Our Democracy Should Domesticate Equity – Bobo Brown

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Veteran journalist,
motivational speaker and former National President of the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations Practioners, Amaopusenibo Bobo Brown spoke  with the Group Deputy News Editor of The Tide, Dr. Alpheaus Paul-Worika on Nigeria’s democratic journey. Excerpts.
May 29 has become a watershed in Nigeria’s democratisation process. What’s your assessment of the journey since 1999.
After fifteen years of democratic rule, one would have expected that for a people who have been on this journey for 15 years, we would stop and ask if the direction we are following is leading to the way we wish to go, what is wrong with the vehicle we are taking and the speed with which we are going, and where the various traffic signs we are seeing on the way are leading to?
The National Conference was for me, an opportunity for self discovery and mission redefinition. Unfortunately for many Nigerians especially those of us in the South-South, political considerations were placed above fundamental national issues and that scuttled mass involvement in developing the agenda for the national conference. That is, mass involvement in developing the platforms of each state or regional group delegation to the conference.
In effect, while regions like the South West and the North came with fairly respectable coherent agenda as a bargaining point, those from the South did not have the benefit of thought-leadership that really defines the articulation of issues and options around them to guide their contributions in the national conference so, 15 years after, you can say several things are wrong with our attempts at democratisation.
As an example, we have three tiers of government in our Federal system but the local governments are more like appendages of the states. So the interest of the State governments has crippled the functionality of the local government as they are no longer a vibrant mechanism for national development at the grassroot level.
The second level of distortion of our democracy is what happens in terms of separation of powers. The judiciary, legislature and executive arms are supposed to be the functional compartments of democracy but, what we have seen since 1999 is that the legislature is the first victim of executive gallantry, the governors in each State first conquer the legislature and then they can sleep well with their eyes closed.
With this mentality, it becomes difficult for the checks and balance necessary for the process of good governance. At the Federal level, the brick bat  between the Presidency and the National  Assembly have largely helped to create a sense of balance and to shape the way the nation is approaching democracy with all the faults and all. But you can still see a certain direction that efforts are being made to check the executive arm and the executive arm in turn is making efforts to check the excesses of the legislature where necessary. But at the State level, this is not happening. So Nigeria’s democracy began with a badly damaged vehicle in terms of tiers of government and in terms of separation of powers. Now the judiciary has also become suspect.
The crisis of dictatorial powers and influence has spread to the judiciary as there are signs that the judiciary is no longer protected from the overwhelming influence of the executive arm of government. So one problem with our democracy is the excessive powers of the executive arm of government and unless that is corrected, the entire process becomes questionable in terms of what it can achieve.
You see the result in the mass poverty, in the mistaking priority of States, in the aborted aspiration of the people, in the mismatch between the priorities of those who govern the people. We did a study in Rivers State in July last year in the height of the brick bat between Gov. Amaechi and President Jonathan. We listed five issues in order of importance for critical stakeholders in the Niger Delta. It was amazing that the issue between the President and the governor ranked the last in the opinion of critical stakeholders.
To the respondents the priorities were how public funds were being used, how investments in productive areas will drive the economy and create jobs. Also they wanted to be consulted and shown respect by those in government. They considered the quarrel between the governor and the president as based on personal interests which should not be mentioned at all at that point in time. Insecurity in the country, unemployment, mass poverty, the sense of anguish and lack of breathing space among the combatants in the political arena have shown  that something is wrong with our democracy.
One of the issues in public domain is the issue of financial autonomy for the judiciary. Will it not lead to dictatorship of the judiciary? Can it stabilize democracy?
Yes, what we have seen in the last 15 years is that dictatorship has been replicating itself at every level. It points to the fact that something is wrong with the model of democracy we have. For example, take Rivers State as a leading member of the South South coalition of minorities, asking for our voice to be heard, for our identities to be known in our dealings with others, but this is not the case. We talk about zoning principle at the centre so that every part of Nigeria will taste power, that you will see mutual respect reflected among ethnic groups.  But this is not happening because in our states and local governments we are not willing to practice it.
What we practice is the philosophy of zero-sum game; what you have you keep and until the other can snatch it from you, it doesn’t go round. So dictatorial tendencies are allowed to incubate. But as  late Claude Ake said, you cannot democratize without democrats. So the first things we need to do is to democratize our philosophy, orientation and attitude. Democracy expects you to respect what the other person stands for even when you do not agree with him. We see those in power seeking to maximize power. We need to domesticate the principle of equity as the pattern of democracy we have tends to make power incremental ad totalitarian.
Nobody wants to share power so even if the court rules in favour of financial autonomy for the judiciary it does not say anything about internal democracy which is necessary to free the judiciary from the overwhelming bias of a hierarchical structure.  Institutional dictatorship is a threat to democracy. After all, the legislature has enjoyed some level of financial autonomy, but at the National Assembly between 1999 and 2003 we had a very high turnover of speakers.
