Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Those of us that were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on preferences) to watch the National Television Authority’s belated airing of a documentary on the recent visit of President Olusegun Obasanjo to Britain noticed a remarkable statement in the president’s Commonwealth Lecture delivered at the University of London and titled, ‘The Commonwealth in the 21st Century: Prospects and Challenges’. In challenging the Commonwealth to implement recommendations of the Commonwealth Observer Groups to elections, President Obasanjo said, “At election time, the Commonwealth should intensify efforts to discourage the abuses of incumbency”. Yes, he said it!
However, the most instructive event that directly relates to the president’s London prose is the election conducted on his watch in 2003 in which he was a participator (as an incumbent). Of course, it makes sense to say the right things on the Commonwealth podium, especially for this president. The Commonwealth was the one major global governance institution that constantly and consistently irritated the late General Sani Abacha when Obasanjo was, first on the death row, and later a guest of one of Abacha’s many gulags. But if we conjoin the president’s words with his actions, it assumes eclectic dimensions for a seamless comprehension.It is not that Obasanjo’s democratic credentials are not good enough for such ‘grand sounding’ remarks. After all, as a military Head of State he successfully handed over power to a civilian government in 1979 instead of converting his khaki to agbada, an idea that was the fad in Africa and which captivated two military rulers after him. Also, stripped of mere manipulations that arose from the desire of General Abdul salami Abubakar and the military establishment (in and out of government) to simply handover to oga and by so doing placate Egbe ?m? Oduduwa for their dashed hopes of June 12 and also to keep the gates of the barracks locked, his emergence as a civilian president in 1999 had a reasonable measure of democratic content aside.
There are two ambiguities in the president’s remarks though. One, the president did not state what he meant by “at election time” and two, he did not go further to expatiate on the nature of “abuses of incumbency”. What is clear, no doubt, is that his concerns were related to elections conducted by incumbents and so I will attempt to look at those sticky portions as they relate to President Obasanjo and the 2003 elections.
As part of the preparations for the general elections, the National Assembly passed Electoral Bill 2001 into law that was intended to guide the conduct of the elections. The Bill was then sent to the president for his assent or veto. The nation eventually got mired in the infamous Electoral Act saga. One of the curious statements that emerged from that confusion was from then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Ghali Na’Abba. In an interview he granted to Newswatch magazine, Na’Abba said, “Obasanjo said we could do the amendment and call it the printer’s devil”. Neither the president nor his aides denied this revelation from Na’Abba. The amendment in question was to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for new parties to contest the 2003 presidential elections in which the president was to be a candidate.
One of the cardinal instruments of a free and fair election is the voter’s register. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) rolled out a master plan for an electronic voter’s register for the conduct of the 2003 elections. According to INEC, if implemented, we would have tackled the monster of voter fraud and irregularities frontally. The only snag was that INEC is not self-financing and must get its funds from the presidency. Would it be in the interest of an incumbent president to have free and fair elections? Anyway, in requesting funds for this crucial aspect of elections, the INEC Chairman was reduced to a grating caricature of Abuja streetlight beggars. In the end, due to the late release of funds, we did not have the electronic voter’s register of our desire and the gaping possibilities to manipulate the elections were created even before the first ballots were cast.
Finally, I know that it could prejudicial for me to comment on the conduct of the 2003 presidential elections on April 19, 2003 because the case is still at the Supreme Court. Across the Atlantic in faraway Washington D.C., it may be easier for Vice President Atiku Abubakar to say “there were allegations of voters unable to register to vote, instances of electoral fraud…” But not me, not here. However I wish to draw attention to the words from the Bench regarding that election.
According to the majority judgement of the Federal Court of Appeal, which served as the Presidential Election Tribunal for the 2003 presidential elections, in the case brought before it by the presidential candidate of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), Major General Muhammadu Buhari challenging the election of President Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and delivered by Justice Francis Tabai: “Instances of such brutal killings either immediately before or on the 19/04/03 are numerous. These allegations were in most case not controverted. The victims were almost invariably members or supporters of ANPP or some innocent passers bye. And the most tragic and disturbing aspect is that these incidents either happened in the presence of policemen and soldiers or immediately reported to them. No arrests were made and no investigations. In the case of the alleged killing of police Sgt Anthony Abba, 14 PDP thugs and the Transition Chairman of the LGA were arrested, but were released the following day. The scenario created from the various incidents was that some persons were, in the name of politics, licensed to destroy lives (and) properties. It is a serious dent to our claim to democracy and democratic ideals.”
These three instances may have defined President Obasanjo’s attitude to “abuses of incumbency” “at election time” much more than his words in London. I make these points because the next election is around the corner and despite constitutional provisions ruling out President Obasanjo’s eligibility for the polls and his insistence that he will leave office in 2007, some presidential sorcerers are conjuring fuzzy political math to insist that 8 plus 2 equals 2009. These political agberos are masters in the art of misleading and convincing the man on the wheels of presidential governance to go beyond the bus-stop, even if there are no more passengers in the national bus. They spend sleepless nights generating scenarios of instability and continuity and lead chorus groups to the president to assure him that the coast to his eternal presidency is clear.
As we approach that date in 2007, I dare say that it is their nuisance value that creates room for the “abuses of incumbency” “at election time” because they always succeed in hypnotising incumbents to ‘carry-go’ desperation. So, it is not the Commonwealth Observer Groups that will stop their antics but our leaders, like President Obasanjo. After all, India is a developing country and a member of the Commonwealth yet it is the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Last year, the country conducted its general elections during which the incumbent Prime Minister was swept out of office. India did not wait for the recommendations of any Commonwealth Observer Group. All they had was a democracy with leaders. Our democracy is in need of leaders who think of a legacy and not incumbency. I wonder if the president’s British hosts also reminded him that given Winston Churchill’s popularity as a wartime leader, he was not expected to be defeated at the elections of 1945 yet the opposition Labour Party won by a landslide. In spite of that, Churchill’s leadership resonates through generations till date. Leaders are not defined by elections but by generations.
The greatest opportunity an incumbent has to transcend through the ages is in the conduct of an election, which he or she will contest. This sets the trend for others to follow. So, the president must move beyond his words in reclaiming his missed opportunities to restore the enduring potentialities of the democratic system. In democracy, actions often speak louder than words.