Letter No. 3
The Fireside Critic
I call myself the fireside critic, because as a social critic I do not engage in public discourse to launch verbal missiles; I do so to offer constructive criticism that would help to make the world a better place.
Dear President Umaru Yar’Adua:
Good morning. I hope all is well with you. In this third letter to you, please permit me to meditate on two of the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) that you rejected, namely the recommendations that the National Judicial Council (NJC) appoint the heads of the electoral bodies and that all electoral disputes be concluded before a victor is sworn into office. Mr. President, these are recommendations that are crucial to the growth of our democracy and nation.
Mr. President, as an astute politician and observer of history, you must have realized that nations whose democracies are always in a state of entropy or destructive combustion are invariably always in a state of stasis or regression. It is little wonder that though in 1960 much was expected of us as a result of our enormous wealth in natural and human resources, we have stumbled from one precipice to another, taking one step forward and three steps backward, our expectations and lofty but attainable goals shattered again and again in the wastelands of self-destructive habits and unfilled potential. Mr. President, contrast our self-immolating efforts and inability to rise to the challenges of nationhood with that of India, a stable democracy, and it is no surprise why the world’s biggest democracy has steadily forged ahead, making the sort of incremental growth that in the decades to come will transform it into one of the major economic powers of the world.
Mr. President, at birth every man is entitled to an epitaph: He was born. He lived. He died. But for some, this epitaph is not enough, for the work they had done in the lives of others, the finger prints they had left on the fabric of their communities, states, and nations, and the footprints they had left for the rest of us compel us to elevate them above the common rung and to celebrate them in the manner of a Shakespeare, who writes in Julius Caesar, “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Act II, Scene ii), or a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who writes in “A Psalm of Life,” “Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time;/Footprints that perhaps another,/Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,/A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,/Seeing, shall take heart again.” These we celebrate, for in their lives we see the acts of sacrifice and relentless pursuit of the common good that inspire all of us to ask and give of ourselves in ways that we had thought impossible.
Mr. President, the presidency of any country, even the smallest country on the face of the earth, is an office that very few souls ever attain and one that confers on its holder a monumental privilege to build or to destroy, to heal or to wound, to elevate and fulfill the hopes and dreams of his people or to cast them down, to work for the common good, or to be mired in the pursuit of selfish interests. In short, the president of any country has the power to determine the fates of so many in a manner that very few people can.
Mr. President, it is the reason why a man or woman so blessed must always strive to build pillars on which their generation and future generations will stand and thrive. Democracy is one of such pillars. So fundamental is it to the success of modern societies that countries where the will of the people are thwarted through vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing are always mired in one problem after another. There is something in us that loves fairness and justice, such that even when we lose, the knowledge that we lost fair and square makes the bitter pill of defeat easier to swallow. When a party steals elections, it destroys the morale of the people and threatens the polity with all kinds of evil, including corruption and violence.
Suddenly, what should be a contest of ideas becomes a contest of clubs, machetes and bullets. As violence spirals out of control, society sinks deeper and deeper into a state of lawlessness, and retrogression. What little progress that was achieved is destroyed. New progress is difficult. By morning, day, and night men live in fear of their lives. Those who can afford it barricade themselves behind fortresses of iron, steel, and guards. When they venture out of their fortresses, they do so with private guards or police escorts. The politicians, particularly in the time of elections, hire thugs or militias, young men who are very often so secure in the belief that the state is brigandage and brigandage is the state, because the party in power came into power through brigandage and maintains itself through brigandage, act with impunity.
The lives of the poor and unconnected are wasted, for rarely do these brigands waste the lives of the rich and those who are connected to the corridors of power, because the brigand politician may have created a Frankenstein monster, but the monster still knows that in the brigand state, he is just a gun in the hands of the brigand politician, and if he cuts down the brigand politician, he will be threatening his own survival, for the brigand state knows how to unleash the kind of terror whose firepower he cannot match. Mr. President, most unfortunately, this has been the history of our politics, and why some of our own have called our “democracy” democrazy. It is little wonder that we have been running around in circles, while others striving for the straight path and the right way have exploded out of the blocks and left us in the dust.
Mr. President, I believe that it is this history that informed the ERC to recommend that an impartial umpire in the form of the NJC recommend for confirmation and appointment by the National Assembly those who will be in charge of conducting elections. Mr. President, this is a watershed recommendation, whose promulgation will lift us out of the perennial dance of self-destruction and futility onto the firm ground of corruption-free and vibrant democratic practices that will provide the right environment for social and economic growth and national advancement.
Mr. President, using the law of empathy, try and put yourself in the shoes of the opposition. Will you be comfortable if a member of the ruling party, which has at different times characterized elections as a matter of do-or-die, or boasted that it will be in power for the foreseeable future pick those who will conduct and decide the fates of elections? Mr. President, if as a member of the opposition, you will be very uncomfortable with such a practice, why do you support it because you and your party are currently in power? Furthermore, Mr. President, given our history of electoral corruption and violence, is it not time that we make the entire process so transparently clear and just that no party will feel cheated and, therefore, aggrieved and tempted to challenge its loss in ways that will undermine the system and make democratic gains and national development a pipe dream?
