Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah and the Democratic Turn in Nigeria, By Adagbo Onoja

Adagbo-OnojaBishop Mathew Hassan Kukah’s latest intervention in Nigeria’s public debate where he posed the question as to whether Nigeria can ride the democratic wave is, indeed, a fascinating paper, not because everything the Bishop said is agreeable but because it was, as usual, brimming with the Kukahesque ambience, something that we had better begin to take more seriously against the background that he predicted the defeat of the party in power anytime from the 16th year of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. It was based on his own analysis of global trends, an analysis which has come true almost mathematically. Additionally, he has put on the table issues to reflect upon in the complicated journey of democracy in Nigeria. The paper is fascinating in yet another sense: except the late Bala Usman, there is hardly any other Nigerian with the consistency of Bishop Kukah in terms of a tireless commitment to the culture of public intellectualism. This is significant because Kukah writes academically minded debates, the defining quality of which is to raise questions. And since it is questions rather than answers (because there are really no answers anyway since today’s answer could become the problems tomorrow) that the society needs, the significance of the Kukahs amongst us cannot be estimated.

In a country where it is akin to being a criminal to hold strong opinions, the Bishop’s record is absolutely amazing and commendable. When his persistence is located in his northern space, notwithstanding his Catholic cosmopolitanism, it acquires an even greater significance. For, as Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria’s Tanimu Abubakar argues, unlike the south as a whole and the south-west in particular where the culture of debating which hangs virtually everything, from family quarrels to marital breakdown to burial rites to business wrangling or political divorces on the pages of newspapers is entrenched, the near opposite is the case in the north. Things have changed substantially since Dr Abubakar spoke in 1999 but it is not everything that has changed.

The reader of Kukah’s lecture comes away with the sense that Nigeria is not being alerted enough by those who should be drawing her attention everyday to the fluidity and diffusion which circumscribe the project of democratic transition. And how this constitutes a grave threat to democracy in a society where the habit of thinking that puts so much emphasis on evaluative categories of good or bad, right or wrong is entrenched, severely constraining the inter-subjective space.

In the 5,265 word Convocation Lecture titled “Transition to Democracy: Can Nigeria Ride the Wave?” at Ebonyi State University on April 25th, 2015, the Catholic Bishop asked if Nigeria has turned the corner in this journey on account of the recent ‘hitch-free’ election. The predictable answer is, not quite even though that, for him, is not a reason not to celebrate the outcome of the recent election. But the wave of decamping from the PDP into the APC that followed the election is something that worries him because it is a further signal that majority of what we have as politicians are committed to no ideology whatsoever, radical or conservative. As for the PDP itself, he said it had become a party of takers and buccaneers, a trajectory that he had been ‘lucky’ to have warned against each time he was invited to the party’s retreat since 1999. The end result is the situation whereby only those whose plan of buying yachts, private jets or new houses in Dubai had been aborted by the outcome of the election are aggrieved. But that does not mean there are angels anywhere, certainly not in APC. His conclusion is that there is much work to be done.

On the whole, he sees a lot of promise in the Buhari political personality, inferring that, like Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore and Singapore was Lee Kuan Yew or as in the case of Mandela and South Africa, Buhari could equally become Mr. Nigeria, describing his credentials for harmonising multiple sectarian and conflictual claims on the state as unassailable: honesty, asceticism, a sense of justice, integrity, and lack of visible show of greed”. But, as he noted, the dynamics of democratisation could still work out in such a way that democracy could provoke a war or anarchy, examples of which are so common, from Eastern Europe to Africa. In all cases, quality of leadership is decisive as well as what the international community does or doesn’t, the explanation for why South Africa or Rwanda could pull it off but not South Sudan, not yet at least.

