By Ayisha Osori
Greetings. Salutations. Acknowledgements.
My salutations to the organizers of LABAF for their commitment to the arts and playing a role in shaping our collective consciousness and for the interesting theme for 2021. 2021 is the year following the year of global pandemic shutdown, the year following Oct 20 2020, the year of a hundred headlines on banditry, kidnappings, murders and increasing insecurity: Orita meta.
A fork in the road. An inflection point. That is where Nigeria and indeed where the world is today as we gaze into an uncertain future with climate change, democracy in recession with authoritarians, populists riding the wave of disaffection, tenure elongation, coups, civil wars and economies reeling from a combination of the pandemic and years of making bad choices.
It is our decisions that have determined the paths we have taken, and it is the paths we have taken that have led us, Nigeria to where we are today: a broken nation: crashing, thrashing, flailing, hemorrhaging profusely, but willfully oblivious to the fact, determined not to feel any pain and insistent not only on bravado but on silencing every voice and narrative that points out the obvious about our gapping wounds, loss of blood and increasing weakness.
Where do we go from here? What direction do we take to ensure we are moving forward as a nation? Not going in circles, keeping the illusion of movement but actually making progress however we define progress: being better than we were yesterday, a year ago, 10 years ago. Where do we go from here? Can we go back? Why would we want to? Or do we have only two options, to go left, or to go right?
But first I want to tell you a short story.
A long time ago, [during the time of Ifa] things were a big mess – bandits were supreme, children/women were dying of hunger, illness and being killed. There was silence from the King and his council. It was as if nothing was wrong. The young people of the land gathered to discuss the situation and figure out what to do. One of the young people at the meeting was Opintan, who was well respected by their peers. Encouraged by Opintan, the young people decided to go to the king and ask him to consult Ifa to find out what the problems were, why there was so much suffering in the land. Along with the request, they offered to pay for the divination, they had collected all they had and gave it to the king, in case lack of money was the reason the king had not thought of this.
When Ifa was consulted, the people of the land were advised to make a sacrifice – and with that sacrifice, the secrets of every person in the King’s council would be fully revealed to the public. everything. The enemies of the land, the source of the problems of the people all would be known. When the king heard this, he got very angry and drove the divinator out of his palace.
The young people realized from the advice and the response that the problem was within the King’s council and the elders and that nothing was going to change soon unless they got rid of them. That night, deep in the dark between night and morning, all over the land, the young people started killing their parents, starting with the king at the hands of his own children.
Back to the present
Over decades, Nigerians have made many big and small collective decisions – remember silence is typically acquiescence – that have led us to the gulley where we all sit and three critical junctures in Nigeria’s history stand out for today’s purpose of divining, reflecting on where to go from here.
The first juncture is the 1964 & 65 elections and the decisions made then which created a series of chain reactions that led us directly to the 1967-70 civil war which we are still dealing with today in various manifestations.
What decision was made in 1964 & 65?
By the 1964 elections – things were already falling apart. The coalition of 1959 between the Nigerian Peoples Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) had been shattered, the 1963 consensus was the final straw. The cohesive element of our political parties prior to independence was ethnicity and it always made for uneasy alliances, nevertheless, new coalitions were cobbled together with UPGA/NNA as the main contender. All used their powers of incumbency – in the east, north and west, to frustrate the opposition as best they could. A snippet in the words of Aminu Kano:
“Thousands upon thousands of our party supporters were dumped into jails like bundles of wood or animals; some were brutally killed…wickedness in its highest magnitude was let loose and the ordinary mass of men were terrorized, stunned to silence and fear…law and order were raped…It was the most wicked and devilish doctrine which could not be conceived in hell itself…it was an example of sadism from which even a barbarian can shrink.” The elections held on Dec 30 1964 despite the fraught situation (decision) with UPGA boycotting the elections in the West (decision). The NNA ‘won’ more parliamentary seats than the UPGA and the incumbent Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, after a short period was invited to form a government.