Mr. President, these same concerns apply to the second recommendation, namely, that all electoral disputes must be resolved before the victor takes office. Even in this brief republic, we have seen the enormous corruption that can take place when a government that has usurped office and is in danger of getting the boot is allowed to come into power. I was on a recent flight from Burlington, Vermont to JFK Airport, New York and was fortunate to sit across the aisle from a fellow Nigerian, who told me of the state governor who spent only six months in office
and within that short period built a monumental mansion for himself with the people’s money. Usually, such exercises even in a country such as ours are often left until the politician leaves office, but this politician clearly thinking that he could not afford the wait because a sword of Damocles was hanging over his office engaged in a breakneck speed to build a paradise for himself before he is tossed out of office.
Mr. President, you are well aware that in our dear country, in the general state of uncertainty where an office holder regards his hold on power as tenuous and likely to be lost to a court ruling, very little governance is done. Very often, the office holder is more preoccupied with grabbing as much as he can get away with. His lieutenants follow suit, and the common wealth is soon a “free for all” for the office holder and his handful of appointees. No work is done. Wasted roads continue to remain in ruin. Dilapidated schools go into further decline. Teachers are often, and most unfortunately, the first victims of these acts of lawless stuffing of private pockets. We sometimes tell them that their reward is in heaven, and they must continue to toil even if they are starving to death, because in their work lies the very integrity of the modern society. Our hospitals go into decline, and the number of stories of heart-wrenching cases of easily preventable deaths soars. Mr. President, these are the true faces of electoral corruption, aided and abetted by a system that says that an election rogue can step into office as the rightful winner goes through a ponderous process of trials and re-trials in the bid to claim his mandate.
Mr. President, with regard to these two provisions, you stand in a unique position in history afforded to very few men, even presidents. You stand in a position to reshape the polity in a way that will positively reverberate through generation after generation of your countrymen and women.
In politics, there are three categories of people: party men; statesmen; fathers of nations. Party men are those who live and die for the party, not for the country, for it is the party that delivers to them the spoils of office. Statesmen on the other hand are those who always look out for the common good, even when it clashes with the interests of their parties. Fathers of nations live and breathe the nation, for them the party is merely the vehicle through which they present themselves to the people as servants of the nation. They are usually men of unbreakable spirit, uncanny courage, extraordinary vision, and great passion. Through their words and actions, they embody the highest values and aspirations of the nation. They meet difficulties with grace, and, as a result inspire their countrymen and women to do the same. Working passionately for the common good, they lift their nations to incredible heights, and leave their nations far better than they met them.
These men and women are revered from generation to generation. They are the North Star, whose guiding light constantly sheds light on the path of the nation. When George Washington was asked to stay in office in perpetuity, he declined, because he looked not to expediency, but to the welfare of a young nation that badly needed his example of a courageous and noble adherence to term limits in the highest office of the land, so that future generations may have a worthy example to follow, and that tyranny may never be a threat to the nation as a result of the reckless ambition of one man. As a result, he laid the foundation for the most vibrant democracy in the world. With the ravages of old age closing in on him, Nelson Mandela, who had paid one of the stiffest prices of any founder of a nation, chose to step away from an office that he could have held for the rest of his life. His story will continue to serve as an inspiration to humanity for as long as the earth shall last.
Mr. President, I, therefore, encourage you not to listen to advisors and party men who see public service not as an opportunity to strike a note whose sweet melody will sustain and give hope to a severely brutalized country, but plunderers whose greed at every turn threatens to sink the ship of state. Posterity will not remember these men, even as footnotes, except in the halls of academia or amongst talking heads, but it will remember you. And whether you will be a footnote in posterity’s memory or an entire chapter as one who laid the most important building blocks for what became one of the greatest nations on earth, only you can decide.
Finally, Mr. President, please permit me to remind you of some of the words of a poem I wrote in the throes of great sorrow about our dear nation during the rule of the late Sani Abacha and the politicians who enabled him to ensure the death of the freest, fairest, and least violent election in our history and our greatest hope by far in the project of nation building. I wrote: “Fortunes rise and fortunes set/Dead men carry no chests of gold/Infants bring no minted coins/Hard labor’s sweat or some jiggery-pokery garners both/But happiness is neither here nor there./On such a wide and tenuous compass,/Men have dashed all their lives’ savings.” The second stanza: “The usurper sits in another’s throne/And with bloody hands wreaks havoc upon the land/The innocent are destroyed./The helpless are made more helpless./The town crier, battered and bloodied, is headed into jail/The jails are full of the innocent and free./On such a wide and bloody compass,/Men have dashed all their lives’ savings.”
Thank you very much for giving me your time, Mr. President.
As always, with very warm regards,