To the extent that he mentioned this twice in the lecture, I would put it the first in his list of the works to be done. That is the celebration of Buhari’s victory in certain parts of the north in a way that suggested that Christians would have been in trouble if the outcome were otherwise. Task: how does Buhari restore confidence in government? Restoring confidence in government dovetails into reconciliation, a process which, in his opinion, Gowon’s three Rs, Obasanjo’s Oputa Panel and Umaru Yar’Adua’s Amnesty have all, individually and collectively, still not achieved. Three, is it fighting corruption or democratizing development? He favours the latter, seemingly saying that the dialectics of corruption is that there is no strategy of fighting it.

Specifically, one take away from this lecture with particular reference to the possibility of ‘a new beginning’ following Buhari’s victory is the impossibility of doing so without a robust culture of debate. But, practically all the research institutions set up to ensure such culture are either dead, limping or just dysfunctional, be it the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs or the Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution or, as everyone knows, the universities. In Nigeria, it seems once we set up these institutions for national prestige, we feel the job has been done and leave them to vegetate instead of serving as platforms for ideas. Above all, we have an attitude that categorises ideas into good and bad ones. But, in other climes, they are setting up centres and think-tanks to produce what we here might classify as ‘bad’ ideas. Why? Because it is in that ‘bad’ idea that we might find the one formula that could save society from one headache or another, depending on what is involved.

For instance, the theoretical revolution that underpinned Geography was and is still derided. But it is on that revolution that much of strategy and war today is based, solving for the West, for example, the classic problem of war: how to kill without being killed. If it solved a particular problem for the West, it can equally solve a particular problem for us. But, what is our own engagement with such theoretical developments in Nigeria, for example? Which university in Nigeria has a well funded Department of Geography or International Relations where Critical Geopolitics is well developed, given that we are a country that needs expertise in risk analysis, resilience, environmental emergencies, conflict early warning and urban management, among others. Without such preparation, we are always caught off guard by every challenge, big and small. We cannot predict conflicts and when they break out, they run their course, with heavy human toll. What a country! Kukah drew attention to this powerfully in the lecture.

Secondly, I think Kukah is also right about the futility of absolutising corruption from its social context and hoping to succeed. On the short run, yea but the long run could be disaster. This must be clear to Buhari by now given the magnitude of corruption he is returning to meet in a space of thirty years. One major problem with the bureaucratic state which Nigeria is running is that it is built around corruption. The state is supposed to be run by a set of elite who are supposed to create favourable conditions for another set of elite to invest and accumulate profit. That is, the president, the governors, ministers, legislators and the host of them are to create the enabling conditions for local and foreign investors to come and make the money while they, the power elite, are expected to walk away penniless at the end of the day. It wasn’t going to work. What Buhari can do is to not only adopt Kukah’s idea of democratising development as the anti-dote to corruption but to go beyond it and transform the bureaucratic state to the interventionist state in accordance with Chapter Two of the Constitution. Chikena! That way, the dichotomy between the bureaucratic elite and their investing counterpart is removed and, with it, the temptation to corruption.

The unsuitability of the bureaucratic state model is an old conflict in Nigeria, best illustrated, in my own interpretation, by the late Sunday Awoniyi’s encounter with Obasanjo on the issue in 1977. Awoniyi said to Obasanjo: these Permanent Secretaries you are sending away from the service on the ground that they are corrupt, they will go and form companies, come back and get government contracts and be so wealthy and powerful as to lord it over those of us whom you said are clean and retainable. My weak recollection of Obasanjo’s reply is that of something like, ‘we shall see’. As it turned out, Awoniyi was completely correct because, few years later, what he feared was exactly what happened. Those who might want to read this encounter would have to look for Alison Ayida’s pamphlet titled ‘The Nigerian Revolution’ or Obasanjo’s ‘Not My Will’, (am not sure which now).  So, it is not corruption per se but the bureaucratic state that someone should courageously chop off the head.

