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DECODING DEMOCRACY SYMPOSIUM

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Government at the centre marked Democracy Day with a symposium. It took place a day to May 29. The attendance list was predictable. “Attendance is strictly by invitation,” a TV announcement had said. And Nigerians saw the faces of mostly government officials that attended, and the Master of Ceremony who ran around the hall with the microphone as if organizers did not invite ushers, too. The MC even had to beg attendees to speak, and make contributions. Who would speak up at a symposium where he would be quoted, and tagged “enemy” of the government? One woman spoke though, no, two women. The first mattered, because hers was not to praise anyone, not the kind of calculated speech that organizers must have expected.

She is the president of Market Women Association - Mrs Felicia Sani. She had worked for a bank for thirty five years before she became a market woman. It must mean market women knew the person that would articulate their views, and be bold enough to present it in high places.

“Is there no woman that could be in that seat over there?” the market women leader had collected the microphone and said when it was time for attendees to make contributions. She had pointed at the exalted seats where Their Excellencies sat as she spoke. All their Excellencies were men, of course. Not even the president’s wife sat beside His Excellency. And the Vice-President’s wife was missing beside His Excellency, too. “That’s it, the discrimination we are talking about,” market women leader had added. Fellow women clapped though, but they clapped gently, and with caution. What can be expected when most of the women in the hall were government officials in one capacity or the other? And it was the only time they clapped as she spoke. Both men and women would exchange glances when the women leader talked about people who had government’s two billion naira in their house, yet they are walking around, pushing the justice system here, pushing it there. “What lessons are you passing on to the younger generation?” she had asked, as she challenged anyone to dare collect the microphone from her, until she finished what she had to say. She did, and some other person spoke. Cultured speeches, all of them, and flavoured with adulation for Nigeria’s Dear President.

The youth spokesperson prayed when it was his turn. Democracy symposium where bald truth ought to be said to the face of those who continue to watch, as the nation falls from one embarrassment to the other was a time for the youth spokesperson to pray. It is good to pray. But the spokesperson didn’t talk like a student union leader that should have been invited. It was one guy who had been wining and dinning with diplomats at the United Nations. So he spoke with a touch of the finest diplomacy, praising and praying. And there was another speaker: His Lordship had represented the highest judge in the highest court in the land. So His Lordship reeled off how much his arm of government had benefitted from democracy, and thanked the government profusely, before he returned to his, and he would not utter another word, not even when the Master of Ceremony prodded him to comment on an observation that an attendee made with regards to His Lordship’s constituency. Nigerians must have sensed then, why the invitation was strictly by invitation. Imagine what questions would have been asked, even rhetorical ones, if a lawyer on the opposing side of the government had been invited, questions that bother on why a judge would not be returned to his seat as quickly as he was removed, even after the statutory body had carried out its duty to that effect.

And there was that ‘welcome address’ that the president said was almost a “keynote address.” So the president, when he got to the podium, and with a smile, complained that the Secretary to his government had done the work that he should have done, and all he needed to do was to return to his seat. Discerning Nigerians saw that before the president said it. A careful observation of the course of event, of the Master of Ceremony saying every speaker had between five and ten minutes should have ensured the striking out of more than half of what was dished out to Nigeria in the ‘welcome address,’ and on live TV broadcast. Or what of the reminders in that address about recent history that listeners were already familiar with, including occurrences in the administration of the late President Umar Yar’adua era, as well as quotations from philosophers that could make a university professor grow gray hair with envy. Some of those reminders would have been fantastic for pupils in an elementary class. And what was that about asking to be given water to drink that was said into the microphone for all Nigerians to hear?

Would the military commanders, in full ceremonial regalia, that were on the invitation list speak? the Master of Ceremony had asked. No, thank you. The same went for the cabinet ministers. Any Nigerian who watched the symposium, and saw the ministers where they sat sanctimoniously on the other side of the rostrum must have imagined they were worshipers that came to listen to a sermon; what with the way they collectively kept dignified silence? That of elder statesmen present was understandable. It is the territory of elders to give counsel away from public spaces.

And Mr President said, “I was very angry” three times in his short address. ‘Angry’ as a word at such high-profiled gathering? He said he was at the time he arrived office and saw the sharp division that must, of constitutional necessity, exist among the three arms of government. He would love to see them work more closely, he said. It was the core of his comment at the symposium, and so uncomfortable he felt about any polarization between the executive arm of government and the legislature that he declared Cabinet system of government better than the presidential system which the nation has at the moment. He expressed his chagrin too that any member of the ruling party in the legislature would oppose his bills on the floor of the House. All of that amounted to a swish of the cane at the principle of Separation of Power that is central to the practice of presidential system. How should Nigerians interpret this?

That the presidency has always held an unfavourable view of the principle of checks and balances that goes with Separation Powers? And because the ruling party provides the platform by which officials arrived power, and the manifesto of the party is like a law, none of its members should express a view contrary to that of the government?

Opinion here is that there is need to worry when a principle is sacrosanct to the practice of a system of government approved by the constitution, yet the number one defender of what the constitution says is impatient with it. Great leaders navigate their way through the maze that the constitution dictates, rather than express disdain for it as it was done at the Democracy Symposium. The ability of a sitting leader to successfully walk though the spider’s web of entrenched principles of presidential system is what stands certain American presidents out, for example. Such has them recorded in the mind of the people as all time greats.

A closer assessment of what transpired at the Democracy Symposium would give reason to be concerned, for it has effects and such can easily reflected on what the government does, and what the think-tank behind the throne pursue as an agenda. Is there an agenda to silence every opposing view, which was the reason the opposition was missing on the symposium’s invitation list? The effect these nuances on the nation and its democracy cannot be wished away, because it showed that the government had set out not to hear anything but its own voice. And how would that work out in term of building a strong and virile democracy when the government carries itself as if it knows it all?

Written By Tunji Ajibade
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