Balewa would form a ‘broad-based government’. with 54 ministers – double the size of Balewa’s first term was formed with the opposition – but only the NCNC, excluding the Action Group who had been ‘out of power’ at the center since 1959 elections and in the West since 1962 when a state of emergency was declared due to the AG crisis.There was hope: the October 1965 elections in the West where democracy had been suspended for the last 3 years. However – NNDP- Akintola’s party was declared winner and violence broke out as UPGA members/supporters (remember UPGA was made up of AG and NCNC) apart from declaring themselves also winners, complained about the electoral fraud which incidentally was admitted by the Chairman of the Electoral Commission when he confirmed that irregularity was the hallmark of the 1965 election.
Law and order broke down with the killing and burning of properties of political opponents, etc. The resultant violence claimed the lives of several hundreds of people on both sides of the conflict. Yet despite calls for the declaration of a state of emergency in Western Nigeria and the declaration of the police that the restoration of law and order was virtually beyond it; Tafawa Balewa refused insisting that the 1965 anarchy in Western Nigeria was incomparable with the 1962 situation in the Region and that the Federal Government could not declare a state of emergency in a region with a legally constituted government.
Since the political class had no solution to the crisis and were the cause of the crisis – with the insistence on staying in power which necessitates rigging elections and deploying violence, the military struck and stayed in power from Jan 1966 – until May 29 1999 with the exception of the 4 years and 2 months between 1979-1983 and the months in 1994 when Shonekan was the interim head of state. When one considers the determining role of the military in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th republics as well as the drafting of our constitution it is clear the military has shaped every aspect of Nigeria’s socio, economic and political realities including our democratic culture and tolerance for abuse. It is safe to conclude that the military never really left and the president we have today is a testament to that.The second juncture /inflection in our national trajectory was in the hours between Dec 31 1983 & Jan 1 1984
Why did we welcome the military?
By Dec 31 1983, when the military inserted themselves back into open control, Nigeria was again a mess or maybe more accurate to say ‘still a mess’. Another controversial and rancorous election had recently been executed, retaining power in NPN just as the party’s predecessor, NPC, retained power after controversial and violent elections in 1964. Although the elections were relatively peaceful, by the end of 1983, months after Shagari was sworn in for his 2nd term, it was clear from his cabinet, is it was for some post 2015 and again in 2019, that Nigerians could expect only more of the same.
The public were ecstatic – the military had officially become our ‘opposition’ and it mattered not to us if the return was via the power of guns, and not through the power of our votes. We made a decision, took a turn firmly on a path: to not ask questions about why our democracy seemed to start, splutter and stop and to accept a quick win/fast gain, to see the military as saviors instead of what they were, upstarts with dubious legitimacy. Besides, the Buhari-Idiagbon regime maintained many of the policies of the Shagari administration, why then did they need to strike? There are indications that those who executed the coup on the eve of 1984, did so to pre-empt junior officers with a more radical plan for Nigeria.
“You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years. I am referring to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. Health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment. Our educational system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the undergraduates have reached embarrassing and unacceptable proportions. In some states, workers are being owed salary arrears of eight to twelve months and in others there are threats of salary cuts.Yet our leaders revel in squandermania, corruption and indiscipline, and continue to proliferate public appointments in complete disregard of our stark economic realities.”
By the time we were jubilating on new year’s day, a new dawn with men in military that only four years before we were aching to see the backs of 10 out of 16 countries were under military rule when at the end of 1979, only five states in the sub-region had soldiers in power. We refused to see things as they were/are: that within the military all across Africa, there were cliques who believed they were entitled to power and the spoils of power and we welcomed them instead of understanding, from Egypt, Sudan etc. that the military have no redemptive value in building and sustaining democracy and democratic ethos.
