Nigeria Needs Strong Institutions Not Strong Men
‘Africa does not need strong men, they need strong Institutions’. On Saturday, July 11th, US President Barack Obama made this profound statement in Accra Ghana.
But in real life, civil servants want to work for decisive and, yes, courageous Minsiters. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the office of a ditherer; this applies as much to the relationship between civil servant and minister as it does to any other field of human endeavour.
Thus it is that Nigerians are as fed up and frustrated as they have ever been with any government: Mallam Umaru Yar’adua's inability as President to take quick decisions, on even minor matters, caused the entire machinery of government to grind almost to halt from the day he moved into Aso Rock.
On the other hand, Despite the corruption and abuse of power that characterised his government, some Nigerians have started to long for former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s decisive, albeit strong-arm tactics.
Elsewhere, the US President, in what has come to characterize his message to Africa, said “Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power”. He then added: “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”
On the surface; it is difficult to disagree with the Presidents statement. On careful reflection, however, it raises a few questions:
How does one build strong institutions? Are all strong institutions good? Can strong institutions be built without strong men? What has been Nigeria’s experience with strong leaders? And finally, what about the win-win situation of having both strong leaders and strong Institutions?
This question is pertinent because of a fallacy that is being perpetuated among Nigerians today – the false idea that a JJ Rawlins is needed to save Nigeria - Or more dangerously; the notion that a bloody revolution, “is the only way” for the country.
The idea of a bloody revolution is concomitant to a strong leader. For in the absence of such leader, the mass hysteria easily descends to anarchy.
Part 2 of this article will discuss the lazy idea of waiting for a strong revolutionary leader to save us from the morass we have found ourselves in, but just think of some of the recent strong leaders: General Ibrahim Babangida, General Sani Abacha, and Ft. Lt. Rawlings of Ghana, Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya and even General Olusegun Obasanjo.
What were their records? These brutally suppressed their people; looted the economy; entrenched dictatorship; destroyed the moral fabrics of the nation, militarized the populace and sought to perpetuate themselves in power even as their praise singers hailed them as wise and visionary leaders.
President Obama also said: ‘To realize Africa’s promise, we must recognize a fundamental truth that development depends upon good governance’.
So what if these strong leaders delivered good governance?
As an aside, in a report that is probably apocryphal, President Rawlings is reported to have turned to his wife when President Obama said this and said “We did not stage coups. We launched revolutions that freed the masses!” and immediately after Obama’s speech, he organized a press conference to denigrate some of Obama’s insinuations.
But don’t we need brave men?
All over the world, America is hailed for the strength of its institutions and its democracy but little attention is paid to the men who built those institutions.
It took some brave men who risked their lives and fortunes to found America. Men like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
It took Justice Marshall and some bold rulings like “Marbury versus Madison” by the US Supreme Court to setAmerica’s judiciary on its way to the strong and independent judiciary it has become. In “Marbury versusMadison”, the Supreme Court ruled that the judiciary had the power to determine whether an action by the executive branch and by implication the congress was constitutional.It took the strong Presidency of Andrew Jackson to reign in the banks. It took the strong President Abraham Lincoln to end slavery with the “Emancipation Proclamation” during the civil war.
It took the strong Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt to keep the World free from the threat of Nazism. Thus from America’s own history, strong men have always been indispensable to strong institutions.
As French philosopher Monet put it succinctly “Nothing is possible without men but nothing can be lasting without institutions”.
Here in Africa, apart from the bad strong men who staged coups, had one-party governments and declared presidencies for life, there were other strong men.
Danquah was a strong man who stood up to the dictatorship of Nkrumah and died in prison so that his descendants would live free. Nelson Mandela is a strong man who stood up to apartheid and spent decades in prison so that his country would have racial equality. Odinga Odinga was a strong man who stood up for aKenya that would be free and just.
Do we have Nigerian strong men?
