President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent outburst in Plateau state and his subsequent justification of his actions in a letter to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), gives a clear insight into his perceptions of a democratic government, the rights of citizens and his duty of accountability to the citizenry.
It is of course now common knowledge that the president, to put it mildly, used very unsavoury language in reply to a question by the Plateau State chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev Yakubu Pam. Broad criticism of the president’s action has cut across ethnic, religious and political divides- a rare feat in Nigeria’s political landscape which is always defined by these factors. Most commentators while accepting that Mr president is human and with human flaws, believed that no matter how provocative the question may have been in fact, or may have appeared to the President, his language was at variance with the high level of comportment and self restraint expected of the holder of the highest office in the land, even in the face of extreme provocation. There were therefore calls by several eminent persons and groups on the President to apologise not only to Rev Pam but also to Nigerians in general for bringing into disrepute the exalted office which he occupies and tarnishing the image of Nigeria and Nigerians whom he represents and upon whom every public or publicised action and utterance of his reflects. Not a few alluded to the fact that his utterances could further fuel the crisis which he intended to douse in the first place.
While I am in total agreement that the president’s language is an embarrassment to the nation for which he ought to apologise, one is much more concerned about what his words and attitudes portends for democracy in Nigeria, especially in the light of similar outbursts at several other occasions. Mr President is setting a dangerous precedent that political officials are immune from uncomfortable questions from the electorate. Clearly Mr President does not think that he ought to be questioned or criticised about his handling of national affairs except in a way he personally finds acceptable. This is further made clear in his letter to the CAN president, sections of which have been widely published. The president, predictably, has justified his language in total disregard of everything generality of Nigerians has to say on the matter. According to him, “To accuse me of taking sides against Christians in a situation of mutual genocide in Plateau State by anybody at all but particularly by a Christian who calls himself or herself a leader of the Christian body in Plateau is to say the least, destructively insulting. “It is also tantamount to accusing me of dereliction of duty and failure to perform my constitutional duties and oath of office which I took to do justice to all, at all times and all places. I will of course not take kindly to such unwarranted, undeserved, unfair and un-Christian allegation.”
In other words, Nigerians must never ask him nor accuse him of failure to perform his constitutional duties. Pray, what else will Nigerians accuse him or ask him about – his personal duty to his family? What is freedom of speech or accountability of government if not a duty to explain and justify your actions in accordance with those constitutional duties which you have sworn on oath to perform? Is the president saying that having sworn an oath to perform those duties, he alone is his own watchdog and we must believe at all times that he is acting in good faith? Yes, Rev Pam may be questioning his impartiality, but it is the president’s duty to explain and prove, over and over again, if necessary that he has acted properly!
Now democracy, as with most concepts is not susceptible to a single meaning, nor is there a single form of democratic government. However while practices between and within types of democracies differ, there are some underlying principles which characterize any government that must be identified as democratic, be it parliamentary or presidential, multiparty or single party, African or European. One of such principles is that of accountability to the electorate. This unique quality sets it apart and makes it particularly appealing when compared to other forms government. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and democracy checkmates just by an arrangement in which no man or institution has absolute powers and where government actions are subject to scrutiny. While this to some extent is achieved through separation of powers and institutions such as the legislature and the courts, ultimate sovereign power resides in the ordinary people to whom the government is accountable. This much is clear even from the word democracy which is derived from the Greek, Demos, meaning People. To exercise sovereign power, the citizens have a right to ask questions and the leaders a duty to answer.
In line with this, citizens in most democracies have asked questions over and over again on the same issue from their elected leaders without been publicly insulted. A case in point is the questions regarding the justification of the recent war against Iraq by the coalition forces led by the United States and Britain. Even a year after the war has been officially declared to end, citizens of both countries have continued to publicly demand answers of the president and prime minister of their respective countries. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have been expressly accused of “sexing up intelligence”, in other words lying. The coalition was and continues to be accused of going to war for improper motives, i.e. oil and not for the interests of the Iraqi people or imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as these leaders claimed. Both governments were accused of selective treatment considering that North Korea openly acknowledged that it was pursuing a nuclear programme and was not attacked while Iraq which claimed not to have one and from where weapons inspectors had found no WMDs was attacked. More recently, following pictures showing abuse of prisoners in Iraqi prisons, the coalition, especially the US has been accused of systemic abuse with orders coming from higher up the chain of command than just the soldiers seen in the pictures.
Are these questions any less accusatory of “dereliction of duty and failure to perform … constitutional duties” than president Obasanjo perception of Rev Pam’s question? Yet on all of these occasions, neither the American nor the British leaders have lost their “cool”. They have over and over again restated their positions firmly, yet courteously. In fact on one occasion when Prime Minister Blair was publicly asked by a young student how different he was from Saddam when he, Blair contrary to the wishes of his people was intent on going to war, Blair’s reply was that the fact that the student could stand there and ask this question of the prime minister to his face without any consequences was the difference between the United Kingdom and Iraq, between a democracy and a dictatorship. This was a young university undergraduate. He represented no constituency or interest group. In fact I believe he had “gate crashed” this particular event, and yet he did not receive any opprobrium from the prime minister.
When the questions would not stop, both governments have set up independent public inquiries into their actions to prove to the people that they have acted in good faith. The Hutton Enquiry in Britain absolved Prime Minister Blair of any wrongdoing. This means, legally at least for now, the accusations against him or his government of sexing up the intelligence was “unwarranted, undeserved, and unfair.” He is yet to publicly insult anyone even now! On the issue of the abuse of prisoners, even though he had a defence secretary who should directly be blamed, the president of the United States himself, knowing the buck stops with him, apologised publicly. This is the beauty of democracy.
And it is this that every citizen of Nigeria ought to enjoy having cast off the yoke of military dictatorship. This is what I believe Nigerians fought for, several sacrificing freedom and blood. The constitution that President Obasanjo and every other elected leader swore to uphold includes this fundamental right of every Nigerian. Mr President is accountable to Nigerians in the performance of his functions and not just to his conscience or inner morality. President Obasanjo himself, giving reasons for the declaration of a state of emergency in Plateau state has shown that public actions of leaders are subject to scrutiny. I am convinced that if Governor Dariye was publicly asked if he had acted in accordance with his constitutional duties in his handling of the Plateau crisis, he would have answered in the affirmative. But Mr President or the intelligence at his disposal, upon which he relies, does not think so. In the same vein the president’s handling of the crisis is also subject to scrutiny by the ordinary people, including Rev Pam upon whom sovereignty lies.
No Nigerian ought to live in fear that asking Mr President a question would result in being vilified publicly. The constitution does not grant the president that power and if he indeed is abiding by his oath, he ought not to endow himself with such powers.