We refused to see that a troubled democracy is cured not by less democracy, but by more. Instead, we welcomed, unknown to us at the time, 20 years of military wilderness, to bake in the colonial exploitative, extractive and oppressive (find another e synonym) system. Worse, there are nigerians, who deprived of a sound education and strong community system, think ‘democracy is not working’, looking longingly at the hard man in khaki to whip them into shape. Again – looking for the short cut where there are none.
The third inflection was in 1999 when members, stakeholders of the pro-democracy movement boycotted the Abdulsalam Abubakar transition program, paving the way for the elements –that we have with us today, to entrench themselves into the system.
One reason was due to a mistrust that was not illogical. Nigerians had been on the transition roller coaster before – we had the long drawn-out charade of Babangida with the SDP and NRC which ended disastrously and resulted in the end of the Babangida regime because there was no path to recovery of any integrity for him to oversee another transition after the 1993 elections. Then we had the Abacha [charade/synonym] with the 5 parties famously described as leprous fingers of Abacha’s fantasy which, some would say fate saved us from and so by the time Abdulsalam came along, he, who was part of Babangida and Abacha era, was also viewed with suspicion.
The second reason was ideological covering the process of the transition including the recommendation that a national sovereign conference precede the writing and adoption of a constitution and elections. With the rejection of their recommendations and the adoption of the 1999 constitution – a near replica of the 1979 constitution, most of the pro-democracy activists sat out the 1999 elections. With each election cycle, it has become harder for those who are considered outsiders to win party nominations and /or win elections while those who are entrenched in the system, by virtue of their own machinations or the machinations of those who control the structures, have contributed to where we are as a nation today. Regret is bitter and there are some who have not stopped beating themselves up for what some see as an own goal, a miscalculation borne of an absolutist ideology that ultimately made it easier for the bandits and adventurists amongst us to take and hold on to power.
Third, some were reluctant of being accused of opportunism, but that did not bother others – like Tinubu, who knew that the key is to get in, to not leave the space open. All the same, it is a decision that we are all living with even though there is no guarantee they would have made it in considering how stage managed the 1999 elections were.
So where do we go from here? How do we decide where to go?
The opportunities are immense.
Over the last 22 years of uninterrupted flirtation with democracy or civil government as others prefer to define what we are practicing, we have raised a generation who know nothing of overt military rule, (unfortunately they also don’t know the history), we’ve gotten used to holding routine elections and social media has proven to be a powerful tool to engage, mobilize like minds and influence government policy. The power of influence has also been democratized, as well as the means of mass broadcast but as that influence has grown, so has the fear of it as we can see with recent developments at home on the continent and abroad that elections have also become more manipulated and increasingly access to the internet and social media is being weaponized to thwart active citizens. There is also increasing cross border solidarity between citizens fighting to protect and strengthen democracy.
These are some of the ingredients that influenced my decision in 2014 to put into practice what I had been theorizing for years through articles and as CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund. I contested the PDP primaries for one of 2 FCT seats to the House of Representatives. It was quite the education – to put it politely – so eye opening that I wrote about the experience (LDNWE) as a way to democratize what I learned and share my increasing appreciation for the chokehold role our political structures and political economy play on governance, accountability and the state of our lives.
So here we are – on the eve of another election – 15 months away – about to tread a threadbare well-worn path towards hope and excitement that is really not based on any rigorous or even superficial analysis about why the 2023 election will improve our collective lives better than the one we looked towards with hope in 2015.
When a person gets to a fork in the road – there is a past and a future and the present to contextualize the decision and then there is preparation to ensure that (i) the best decision is made with regards to what path to take and (ii) chances of success on that path are assured. So here are 3 things to ensure that regardless of what path we take, we are prepared to seize every opportunity and have a long-term vision and plan to guide us through the many expected and unexpected obstacles on our way.
