers of Modern Nigeria and their cohorts. The area of power supply is one where Nigerian leaders over the years have single-handedly manifested their wickedness of heart and their apparent nonchalance about Nigeria’s development. The inconsistency in their promises about this sector is galling. We have seen how they have blatantly embezzled the money that is meant to bring us light and still turn around to sell us darkness in the form of generators. The latest promise right now is that the megawatts will double by December. May God keep us all till then and beyond.
So, if the hankerings of Citizen X remain unrealized, what, then, has Nigeria gained all this while? What are the benefits of 14 years of unbroken democratic rule that make all the sacrifices of MKO and other Nigerians who gave their lives in the struggle a worthwhile endeavour? Why did we reject the military government only for us to arrive where we are today – a place not quite far from where we started out? Or is 20 years – out of which we have had 14 years of democracy – too small to have had our yearnings realized?
To be sure, Nigeria’s democracy has not been without its gains. For a moment, I will look at the bright side and express some gratitude that the stranglehold placed on the nation by various jackboots is no longer there. What strangles us these days is poor leadership. There are certain gains that democratic rule in Nigeria has afforded us and they must be acknowledged despite all the shortcomings of Nigeria’s version. For example, we have freedom of speech far better than we did in the past. There is also a much freer press than we had in the past. The recent case of Leadership Newspapers vs. The Federal Government shows us how far we have come. Some 20 years ago, that would have been a totally different story and a totally differently outcome from what we have now. To an extent, too, there is a judiciary that still manages to serve as the last hope of the common man. Once in a while, a public official even manages to get sent to jail for economic crimes. These are the gains of democracy in Nigeria and though they might appear insignificant or inadequate, they still constitute a step forward compared to where Nigeria travelled from to arrive here. We have even progressed enough to have the Freedom of Information Bill signed into law. The relative freedom Nigeria currently enjoys is worth its weight in gold. Despite all that Nigeria has been unable to achieve, we can comfortably gather here today to talk of June 12 because we have a semblance of democracy. For that, we should be grateful to those who sowed their blood for this freedom.
Despite these gains, there is a still a lot missing in our governance. We still haven’t come sufficiently close to free and fair elections; a lot of people are disenfranchised by poverty and illiteracy; we are largely excluded from the governance of our own country; and, very critically, we lack good governance. Nigeria is far behind in almost every index that signifies progress and only takes the lead in the ones that signal retrogression. Right before our eyes, our lives keep plummeting like the Nigerian stock market. We are far from the yearnings we have cried for and now even hope sometimes seems to be a luxury. And when we speak of hope, I do not mean individualized hope which religious leaders and motivational speakers sell to their devotees telling them that their success can be achieved in isolation of the society in which they live. No, not that kind of unhealthy hope that merely opiates. When we speak about igniting hope of a better life, I mean one based on attainable and sustainable indices. But how do we get there?
It’s 2013, but where do we go from here?
If, after 20 years, the basic yearnings of Citizen X have not been realized, how can we then hope for a truly modern society with intangible attributes of citizenship, accountability, equality, rule of law, transparency and social and infrastructural development? How long can we stay around the same mountain going over the same old issues while we neglect the bigger visions that can propel our society from its third world status? In short, how do we begin to move from this point to build a strong and healthy nation? That question can be answered by asking how we got here in the first place. The path that brought us here is, as we indicated earlier, one of inordinate recklessness. What can take us out of here should therefore be the opposite. There is nothing accidental about success achieved in the process of building a nation; it takes a lot of hard work and dedication and it occurs only when people have a vision, lay out a plan and then work towards it.
I must say, however, that it is possible for a country to achieve a certain level of development in spite of itself, policies and internal contradictions. When it does, such a government becomes comfortable and spins a web of a false sense of prosperity around itself. It convinces itself it has enough to get by and will contend the need to build lasting institutions and structures. It will, from time to time, produce chest-thumping abracadabra figures of growth and development as indications of its performance and also as a form of defence against criticisms of its shortcomings. It will blame its perceived opponents for distracting it from the task of nation building; it will insist, in the face of hardcore reality, that the government is doing its best and that change does not come in a day, and that someday, somewhere down the line, things will change with automatic alacrity. It might even resort to rhetorical flourish such as promising to go on exile if a bridge is not built or boasting that people will soon throw their generators away. Those are the strategies of a poorly functioning government; all talk and very little to show for it. In fact, to ward off its critics – the constructive and the destructive – it employs mordacious attack dogs and lions to caterwaul against perceived and real enemies. It spends so much time on politicking and carrying out acts of vindictiveness against political threats, missing the most important factor it should focus on: institution building. Institution building is critical to whether a country will succeed or fail. And if it succeeds, institutions determine whether it will be sustainable or, as the case of Nigeria shows us, be wrecked somewhere along the line. The reason we have Angst 2013, in place of the hope that pervaded 1993 when Citizen X made a call in the jingle I referred to earlier, is because his desires are interwoven with the social and political technology that will guarantee them. Those are presently sorely lacking in Nigeria. And, as long as we do not get these basics right, the best we can achieve is occasional successes snatched from the rubric of failure.
At this point I can hear the audience pose the question of what needs to be done: How and where we proceed from here? The answer is simple and yet quite complex. For one, there are no new solutions to be proposed other than to refer us to the ones we have highlighted in the past: build institutions, stop corruption, decentralize Nigeria, block government wastage, be more focused on meaningful governance, erect democratic structures, strengthen the citizenry through education, cultivate leadership that focuses on state building, articulate visions and project ideals, and be focused on the people because that is what democracy is all about. The quest for the benefits of democracy is what made people queue in the sun on June 12, 1993 and the reason we are gathered here today. It is not difficult to see that the many failures of Nigeria, from terrorism to state-sponsored poverty are symptomatic of the institutional dysfunctionality in Nigeria. Elections of themselves are no substitute for real democratic structures, no matter how much time and resources we expend on them; democracy runs deeper than the superficialness with which we are currently burdened. That is why it remains the best option for Nigeria and the more reason we should work at it. 20 years is a long time in the life of a nation and one that should not be spent merely travelling fast to nowhere. In certain ways, the point we are in Nigeria can easily be characterized as a rocking chair marathon; we have moved, even at varying speeds, but have remained firmly fixed at the same spot. This needs to change and very urgently, too. Nigeria can no longer afford to waste more time than we have already.
I thank you all, while I pray for a brighter and better Hope 2013 and beyond. Need we be told that we must work for it? Yes, we must. All the very best in our collective future.
Pastor ‘Tunde Bakare
Convener, Save Nigeria Group (SNG)