Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi is the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), he recently spoke with some newsmen in his office at the party secretariat in Abuja. He spoke on how the country has fared democratically in the last 19 years, the APC and the journey so far. TOM OKPE was there for The Daily Times.
Nigeria has embraced democratic rule for some years, what is your take on the perception that we haven’t fared better in terms of fidelity to democratic ethos as some are of the opinion that we have democracy but we don’t have democrats?
I don’t think so. If you read the work of Professor Ali Mazurui, you will see clearly that one of the pathologies of post-colonial Africa is that the choice tends to be between dictatorship and what may sometimes be regarded as anarchy.
If you look at countries that have had longest period of one party rule, or military dictatorship tend to be the most stable; whether it is Libya you talk about or Cote De Voire until recently.
So you see that some of the countries that have one party rule or have outright military dictatorship are the ones that tend to be most stable, while those ones that have had longer interactions with democratic practice tend to be the ones that appear unstable.
And why is it so? It is very simple. Dictatorship is repressive, it tends not to allow or permits opposition. It doesn’t allow dissenting opinion, it doesn’t allow views and ideologies to compete or contest.
It is command and control. Viewed in this context, you find that what you call stability is actually stability of the grave yard and that’s why when a strong man leaves the scene, the country tends to collapse completely: whether it is in Libya, or Cote D’Voire.
That tends to be the case, but when you see countries like ours that tend to prefer democratic practice, you find that because of the weakness of our democratic institutions.
Like I said, they are still very weak, given the relative youth of our country as it were and you tend to have all kind of contending forces.
So I have no doubt in mind that after the election of 1964 in the First Republic, if the military did not intervene in 1966, despite the anarchy of the election of that year, I think Nigeria would have achieved so much progress, it could have achieved greater stability.
Those parties would have been stronger, the democratic processes would have been stronger, the national parliament would have been stronger, the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) at that time would have been much stronger.
If we had taken that into 1979, maybe it is the same political parties that would have been in existence up to the Second Republic.
But if we have had that long and consistent practice of democracy, we would have had a more robust practice, a more assured stable democratic practice.
But if what has happened is that each time we attempt to be getting it right the military intervene as it happened in 1966, then we came back in 1979.
Each time we played for 4 years and it looks like we are going to have another 4 years then the military strike again then we went back to square one and we didn’t come out of it until 1999 before we now started rebuilding from the scratch.
So, I think if we are looking at the discontent or the problems that exist within the democratic space, we have to look at it from these theoretical point of view and look at how things could have played out differently, if we didn’t have the kind of military intervention that we had and allowed democracy to be practiced for as long as we have existed as a country.
With the years of democratic rule; what is your appraisal of our democratic sojourn?
I think the fact that we are celebrating 19 years of uninterrupted democratic practice is itself an achievement. It is worth celebrating by itself, given that it is the first time in our history as a country that we have this long stretch of democratic practice going to two decades.
What it means is that gradually we are leaving the specter of military rule behind us; the era of military rule is now gradually receding to a distant history in our country.
What this means is that a child that was born in 1999 will be qualified to vote in the next election and he has never lived under military rule. That’s significant in many ways.
I think for that, we should congratulate ourselves as a country and continue to work hard to build democracy, regardless of its imperfections, believing that it is the only form of government that can best serve the interest of our people.
Now having said that, if you look at some of the defining progress this country has made happened in the last 19 years.
Whether it is the revolution in Information and Telecommunication Technology, whether it is the entertainment industry, the movie industry, you can look at the broad range of the social revolution that has happened in Nigeria in the recent times, they have all happened under democratic rule.
So, these are the non tangible benefits that democracy brings to a country, because people will now have the liberty to express themselves; enterprise will thrive and that’s what has happened.
For me, I believe that we have every reason to continue to celebrate democratic rule in our country. 19 years is nothing in the life of a country. As a matter of fact, 50 years is nothing in the life of a country.
If you look at the other advanced democracies that we admire for what they have achieved, they have been in existence for hundreds of years. So, I think we are making steady progress.
There are issues, there are challenges, some of them require immediate solution: issues of poverty, health care, issues of education, but as long as we continue to work on these, I believe that definitely we will be able to deal with some of these issues.
In the last 19 years, can you really say we have tried to build strong institutions?
Certainly, even you will agree with me today that the kind of thing that was possible in the political arena, especially regarding elections in 1999 is difficult to happen these days.