The first is – we must organize differently –
3 elements here: (1) the art and science of organizing must be understood and suitable models designed to provide the base around which enough of us can move the country onto the path that will yield the maximum good for the maximum number. To organize is to:
work with people to interpret why they should act to change their world (motivation) and how they can act to change it (strategy)
motivate action by deepening people’s understanding of who they are, what they want and why.
harnesses feelings of anger, courage, hopefulness, self-worth, community and urgency and challenge feelings of fear, despair, self-doubt, isolation and apathy.
It is not, as the elite, civil society, and intellectuals of Nigeria think, to pay people to come out, to pay for their bus rides, to buy them t-shirts, food or even to engage in stomach infrastructure or grass roots projects. Why? Because you cannot use the tools of the oppressor to fight the oppressor and reform the system – unless what we want is what we got in 2015 – to change faces, but not to change the culture of our politics and build a different culture of government accountability to citizens and shared understanding that there are collective responsibilities for building the nation we say we want.
(ii) organize into political platforms that do not, in anyway model the current crop – even the symbolism and optics of how we name our officials and the positions we have in those parties; women leaders, youth leaders, treasurer – will indicate if what we want is reform or what we want is Nigerian change. This allows us to field candidates of our own with similar values, ethics and vision and as organized groups it also makes joining the existing parties more effective especially when done with a view to ultimately altering them through numbers and active participation. We have to engage, participate, participate, participate – hold the line, hold the door, hold the window, make it difficult, don’t roll over and give in, throw up obstacles, create a counter balance, resist.
(iii) organize the sleeping electorate – how do we reverse the growing apathy, how do we engage to turn the rage, pain of all the injustice in different expressions around the country into political capital, how do we increase the numbers who get their PVCs and vote? In 2019, 34.75% of registered voters decided who the president would be – 28.6M ballots cast and the states with the lowest turnout from the bottom: Lagos (18%), Abia (19%), Rivers (21$), Enugu (23%) and Ogun (26%). The Anambra gubernatorial elections were won with less than 11% of the registered voters – and this does not tell us how many are not registered and since 1999, there has been an inverse proportion to our voting numbers and registered voter numbers – as the number of registered voters increases, the percentage of voters declines.
Second thing we need to do to improve our chances of success down the path we take is to challenge popular narratives about ourselves and craft new narratives- a balance of fact and poetry- that align to our collective vision. Here is one popular myth – you can’t rig where you are not popular. It’s a nonsensical statement often repeated to justify our long and well documented history of rigging elections. The rigging is a mix of the blatant and the subtle – the manipulation of the electorate – all taking place long before we excitedly moving to the polls – the voter registration process that disenfranchises, using the army for logistics – to determine who gets to start on time or not at all, the black hole that is our vote collation and the violence used to keep us home, beyond that is of course who gets to head INEC, and who the national commissioners and resident electoral commissioners are. Another tale to bury is: the votes come from the grassroots – where is the data? The numbers we do have do not tell us where the votes come from and it is more accurate to say the rigging is done at the grassroots.
To create new narratives that help with organizing and motivating, we need reliable data, we cannot continue to rely on and regurgitate the data that the government controls. Numbers have always been weaponized to promote the extractive state that the current rulers inherited from the colonialists.
“Between 1976 and 2020, Nigeria’s population has grown from 65.2 million to an estimated 200 million. This inflation on its own is suspect. But more so when you consider that the proportions of inhabitants in each region in Nigeria have basically remained the same in that period. The state by state analysis conducted in 2018 by Nigerian political commentator Feyi Fawehinmi revealed almost exact equality between each state’s population share in 1991 and 2006. All but two states retained their exact 1991 population proportions, Abuja and Abia. Kalu Aja’s analysis (2020) shows that for almost 40 years (1953-1991) the population share of the Northern, Southwestern and Southeastern regions remained constant at 55%, 25% and 19% respectively. To quote him:
“According to the data, in 39 years all regions, North and South, have grown at the same pace. Rural to Urban drift has not occurred in Nigeria! The relative proportion has remained the same! Nigerians don’t migrate. I did not say so; the Nigerian Population Commission said so.” Why are our numbers so important?