Does it explain the issue of impunity in the political space and social discourse?
Impunity is in my view a carryover from the military era. It is culture of dictatorship. During the financial crisis in Europe from 2009-2011, I read a report about Europeans’ protesting against received knowledge and the culture of dictatorship because it was a part of them as many of them were born into it. When I looked at the transition to democracy in Nigeria since 1999, I see a gap. I saw that the political elite in 1999 were quick to position themselves to get power and enjoy the exclusiveness which the military enjoyed because the constitution we had was not justiciable in many areas. The military regime did not give the people the opportunity to overthrow the very system that held them captive. So the people including the press is worse off today than they were before the advent of democracy.
The level of access to the media is very high in Rivers State. It is about 85% according to a study and one of the highest in the country, but do people still believe the media, not so much. They would rather see the actions themselves rather than believe the content of the media.  In 1979, when Alhaji Shehu Shagari assumed office, newspapers had remarkable influence and the role of journalists was highly respected. In this era, the power of the media to mobilize and galvanize action is diminishing and the media is being weakened. Many media establishments are collapsing. Not many people are able to buy newspapers, they read for free. So our democracy has been increasingly hard on the disadvantaged.
Is our democracy all loss?
No. it is not all loss. No matter how well crafted or intentioned, public participation was bound to have glitches; but one of the great things of our democracy is that people have not gone to sleep. The contradictions in the system have created the need and hunger for change. The crisis that has been created as a result of the failure of the machinery of democracy is only a matter of time. Freedom is never given, it is taken. The wind of change in the country is blowing not because the political elite want it, but because the army of the marginalized is increasing and it is making democracy inevitable. So what we have is a wakeup call. It is not a loss for democracy.
How do you assess the information and perception challenge concerning the Chibok girls abduction?
I will look at it from two perspectives. The first is the stakeholders’ concept and its application and how an issue that becomes internationalized transforms itself, and its objectives. Stakeholders are more of groups than individuals. The debate is intense as to what stakeholder groups mean. But we can say that in Nigeria, the stakeholder groups emerging are not as thorough as they should be. Stakeholders form a force for change in society in order to create value or capture value for change. It is a term that emerged from the market economy.
As the market economy advances it creates competition and because the competitors are not equally endowed or positioned there are contradictions in the political system because of unethical practices that are undemocratic.  Stakeholder groups create valve when they enter or capture an environment with a purpose to make society better. They do not necessarily want to overthrow the system, they want to bargain with other groups to protect an interest that benefits them.
It happened in our environment.  MOSOP activities as a stakeholder group, forced the multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta to consider the issues raised by the group. MOSOP agitations were tied to other environment and human rights groups not just because of its focus on environmental concerns, but because their agitation satisfied an international agenda and tied with international interest groups led by Bodyshop, Greenpeace, the World Council of churches.
The agitations by MOSOP and other Niger Delta groups made the multinational companies to empower the oil communities. For forty years, the multinational companies did not have a window or corridor for local communities empowerment, but with stakeholder agitations in the late 1990s,   international pressure was brought on the multinational companies such that they began to open corridors for local contractors. We are now seeing a lot of changes including where a Niger Delta man has become president. The commutative efforts of stakeholder groups have seen the Niger Delta produce the president. Nobody gave the Niger Delta a chance, but it was the result of the cumulative effort of local stakeholder groups. Unfortunately, stakeholder groups lack cohesion.
The only government that in my view, has given impetus to such stakeholder group is the Rivers Governor Chibuike  Amaechi, who instituted a programme of policy formulation by holding stakeholder summits, but those around him paid lip service to his interest and his passion for public participation by padding those platforms with sycophants, but it was still better than nothing.
In 2010, when President Yar’Adua was ailing, those who fought the battle for then vice president Goodluck Jonathan to be sworn in as acting president where traditional, pre-capitalist, stakeholder groups and ethnic associations such as the Arewa, Afenifere, youth groups, churches etc. Part of the problem we have as a democracy is because the stakeholder environment has not been positive enough. Where stakeholder support groups do not exist, democracy flounders. For instance you cannot talk about democracy in America without the active role of stakeholder groups. The anti-wall street movement of 2011 – 2012 helped to shape the character of the campaign for Obama while the anti-war stakeholder group against America’s external wars helped to strengthen Obama’s platform not because they like him more but because the stakeholder platform had raised the issues beyond colour.

Participants at the 2nd International State Conference on Democracy and Good Governance in Port Harcourt, yesterday. Among them are General Manager, Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, Mr. Celestine Ogolo (left) and General Manager, Rivers State Television, Mr. Tonye Ekong (middle).
Participants at the 2nd International State Conference on Democracy and Good Governance in Port Harcourt, yesterday. Among them are General Manager, Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, Mr. Celestine Ogolo (left) and General Manager, Rivers State Television, Mr. Tonye Ekong (middle).