The Role Of The Opposition In Deepening Nigeria’s Democracy – Lai Mohammed

Alhaji-lai-Mohammed

Let me start by thanking the organizers of this event for inviting me. Let me also crave the organizers’ indulgence to slightly amend the given topic to read ”The Role of the Opposition in Deepening Nigeria’s Democracy”.

While not discountenancing the all-important role of the media, which I will definitely touch upon in my paper, as well as the invaluable importance of the youth to deepening and sustaining our democracy, I believe that the role of the opposition in deepening our nation’s democracy is very topical at his particular juncture. It is an apt topic, and the organizers deserve kudos for bringing it up at this time.

Our country is at the cross-roads. We face perhaps the biggest threat to our survival as a nation since the civil war. Nigeria has never been this fractious in peace time, with our people being increasingly divided along ethnic and religious lines, even as what started as a rag tag insurgency has morphed into a slow motion warfare.

As I speak, over 200 of our young girls are in the hands of the terror group called Boko Haram, not knowing when they will be heading back home. I ask all of us to remember them in our prayers. Unfortunately, brave and compassionate Nigerians who have abandoned their daily chores to call attention to the plight of the innocent girls and demand their safe return have themselves come under attack. The police who are supposed to provide security for the ”bring back our girls” protesters have watched connivingly as the peaceful protesters were attacked by the ”release our girls” hired crowd.

While the difference in the names of the group might seem a matter of semantics to a casual observer, it is actually deeper than that: It is an orchestrated plot to change the focus of the campaign from asking the government to do everything possible to bring the girls back home, to asking the terrorists to release them. There is nothing wrong with that, if Nigerians had voted for Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader, as their President. But because they didn’t, and because the man they voted for is President Goodluck Jonathan, then he is the right person for Nigerians to ask about the welfare and security of all citizens which, in itself, is the raison d’etre of any government.

My party condemns, in the strongest term possible, the police ban on all protests to demand the release of the girls in Abuja. We say this ban will not stand, and we are delighted that the ”bring back our girls” protesters have said that much and decided to challenge the illegal ban in court. But truth be told, the ban did not come to us as a surprise. It follows the pattern of recent government’s attempt to portray the protesters as opposition members who are bent on ridiculing the Jonathan Administration, and the government’s attempt to break the protesters’ ranks using hired scallywags.

Let us recall that it took all of 19 days for our President to make any pronouncement on the abduction of the girls, because he never believed they were abducted in the first instance, thus losing valuable time to rescue them. Let us recall that a day after the first Nyanya bomb in Abuja, our President was in Kano dancing ‘azonto’ at an illegal rally, even as the Chibok girls were being abducted. Let us recall that our country, which has been one of the top peacekeeping nations in the world since independence in 1960, is today a subject of global peacekeeping, with countries falling over themselves to send any possible assistance to Nigeria to help rescue the girls. Let us recall that Africa’s most populous nation, which they say also boasts of the largest economy thanks to a recent rebasing exercise, has been the subject of global excoriation for the failure of its leadership to ensure the security of its citizens, and finally let is recall that over 12,000 of our citizens have been bombed into smithereens since 2009 while 8,000 others have been maimed, perhaps for life.

Now, in the midst of this confusion, can any responsible citizen afford to keep quiet? Can the media, which mirrors the society in carrying out its constitutional duties, afford to be found wanting? And finally, can any responsible opposition afford to remain silent in the face of this cataclysm?

Therein comes the role of my party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which is the nation’s main opposition party. They say we should simply fold our arms and queue up behind the government at this time, rather than criticize the failings of the government. They say we are unpatriotic because we dared to suggest ways to end the insurgency that has eroded our nation’s dignity. They even say our failure to remain silent has convinced them that we are indeed behind the insurgency. As a a matter of fact, they say we are behind the Nyanya bombing, not minding that none of the suspected masterminds of the bombing, who have been arrested in Nigeria and Sudan, has been linked to the APC.

It is said those who wield power are important. But those who speak the truth to power are equally important, because it is they who determine whether a society loses power or power loses the society.

That is why we have rejected all attempts to blackmail us into silence at a critical time like this, because it is part of patriotism to be a responsible opposition; it is part of patriotism to speak truth to power; it is part of patriotism to keep the government of the day on its toes. We will therefore continue to play this role, in the interest of our country and her people, and in order to deepen and sustain our hard-earned democracy.

 

The Role of the Opposition

Please let me digress and ask a rhetorical question: What exactly is the role of the opposition in a democracy?

Alfred C. Stephan, Professor of Government at Columbia University in the United States, explains. He considers the role of the democratic opposition in societies – such as Nigeria – where authoritarianism had survived for long before the democratic transition – as not only essential, but also key in deepening democracy.

Prof. Stephan says by “turning vital ‘non-issues’ into issues”, and also by “creating new structures of participation, transparency and ultimately accountability”, the opposition is indeed helping to deepen democracy.

He then went ahead to list the five key functions for the democratic opposition.