Doing so is both moral and constitutional and, therefore, sustainable, domestically. Internationally, it is also supported by the East Asian developmental statism about which we all marvel. But there is nothing miraculous in, say, the Chinese accomplishment beyond the Chinese State and the coherent party behind it, beautifully managing the same Neoliberalism that is so chaotic and hopeless in Nigeria. One may take note of how sensitive to the mention of anything communist party among most of our leaders but they would be missing the joke that, today, there are more communists in Italy, for instance, than in Beijing.

Besides that, the concept of the state as investor is not that strange. It might not apply to the United States but only because the US has companies like ExxonMobil, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Chase Manhattan and so on, each of which is actually an alternative to the American state. But even then, touch any of them roughly today and you will see American power. In other words, every other state in the world is, one way or the other, an investor state. I think we did not realise this very well in Nigeria and we have been “the fools of the market” in exactly the way Adamu Ciroma predicted in 1987. So, again, Kukah has a point in the strategy of democratising development.

My last take away from Kukah’s lecture is the urgency of doing something about reconciliation in the north different and parallel to a larger Nigerian reconciliation. Why should this be so? It should be so because the north has basically been a battleground since 1981. What Bala Usman aptly called the manipulation of religion in Nigeria has reached its climax in the region, given what we have seen in Kaduna, Jos, Nasarawa and Taraba. The genie of the conscientisation along religious divides cannot be put back now without some formal programmes of intervention. Things have gone beyond moral lectures by anybody. On the long run, the answer will reside in the uncapturing of the state but what happens on the short run? I see nothing less than Buhari’s personal handling of this very aspect of governance as the only way out of the state of religious siege in those states and in the north.

When the problems of reconciliation and corruption are tied together, it might look sensible to bring up again the suggestion by the late Ibrahim Tahir in a 2007 interview where he proposed a resolution of the National Assembly absolving everyone of guilt in all events in Nigeria’s history since January 15, 1966 but conditional on the implementation of what he called a parallel but integral national restitution action. That would, in his argument, require replacement of an institution such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC) with a National Restitution Council with powers to lay all materials with respect to allegedly hidden or stolen funds on the table and somehow negotiate with those allegedly holding them and agree on a move of returning them after allowing a certain percentage to be retained by the accounts holder, whether foreign or local. The point would be to initiate various legal measures and all kinds of indemnity in association with all actors-from foreign governments, banks and business houses. After this exercise, then an act of absolution in the National Assembly which would mean closing all files including of coup makers but excepting that of rapists, murderers and arsonists. When I probed Tahir on the basis for this line of reasoning, he argued that the level of corruption in Nigeria is such that the country is faced with a security issue, not just corruption issue because the guys out there with so much money can do many things.

The second leg of that approach is the one suggested by Cardinal John Onaiyekan at a NIPSS lecture also in 2007. Again, I will cut the portion of a previous column on it which captured the conditions he thinks can underpin reconciliation and turning the corner: “First and foremost is the truth. The truth means that everybody is ready to admit what he or she has done. It is not time to apportion blames or accuse one another. Nor is it time to drag in prestigious lawyers and advocates. Rather, it is time to accept that we have done wrong. Those who have stolen our money should admit that they have stolen. Those who have killed others, even in successful coups, should admit that they have killed one another. If we have not got the courage to do this, we will continue to dance around in circles. And in order that the telling of the truth may not just become racking up old wounds that will lead nowhere, it must be part of a process that leads to the next stage, namely repentance, forgiveness and reparation”. So, between Tahir, Onaiyekan and Kukah, there is a basic agreement about how to turn the corner. There must be something potentially rewarding to explore in this consensus.

Finally, finally, was it an optical illusion or a self imposed classification? I had thought that the least you could apply to Kukah other than that of a radical is clerical populism. So, how come Samuel Huntington’s democratic waves of a framework, Seymour Martin Lipset and Hannah Arendt’s quotations dominated the text, without similar generosity to their critical brethrens? But this is an allegation I withdraw immediately because I now remember I saw Claude Ake’s ghost in two places in the lecture. That was fair enough of the balancing act.