Moshood Abiola was a strong man who stood for a free and democratic Nigeria and paid with his life. His wife Kudirat was a brave woman who died a martyr in the struggle for a democratic Nigeria. Ken Saro Wiwa refused to be cowed by Abacha’s murderous machine. Nnamdi Azikiwe courageously fought for Nigeria’sIndependence. Tai Solarin courageously stood for his principles.
As head of powerful Institutions, Nuhu Ribadu and Dora Akunyili risked life and limbs to satisfy their conscience that they have done their best for the fatherland.
Yes, we need strong men-- good strong men who would build the strong institutions that we need.
We also need Good Institutions for while there have been good strong men throughout history, there have also been bad strong institutions.
The oppression of the people of Eastern Europe was done with the help of some of the most powerful institutions in history: the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the KGB and communist armies.
As far as institutions go, is it good for all our institutions to be strong? Will stronger Armed Forces be better for our development?
Perhaps, the strongest and most enduring institution in the history of modern Nigeria is its armed Forces. Have our armed forces been a force for good or for evil?
What about strong international Institutions? In the last half century, no other institutions have shaped Africamore than the World Bank and the IMF. They have prescribed bitter economic medicine to government after government that has led to suffering and coups. They were and are very powerful institutions. But were they helpful?
So talking of strong men and strong institutions, the issue is whether "strong men" operate within deeply embedded democratic, transparent and accountable structures which in broad turns the electorate perceives as acceptable.
For instance, the political structures in which Abraham Lincoln operated were based entirely on the constitutional "device" of the democratically elected American Congress, with all its murkiness, its lobbies, its cabals and its shifting party allegiances.
It was his ability to work with and within, and to finally dominate that "device" that gave strength and success to what in fact were his profoundly divisive anti slavery policies (divisive to the extent that the policy gave rise to Civil War).
However, outcome of the Civil War was embodied in the representative post civil war politics as they were worked out in Congress through the rise of the Republican Party whose base was primarily in the defeated Southern States.
In other words, having lost the civil war the defeated South were able to use the democratic "devices" embodied in the Constitution as expressed in the democratically elected Congress to achieve a voice that was to all intents and purposes integrated within the constitutional structures the United States and it's representative bodies - including one might add, the Presidency itself. (A strong lesson for Ndigbo)
Much the same mechanisms were to be used in the 60's as the Civil Rights movement began to push for a more inclusive understanding of what was meant by "the electorate" to achieve a voice for the black constituency, using the constitutional "devices" of the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the elected Congress. The outcome to put it simply some 40 years later was the election of Obama Barack. (A strong lesson for our NGO’s)
Therefore in condemning strong men, I do not think for one moment that Barack does not believe that politics requires strong men - I would have though that he would hope to regard himself as one.
What matters is whether these "strong men" operate within structures that their electorate of what ever political persuasion finds broadly acceptable and over which a consensus a modus operandi can be achieved.
Their success as politicians enhances those structures as giving hope to their electorate that they are on a road to better times as a broadly united national and cohesive political and social entity.
A win-win situation is where a strong leader operates alongside strong Institutions each serving as checks and balances on the other as envisaged by the founders of American democracy with its three tiers of government. (Nigeria experienced something akin to this ideal situation during Obasanjo’s first term when Chuba Okadigbo was the president of Senate and Umar Ghali Na’aba was the speaker of the House of Representatives, a golden combination. Unfortunately, such a wonderful arrangement could not last)
The alternative is what we commonly call "dictatorship" either on the part of one "strong man", a cabal or an oligarch. I do not think that that is what Barack was talking about in Accra.
Obama was talking in a figurative or metaphorical sense; Strongmen, referring mainly to military leaders wielding guns or military turned civilian dictators who abound on our continent.
The types of leaders like Ribadu, Okadigbo and Mandela were not the type of strongmen Obama was referring to. Tai Solarin and Mandela belong to the class I would say had the courage of their conviction, principled men, men of integrity and not strongmen.
The strong institutions Obama referred to was not in the literal sense of strong institutions like the oppressive communist parties or military regimes. Obama was obviously referring to effective and efficient institutions of law enforcement, good governance and the rule of law.
Obama‘s message was targeted at the dictators and other lootocrats, who may be guilty of brutality and bad governance and who he did not want to continue to blame the west for all our woes.
That is why; a revolution is needed in Nigeria, but not a bloody revolution.
Instead of lazilly waiting for “our own JJ Rawlings”; Instead of indirectly inviting another military coup- yes that is what it is, all those advocating a bloody revolution are just cowards that refuse to acknowledge that they are indeed wishing for a military coup -We need a strong and organized civil populace, we need a transparent and independent judiciary that can stand up to our governments and bring justice to our people. We must be very careful of what we wish for, lest it come back to haunt us! The events of 1993 is enough warning!
Revolutions in the majority of cases does not lead to the betterment of the country, in fact, in the aftermath of most revolutions, strong ruthless men emerge to assume even more fearsome powers that the people often with for the overthrown power to come back. The example of King Charles 1 and the English Parliamentary wars is a case in point.
At the death of Sani Abacha, his successors were the same people that collaborated in his evil regime – the James Iboris’ Ojo Maduekwe’s, Baba Gana kingibe’s etc. whereas all the democracy activists lost out!
We need a strong and independent Legislature that will do real executive oversight.
All across Africa, we need strong institutions of accountability that will call our political leaders to account when they are chopping our money “nyafu-nyafu”.
Only strong men can build and maintain these institutions. No insecure or weak President can lead these reforms.
No sycophantic executives in the EFCC or ICPC can ever investigate fraud and follow the leads all the way to the Presidency, if necessary.
A National Assembly whose membership is filled with corrupt 419ers, with sycophantic “yes-men” and women whose only answer to a President’s demand to jump is “how high, sir” will never do effective executive oversight, regardless of what our constitution and our laws say.
We need strong institutions. But we need even more, good, strong men and women, filled with integrity and patriotism, to build these institutions, to nurture our spirits and to stand up for the highest ideals of our country and our continent.
As we move forward, we must be conscious that even the good strong men, being human, do bad things sometimes. A Nuhu Ribadu might still bow to an Obasanjo.
Yet, they must not. No amount of institutional safeguards can check the abuse of power without men prepared to assert institutional strictures and higher ideals. But an alert and watchful population could stop them from overstepping their bounds.
We must not entirely rely on the conscience and sense of propriety of the occupants of its critical offices. As Richard Nixon once said perceptively, “Sometimes, we must save the Presidency from the President”.
Finally, strong institutions do not just exist on paper. They are living, breathing institutions, always striving to get better and to be more in tune with our nation’s aspirations.
Let us move forward, together, united in the belief that we need many strong institutions but also, many, many strong men and women, to maintain the strength of these institutions.
That is the essence of Obama's message: lets look ourselves in the mirror, a message which was timely at time we have resurgence of coups and African states have condemned at their last summit in Libya and which message should not be watered down by an appeal to the arguments used by the self same dictators or African nationalism or populism lest we encourage them to shirk their obligation to respect the rule of law and practice good governance.
Our leaders need to be held accountable for the way they use our resources and not to steal state monies, or fail to do the fundamental things to ensure development, education, honesty etc.
No amount of bloody revolutions would do that for us. No amount of internet wrangling would do that for us. No amount of dreaming and wishing for the army to comeback would do that for us. a revolution is impossible inNigeria, because of our history and disparate tribes.
Finally, may I crave your indulgence to repeat myself: a revolution is needed in Nigeria, but not a bloody revolution. Instead of waiting for “our own JJ Rawlings”; Instead of indirectly inviting another military coup- yes that is what it is, all those advocating a bloody revolution are just cowards that refuse to acknowledge that they are indeed wishing for a military coup -We need a strong and organized civil populace, we need a transparent and independent judiciary that can stand up to our governments and bring justice to our people. We must be very careful of what we wish for, lest it come back to haunt us! The events of 1993 is enough warning!
“The police, the military, the civil service, the judiciary, have all been compromised. This is the billion-dollar question: how do you resuscitate the institutions that run the country?” - Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who competed in the presidential elections in 2007.
By Daniel Elombah
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