Why? For the first time in 2015 we had a sitting president defeated in an election and he conceded defeat. That’s a remarkable achievement for our democracy. That’s number one.
Number two, it used to be that whenever there was an election, people will just snatch ballot boxes and papers.
Yes, some of those things may be happening in isolated cases, but the introduction of the kind of electoral system that we had in 2015 had revolutionised the voting process to a very large extent.
Now, we are talking about everybody going out to collect their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs).
So, I think now, whoever wants to rig election is going to have a herculean task. It is still possible, but what used to happen in the past that people will just sit down in one corner and write result is now extremely difficult.
Coming to governance, in the first four years of governance from 1999, we had how many Senate Presidents? Four, but by 2011 I think we had only one Senate President, David Mark, up to 2015.
Since 2015, despite all the issues that surrounded the election of the Senate leadership, we have had only one Senate President up till now. That’s evidence of stability, that’s evidence of maturity of our democratic practice.
So, I believe if we look at our democratic sojourn and we see it half way and you ask me, whether it is half empty or half full, I will tell you without equivocation that it is half full.
Yes, we have issues that we continue to deal with but like I said, 19 years in the life of a country is nothing. So we can only continue to improve from where we are.
Some concedes the abstract achievements of democracy like free speech and right of association, but have also argued that democracy hasn’t actually translated to economic growth and development for Nigeria. What is your take?
No, I don’t think so. Look at the size of our economy before democracy and I give you one seminal indicator: the liberalisation of some key public institutions like the NITEL.
I remember that up to 1999 that we started democratic rule, we used to hear stories of how market women in Ghana had mobile phones.
It was a big thing to have mobile phone, but a tangible benefit of democracy was that with that liberalisation of the telecommunication sector that has led us to where we are today and the effect it has had on so many other things. That’s number one.
Number two, don’t forget that we say we have ten million children out of school, but the introduction of Universal Basic Education (UBE) came with democracy.
The launch of UBE in 1999 had brought more children into school than any other time in our history. That’s a major achievement of democracy.
So, you can count so many others like that. If you look at a lot of things that started in 1999 in terms of governance reforms and reform of some of the key institutions of government that we have today, then you will agree with me that we have made a lot of progress.
I will give you one example. National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) was a creation of the military, but even back then, despite military rule, we had more issues to deal with in terms of drugs and narcotic control than we have to deal with today under civilian administration since 1999. So we have made some progress.
It is possible for us to look at the challenges and say nothing has happened, nothing has changed, but a lot of things have changed. If you left Nigeria in 1998 and come back today I am sure even you, will be amazed with the level of progress that Nigeria has made.
But, what is your take on the argument that we should prune certain institutions, to reduce the cost of governance? Some have argued that we don’t really need bi-cameral legislature in Nigeria, do you agree?
Well, that’s a constitutional issue and I don’t have any opinion on it. I don’t even think we should look at it from the point of view of cost alone.
Without prejudice to cost implication of the bi-cameral system, I think our founding fathers that gave us bi-cameral legislature knew why they did so and I think we shouldn’t take that kind of decision whether to return to one cameral legislature, based on consideration for cost alone.
If you want to prune cost, there are so many other things you can look at. Like someone said, for forms of government, let fools contend, whatever is best administered is the best. So, I think the question we should ask ourselves is why you need a bi-cameral legislature.
Can our people be best represented, if we have a uni-cameral legislature, can they be best served if we have bi-cameral legislature? I think these are the questions we should be asking ourselves.
There are some who have advocated for the scrapping of local government, that we don’t really need three tiers of government.
So, the question we should ask ourselves is in terms of bringing development to our people, do we need local government? If the answer is yes, then the first consideration shouldn’t be when we need to cut cost, therefore we should scrap local government.
The question will be that we need local governments. If the answer is we don’t need local governments, then the consideration will not be about cost.
We should have a philosophical reason, looking at all the issues around our democracy and the need to bring development to our people while we are saying that we don’t need local government.
I don’t think such fundamental life changing decision should be taken out of consideration for cost alone. No, I don’t think so.
I think the fact that we are celebrating 19 years of uninterrupted democratic practice is itself an achievement. It is worth celebrating by itself, given that it is the first time in our history as a country that we have this long stretch of democratic practice going to two decades. What it means is that gradually we are leaving the specter of military rule behind us; the era of military rule is now gradually receding to a distant history in our country. What this means is that a child that was born in 1999 will be qualified to vote in the next election and he has never lived under military rule