Last week, former Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar declared that the political crisis in Rivers State portends deleterious consequences for the country’s democracy. He stated this in Minna during an interview with members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Niger State chapter so it was not an off the cuff statement. He cautioned that the country’s fledgling democracy would be eventually destroyed should politicians fail to unite despite their differences and avoiding stoking the polity with crisis upon crisis. Specifically, he warned about the Rivers State crisis calling on those involved taking note of what democracy is and checking themselves.
General Abubakar is a leader who chooses his words carefully and his warning that we should not assume that our political system could take any level of recklessness and remain intact should be taken seriously. It is reckless for five members out of thirty-two members of the Rivers State House of Assembly to declare they have impeached the Speaker because democracy is a game of numbers and rules. It is reckless for the Rivers State Police Commissioner to be openly rude and disrespectful to a State Chief Executive because the Governor embodies the legitimacy of government at the state level. It is reckless for the Federal symbols of power exercised by the presidency to be used to openly undermine a state government because if power is used unjustly to destabilize one level of government, other powers can be used against other levels of government.
I know that all Nigerian Presidents are by definition very powerful, even if historically, some have been more powerful than others. Nigeria is one of the few remaining countries in the world where a President can spend billions of dollars, with or without appropriations by the National Assembly to carry out his heart’s desire. A Nigerian President can pick any one in the streets and make him or her a dollar multi-billionaire by simply signing and giving the person a piece of paper called an oil block allocation. Yes indeed, Nigerian presidents are very powerful and precisely because of this are unable to see that there are limits to their power and above all, there are risks in exercising power recklessly.
Part of the problem is that we live in a country where sycophancy is so advanced that every President is cornered into thinking that his every move is a masterstroke, no matter how stupid it is. This is a country where presidents are turned into intellectual and political slaves of sycophants who surround them with false and baseless narratives that constrain their action and isolate them from the realities facing the country. One area where Nigerian political science has clearly failed is that of deconstructing such narratives. Each successive Nigerian Head of State has been so besotted with the illusions of grandeur and “absolute” power at their disposal that they begin to think that they are God? As a Nation, we must learn to start telling our presidents that they are not God. That there are public officials constrained in their acts by the Constitution and the laws of the land.
President Goodluck Jonathan needs to learn that he cannot always do as he pleases. We all recall the way in which he removed fuel subsidy in spite of massive opposition and the streets had to compel him to partially review his action. Those who massively stole the national wealth through the fuel subsidy racketeering are still free and the state has been very slow in bringing them to book in spite of the fact that they almost bankrupted the country. The continuous rise of electricity tariffs in tandem with the growing decline and near collapse of electricity supply is clearly provoking the people. This is happening when the government is also imposing on all drivers an expensive change of their driving licenses, vehicle number plates, new proof of ownership certificates and the encoding of vehicle particulars is a lot to take in at the same time. It’s as if the Federal Government has taken the decision to deal with Nigerians.
We have seen brute state power applied to impose a candidate on the PDP for the Bayelsa governorship elections. Troops were moved in to Yenegoa to create conditions for the emergence of Henry Dickson as the PDP candidate and the rest, as they say is history as former Governor Timipre Syslva was left to lick his wounds. I can imagine the kitchen cabinet telling the President that if that could happen in Bayelsa State, why not in Rivers State where the serving Governor has had the temerity to disobey the First Lady. The greatest danger those in power face is thinking they could continue to abuse their powers infinitely.
I believe that while making his comments, General Abubakar was not unaware of the fact that troops have been deployed in most states of the country and the temptation to use them to score political points could be high. As military and police officers dodge bullets and bombs from insurgents, kidnappers and militants in various locations in the country, it is important that the focus of the engagement remain improving the security of the country and protecting the citizen.
It is important to recall that governance is a series of interactions by the state and its institutions taken to solve societal problems and to create societal opportunities. Our Constitution directs governance institutions to promote the rights and welfare of Nigerians. In recent times, Nigerians have been posing the question about the purpose of governance. Is it to punish the people or improve their welfare? The second question is whether governance is to promote the interest of a cabal or to promote the public interest.
Contemporary political science has fused the two words – govern and ability into the concept of governability. Governability is the overall capacity for governance of any societal entity or system. The question posed today is the level of shocks the Nigeria system can take before it becomes ungovernable. Those who exercise power must always ask themselves what the limits to their action are.
One of the major principles of statecraft is that although force is a central element in political systems, it cannot on its own sustain a polity. Rousseau reminds us that even the strongest is never strong enough to remain the master unless he is capable of transforming force into law and obedience into duty. In other words, the governability of modern political systems depends on achieving results that uplift the people and create consensus on how the system operates.
The definition of what constitutes security for the Nigerian state and political elite is traditionally rooted in the state’s monopoly and control of all legitimate instruments of coercion, and its ability to contain both internal insurgency and external aggression. The Nigerian state has no monopoly of the means of coercion. As our state loses the capacity to contain internal insurgency and state power is used to impose politicians in power, serious questions about legitimacy are posed. When a governor who is the chief security officer of the state begins to doubt whether the state security apparatus would protect or destroy him, we have a problem.
The Nigerian citizen has long endured a culture of intimidation by the country’s security forces. Law enforcement agents have since colonial times developed a culture of reckless disregard for the rights of the people. The legal framework has not helped matters given our colonial heritage of laws against vagrancy, illegal assembly, wandering, and illegal procession. The Nigerian state is constructed as an edifice against citizens who are assumed to have a natural tendency to break laws and must therefore be controlled, patrolled and constantly surveyed. Not surprisingly, citizens learn to fear and avoid law enforcement agents. The ordinary Nigerian sees security agents as potential violators of their security rather than providers of their security. The reality of state security for ordinary people then becomes the perception of insecurity. When governors too become subjected to this reality, we may very well be crossing the red line.