OBJ/GEJ face-off: Democracy without democrats

By The Rainbow

SOME say former President Olusegun Obasanjo's letter to the incumbent, with its litany of accusations and criticism is heating up the polity. Others say it is just another PDP family quarrel to offer excitement to the bored with unintended benefits of increased circulation for newspapers. For others it is just another storm in the teacup for an attention - junkie who is so pained a few months passed without his generating head-lines so he attacks whoever  is the incumbent, as he did to Shagari, Babangida, Abacha and others.

It is understandable that people will rush to take sides one way or the other on the open letter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo to the incumbent Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, but issues raised by the letter, and in the letter are such that a simple applauding or condemnation does not indicate thoughtfulness.

First is the duty of concern by elders. It is my view that much regarded elders need to be a voice of reason and caution especially if things are not going right. Both General Gowon and TY Danjuma must be fed up with my prodding them on that count, and saying elders have a duty to speak truth to power. In that sense Gen. Obasanjo had a duty and citizenship obligation to speak up.

But there is also a matter of decorum. The weak, the poor and the voiceless in our country have suffered too much as those who have cornered power in Nigeria engage in family quarrels for personal advantage or over bruised egos that they then destabilize the polity, resulting in the politics of power erosion which causes uncertainty with consequences for investments, transaction costs and economic wellbeing of the people. Then there is simple decorum. I lived in the US at a time several former Presidents were alive. They seldom spoke publicly about the actions of their successors. My first instinct was Gen. Obasanjo would have better served the cause of progress and our collective well-being if he brought a few elders and visited the villa to confront the incumbent with these heavy allegations.

Clearly the conversation is more nuanced than being for Obasanjo, or for Jonathan, or indeed for a different approach by an elder statesman or how to speak up on matters affecting the common good. To speak is citizenship, an imperative of modern beings, especially in a democracy. But that duty is affected by an obligation of consequence. If because we are of a certain stature that our public intervention can heat up the polity and actually even provoke extra-constitutional conduct that can threaten the state, the duty of care is greater, therefore the need to find avenues that achieve the same goal, removed from public excitement.

This is why many former heads of state and government ride quietly into the sunset after their watch. Ask George W Bush or Harry S Truman who sat quietly on the front porch of the modest home he lived in with his wife in Independence, Missouri, chatting with kids walking past, even after making one of the most weighty decisions in human history, as President, in authorizing the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Former Presidents like General Obasanjo must better manage pressure of self love to becoming attention junkies who from time to time, in desperation, to become the centre of the world, drive off the path of decorum. That narcism can only be curtailed by self mastery.

The next question is suppose the issues in question are so weighty, as some of those raised in General Obasanjo's open letter to Jonathan that a one on one meeting or even a council of state showdown is inadequate to forewarn a people about looming danger, what should happen to the duty of care not to pour oil on embers of fire, but rather to soothe nerves? I think if the statesman is convinced the duty of care for calm is subordinated by the weighty nature of what is before him then he has a higher duty to raise alarm.

As one who has been a target of state terror, on the list of the Abacha killer squad, and who was quite alarmed that in January 2012 armed soldiers pointed a gun at me and middle class Nigerians in Falomo who gathered to say the commonwealth is being abused in funds going to cronies in the name of fuel subsidy, something even Abacha did not do, I find the allegation of potential killer squads weighty enough for alarm bells.

The reason I have been in the forefront of calls for an international criminal court that can hold leaders accountable at the international level is that many who have come to power in parts of Africa are not restrained enough about the dignity of the human person and local institutions are inadequate to hold them accountable. I am moved by our shared humanity to believe the global community has a duty to that accountability. This is why I do not share in the view that the ICC is targeted at African leaders. Germans were held accountable after World War II.

I recall that when I canvassed support for the ICC and an economic crimes version to try leaders who have committed 'economic genocide' against their people, before editors of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper in Boston in January of 1997, it seemed so far- fetched. But the Rome treaty came. I should therefore be out of line, because of the messenger, to ignore the message. Yes, Marshal McLuhan may have been right in the 1960s to say the medium is the massage but sometimes the message matters more.

The real trouble with Nigeria is our unwillingness to follow democratic norms. This is rooted in our running a democracy without democrats in power. It began from the beginning of this republic. We should visit this problem that is chewing away at the legitimacy of this Republic. It is that syndrome that would lead to a statement I saw recently repeated on Twitter of a former head of state who said bad elections were better than no elections. In truth they can be much worse.

• Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is Founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership