The Other Side of Atiku’s Talk


AtikuThe ongoing gyrations created by recent comments from Nigeria’s Vice President Atiku Abubakar seems to have distracted us from the imperativeness of other aspects of his remarks on our democracy. As we approach the presidential politics of 2007, it will be very important to note and amplify useful contributions to national discourse, even if we do not like the person saying it. Sometime ago, THISDAY newspapers ran an interview granted by the Vice President to its Board of Editors. A few days later, the VP delivered a keynote address to a conference on “Election 2007: Protecting the Peoples Mandate” held in Abuja. At both forums, he made far-reaching observations that should spawn significant dimensions in the evolution to Pax Nigeriana. (Don’t take my word for it, read them and make your own conclusions).

In the THISDAY interview, the Vice President said that “what is important here (is) for Nigerians to make sure that those democratic institutions that have been planted are so entrenched and they support those institutions to make sure that no individual comes and says he is sitting tight and continue to govern this country for God knows when”. Good talk. He went on to describe the parties as the pillars for sustaining democracy and so must be in and of themselves democratic noting the rise of undemocratic tendencies within our political parties. In the keynote address, the VP expanded his thoughts on democracy by saying:” One of the real tests of democracy is the acceptance by those in power that others who criticize them and are indeed trying to democratically take over their positions are legitimate players in the system”. Again, good talk.

The sedimentation of the Vice President’s comments is that we need institutions, leadership and democracy. Even though I am not in his (political) camp, I know a good idea when I see one but I am amazed at the muted reaction of the commentariat because it is ideas like these that build nations. I have written a number of articles variously on institutions, leadership and democracy and the VP’s statements strike a chord in them. In this era of reforms blowing across the country and indeed the developing world, the development yields its best results with institutions, leadership and democracy.

In his thought-provoking book, Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen wrote that “developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development”.

But it is important for us in Nigeria to realize that we are pacesetters – pioneers – in an evolving development paradigm, which proposes that the economy can grow achieved side by side with the growth of democracy. Development orthodoxy as we knew it created an unwarranted impression that countries get economic development first and liberal democracy later. However, those ethos are changing and Nigeria can only be at the forefront its emergence if we take advantage of (in Sen’s words) “opportunities of articulation and participation” offered by democracy, even if it is at infancy. For that, we also need institutions that will endure.

Institutions endure if they rise above the whimsicalities of political elites and remain true to certain core values and distinctive qualities. Among such political institutions are the political parties and as the Vice President said, they remain the bedrock of democratic growth and development. If our parties are not democratic, then democracy will have no meaning. Therefore, even if our political parties are not yet built on any political, economic or social ideology, they should (at the very least) believe in the credos of democracy. Six years on and Nigeria’s political parties are still very much like the secret cults in our campuses: real entry is by ‘initiation’, actions beget reactions, there is a Capone who is the lord of the manor (complete with his hit men), violence is the instrument of strategic advantage, among other despicable characteristics. Its causal effect can be seen in the abysmal nature of our electoral process.

According to Ralph Shrader, enduring institutions have seven common traits: innovative capabilities; adaptive response; risk structure; information flow; governance and leadership; culture and values; and legitimacy. If our political parties can begin to imbibe most (if not all) of these traits, then our democracy will not be self-executing.

However, democracy and institutions are sustained by leadership. In one of my articles on leadership titled “It Is Leadership We Need, Period!”, I argued that a leader must develop and exhibit the capacity for persuasion in order to win the consent of the governed and must also (much in sync with the Vice President’s statement) recognize and appreciate the desirability and inevitability of dissent and opposition to check the intrinsic delusions of power. In that way, (s)he will be respected not feared; exert influence not just power; exact consent not just compliance; have a following not just an entourage; and will be surrounded by imitators not just subordinates.

The concept of the paramounce of institutions, democracy and leadership did not originate from the Vice President, it is standard mantra in development literature. But he has raised his voice from the inner sanctum which should not be overlooked because his involvement in contemporary Nigerian politics and the strategic position he occupies in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, not only as the country’s Vice President but also as a leader of a core group within the party places him on an important pedestal. From there, he can convert and rally an armada of politicians behind these ideas for the good of the country. Even if his outbursts about the judiciary after the tribunal verdict on the Adamawa State 2003 governorship elections, his alleged role in events in the politics of his home state as it affects Senator Jubril Aminu and Brig. Gen. Buba Marwa, unfavourable but widely perceived matters bordering on the privatization programme as well as other allegations of amassment all fly in the face of these his recent intelligent statements it will be unfair to dismiss the message with a wave of the hand because of the messenger. But this means that the Vice President has to go beyond the rhetoric and show that he means what he has said and that it is not just political talk. He can do this by increasingly pushing these ideas with persistence and constancy and also build a broad coalition behind them. The VP should also outline his forward strategy to advance them in his agenda for the country. There is a vast constituency of Nigerians at home and abroad yearning for a different type of politics in our country that will be driven by ideas.

On our part as citizens, we should also take the discussion from here into 2007 by bringing issues such as these to the warfront of political discourse in order to get most of our politicians to begin to think. Fortunately, the media has shown the capacity and capability to encourage such constructive commentaries. Expansions in information technology have also enabled the Internet to be a frontline medium for literary conversations. A visit to websites such as,,, and, among many others will confirm the intellectual and commentarial ingenuity of Nigerians. We must also begin to move our words into action by putting our money where our mouth is.

Prof. Charles Soludo described Nigeria as “a miracle waiting to happen” and I believe that every Nigerian has, at one time or another, acknowledged that we have the resources – human, material, financial and natural – to make that miracle happen. But over the years, our leaders and politicians have taken us on a shameful ride from the giant of Africa to what Prof. Wole Soyinka called “an open sore of a continent”. We desperately need strong institutions, a thriving democracy and good leadership to move this country in the right direction and the Vice President was right in his recent analyses on how they can evolve.