Because population (as determined by national census) determines the revenue available to states from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (distributed by the Federal Allocation Account FAAC), as well as each region’s representation in the House of Representatives and of course the numbers of voters available to vote. What states had over a million registered voters in 2019: Kano (1.96M), Kaduna (1.71M), Katsina (1.62M), Lagos (1.16M), Jigawa (1.15M), Plateau (1.06M) and Bauchi (1.06M)? what are the questions that need to be answered about these numbers? What are the platforms, systems to be deployed – we cannot win a game that is designed to oppress us; even when we win, we lose.As for the poetry that needs to be woven into our new narratives – let’s look to our history, our culture, our engagement with slave traders and colonialists – we can create a rich trove of stories that speak to our democratic, egalitarian, merit driven societies, to the checks and balances that could make us force a king to drink hemlock- when now we cannot #EndSARS and get the police we pay to stop killing and exploiting us.
And that brings me to the third thing we need to do, reflect on, to prepare us as we step onto our path at orita meta: sacrifice; because sacrifice we must. In various ways we are part of the problem as we are part of the solution. What are we prepared to give up to build a fairer, more secure, prosperous and nurturing country with collective and individual values aligned so that we begin to roll back the duality identified by Peter Ekeh as the two publics which I would argue goes deeper than a morality saved for the primordial, home base and a lack of ethics for the civic public. Where we are now, is low morality in both publics but with extreme attempts made to present in both spaces with high levels of morality and it is this hypocrisy that the young can see, smell, savor. We are at the emperor has no clothes level but no one dares speak not because we cannot see but what we will lose if we admit to what we see.
We focus on elections and the transfer of power alone but our civil and public service on the federal, state and local government level is broken We work there. Our parents work there. Our spouses work there. Our siblings. Our children. What are the sacrifices we will make for a better society, to be part of a society that is greater, bigger, more promising than we are individually- right now we are the opposite, a nation of stars – stars who have served in government, feted around the world as individuals – invited to join every international organization available but what elements of these individuals’ stardust has brightened aspects of our delivery of public goods? What we have in Nigeria is not a civil service to provide public goods and regulate the various stakeholders – it’s a welfare system that uses federal character and nepotism as a framework for the dysfunction and corruption and no one wants to touch it – because we all have representatives in the system.
To be ready for sacrifice, the demands we make of the politicians, the support we give them (within the right checks and balances) to clean up our schools, sack our relatives who are holding positions they have no skills/qualification to hold, will be clear and unequivocal. The agenda we set for politicians must include (i) public service reform – including the judiciary (ii) policy regulation for the 21st century – shorn of the sentimentality with which we have a federal university in every state but not one world class public university in the country and (iii) security sector reform – our police, army must be professionalized and re-oriented away from the entitlement to lead governments and capture privilege and patronage – a dangerous acquired taste that is a problem all over the world.
So there it is.
We are at the fork in the road – and the path we take will continue to determine everything. Nigeria is not destined to be the way it is now – we are simultaneously the hope and lately the disappointment of black people everywhere who know that we can be great. If we want our sacrifices to be accepted, if we want the universe to intercede, then we cannot continue to take the well trodden path through god fathers, or the shortcuts through alliances with the same people upholding the status quo – in some pavlovian response to ‘politics is a game of numbers’. There are supposedly 200 million of us, why is it the same 1,000 or so people that dominate the numbers’ game? We must start dreaming more and stop suffering from a crisis of imagination, a lack of vision to see what we can be – we must untie the binds to what we are right now because one needs dreams, clarity of purpose, courage, energy and a sense of purpose to approach a fork in the road.
Thank you for listening.
* Osori is a politician and political activist whose new book, ‘Love Does Not Win Election’ is making headlines; she delivered this keynote address at LABAF 2021