They are:

(I) Resisting integration into the ruling regime

(2) Guarding zones of autonomy against the ruling regime

(3) Disputing the legitimacy of the ruling regime

(4) Raising the cost of authoritarian rule

And (5) Creating credible democratic alternative.

The democratic opposition is also expected to offer political alternatives; to articulate and promote the interest of the voters; to offer alternatives to the decisions proposed by the government and the major representatives (in the National Assembly); to improve parliamentary decision-making procedures by ensuring debate, reflection and contradiction; to scrutinize the legislative and budgetary proposals of the government; and to ensure stability, legitimacy, accountability and transparency in the political process.

Let me say, with all humility, that my party, the APC, has performed this role creditably and effectively through our daily media intervention, through our stimulation of debate on critical national issues and by our consistent effort to offer our long-suffering people a credible democratic alternative to what we have at the centre at the moment.

And in performing this role, my party has been guided by the highest principles, based on our recognition of the centrality of the opposition not only in ensuring the survival, deepening and expansion of democracy, but also in preserving human liberty and guaranteeing justice, particularly in a plural state and society such as Nigeria.

As the 19th century two-time British Prime Minister – who was the leader of opposition in the British parliament in the intervening period – Benjamin Disraeli, stated, “No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition”.

Bringing this propounded theory into practice, I will mention two recent examples of the APC’s efforts to alert the government to issues that could affect the very survival of our nation, the solutions we proffered in both cases and the government’s reaction.

1. Shale Oil:

In Feb. 2013, we warned that our country’s economy is seriously threatened by the challenge posed by alternative sources of global supply of oil and gas – that is shale oil and shale gas!

Here are the facts: The US has more than doubled its estimates of recoverable domestic shale-gas resources to some 827 trillion cu. ft. (23 trillion cum), more than 34 times the amount of gas the US uses in a year. Together with supplies from conventional gas sources, the US may now have enough gas to last a century at current consumption rates.

Concerning shale oil, California’s valleys alone hold as much as 15.4 billion barrels of shale oil, which companies were hitherto unable to reach because the oil exists in pockets of rock that were expensive to reach before the present advancements in fracking technology. Similar announcements are being made in Europe and parts of Asia.

Now, here is the clincher: The announced objective of the US Government is to drive down oil prices from the current 100 dollars per barrel to 50 dollars per barrel within 2 years. If this happens, which is very likely in view of the alternative sources, Nigeria, with a cost of production of 35 dollars per barrel, would immediately go out of business, with dire consequences for an economy that thrives largely (if not solely) on oil.

We therefore proffered the following solutions: That the Federal Government should cut the astronomical cost of running a bloated government and take urgent measures to diversify the economy and shore up the production of oil.

Our suggestions were based on four reasons: the cost of oil production which has skyrocketed from 4 dollars per barrel in 2002 to 35 dollars presently; the massive corruption in the oil sector, with oil theft and sabotage leading to lost production and costing Nigeria some 6 billion dollars annually in crude theft; the sharp fall in the discovery of new oil and gas reserves due to the low investment in the sector, and the most serious of all, the challenge posed by alternative sources of global supply of oil and gas.

The government responded by calling us alarmists and telling Nigerians to disregard our statement, that the economy is in top shape.

Well, I hate to say to the government: We told you so! An Editorial in The Nation newspaper last month, entitled ‘Boom Over?”, just a little over a year after we raised the alarm, puts it most succinctly. For those who missed it, let me read just a part:

”The prognosis is bad enough as it is. From being the largest buyer of Nigeria’s crude as recently as two years ago, the US has slipped to a distant 10th place among the leading buyers of Nigeria’s crude. Whereas Nigeria’s total export to North America in 2012 was 15.111 million barrels, US alone accounted for 14.279 million barrels or 19.15 percent of Nigeria’s crude export.

”Thanks to its shale oil, by 2013, the volume fell to 1.438 million barrels. The indication, however, is not just that the trend would continue, but that the US, which traditionally prohibited the export of its crude, by relaxing the regulations on crude export, is at once systematically moving to flood the market with the products from shale oil.

”This is where oil-revenue-dependent countries like Nigeria have every reason to worry. After a decade and half of oil windfall, the signs are of an imminence of a burst.”

Now I add: Need we say more?

2 Boko Haram

Secondly, since the terror group Boko Haram launched its violent campaign in 2009, we have consistently said it was largely driven by reasons other than religion or politics; that the widespread unemployment especially in the north and the fact that the region lags behind in education meant a waiting pool of indolent hands to be recruited into the ranks of the group.

These bandits called Boko Haram do not subscribe to the tenets of the religion they claim to practice. Islam does not approve of the kind of mindless killing and maiming that they have been engaged in on a daily basis. Boko Haram is a band of fringe elements, using religion as a facade, just like many fringe elements have done elsewhere. I will come back to this shortly.

We then put forward a number of suggestions: We ask the government to develop a holistic counter-insurgency programme, rather than tackling the problem piecemeal; We advised the government to align

 

Lai Mohammed, the Interim National Publicity Secretary, All Progressives Congress (APC), deliverethy his paper at the 4th Annual Student Week of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism , Ogba, Lagos