1. May I thank the organizers for inviting me and my associates to this conference which, if I may say so, is growing in influence by the day. The presence of many Nigerians and distinguished Britons on these historic premises testifies to the importance and to the high expectations of this occasion. At the end of today’s proceedings many of us hope to have a better understanding of our problems and perhaps identify more effective solutions to those problems.
2. My contribution today is based on reflection and practical observation rather than on studious research or scholarly presentation. It is a soldier’s and politician’s broad observations on democracy and economic development in my country, Nigeria.
By convention one usually would like to talk about his country outside its shores in glowing terms extolling its virtues and defending its values and interests. But the situation in our country is so bad and no one knows this better than the international community, that it would be futile to take this line today.
Furthermore, it would be counter-productive to efforts we are all making to understand and accept our shortcomings with a view to taking steps towards a general improvement. If you continue to be in denial, as Nigeria’s government and its apologists are wont to do, you will lose all credibility.
3. There is no point in rehearsing all the text-book theories of democracy to this august gathering. But in practical terms there are, I think, certain conditions without which true democracy cannot survive. These conditions include, but are not limited to, the level of literacy; level of economic attainment; reasonable homogeneity; rights of free speech and free association; a level playing field; free and fair elections; adherence to the rule of law and an impartial judiciary. But these imperatives are not applicable to all countries and all climes. India for example, suffers from great poverty and diversity but its efforts at running a democracy are exemplary.
4. Democracy can best flourish when a certain level of educational attainment or literacy exists in the society. The vast majority of the voters must be in a position to read and write and consequently distinguish which is which on the voters card to make their choices truly theirs. In recent elections in Nigeria, many voters had to be guided – like blind men and women – as to which name and logo represent their preferred choices or candidates to vote for. When one does not know what the thing is all about, it is difficult to arrive at a free choice. It will be even more difficult to hold elected office holders to account and throw them out for non-performance at the next election. Under these circumstances, democracy has a long way to go. Our collective expectations on a democratic system of government in less advanced countries must, therefore, be tempered by these realities.
5. Nor must we discount the role of economic development on the democratic process. An even more compelling determinant to human behavior than education is, I think, economic condition. I will return to this topic when discussing elections, but suffice to remark here that if, for example, on election day, a voter wakes up with nothing to eat for himself and his family and representatives of a candidate offer him, say N500 (£2) he faces a hard choice: whether to starve for the day or abandon his right to vote freely.
As the celebrated American economist, late Professor J.K. Galbraith said: “Nothing circumscribes freedom more completely than total absence of money”.
6. For democracy to function perfectly, a reasonable level of ethnic, linguistic or cultural homogeneity must exist in a country and this applies to all countries whether more developed or less developed. In the US, which like Nigeria is a federation, Hawaii and Alaska send two senators each to Washington as do California and New York. In our own country, Bayelsa with a population of less than two million elects three senators to the National Assembly in Abuja equal to Lagos State with a population of over ten million. Nassarawa State with about two million people and Kano State with over five times the population also send 3 senators each to Abuja. Such dilution clearly negates the intent and spirit of democracy.
7. Central and critical to democracy is adherence to the rule of law. That is to say, no individual, institution, not even government itself can act outside the confines of law without facing sanctions. Executive arbitrariness can only be checked where there is respect for the law. Other desirable conditions of democracy such as freedom of speech and association can only flourish in an atmosphere where the law is supreme. Law does not guarantee but allows a level playing field. In the absence of the rule of law, free and fair elections and an independent judiciary cannot exist.
8. As a result of the virtual absence of the rule of law, elections in Nigeria since 2003 have not been free and fair. As a participant, I can relate to this audience my experiences during the 2003, 2007 and 2011 Presidential elections. Hundreds of candidates have similar experiences in State, Federal legislature and Gubernatorial elections. Under Nigerian law, these elections are governed by the 1999 constitution, the Electoral Law and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) acts of 2002, 2006 and 2010. Ordinarily, an election is an occasion when contestants will join the electorate in celebration of freedom, because the will of the majority has prevailed. Winners and losers alike come together to work in the interest of their country. But this happens only if the elections were deemed free and fair. In 2003, INEC, the body charged with the conduct of elections in our country tabled results in court which were plainly dishonest. We challenged them to produce evidence for the figures. They refused. The judges supported them by saying, in effect, failure to produce the result does not negate the elections! In a show of unprecedented dishonesty and unprofessionalism, the President of the Court of Appeal read out INEC’s figures (which they refused to come to court to prove or defend) as the result accepted by the Court. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, said this was okay.
9. In 2007, the violations of electoral rules were so numerous that most lawyers connected with the case firmly believed that the elections would be nullified. I will refer to just two such violations. The Electoral Act of 2006 stipulated that ballot papers SHALL be serially numbered and voters result sheets must also be tallied on serially numbered papers. INEC produced ballot papers with NO serial numbers and also used blank sheets thereby making it well nigh impossible to have an audit trail. At all events, at the final collation centre the chief electoral officer, after 11 (eleven) states (out of 36) were tallied excused himself from the room – apparently on a toilet break – and announced the “final results” to waiting journalists. He had the “results” in his pocket. At the time, several states had not completed transmission of their tallies. As in 2003 the courts rubber-stamped this gross transgression of the rules. Some election returns confirmed by INEC stamps included, 28th April, two (2) days before the election, 29th April, a day before the election and astonishingly, 31st April a date which does not exist on the calendar, illustrating the farcical nature of the election. The Supreme Court split 4-3 in favour of the Government.
10. In 2011 all pretences at legality and propriety were cast aside. In the South-South and South-Eastern States, turn-out of voters was recorded by INEC at between 85% – 95% even though in the morning of the election the media reported sparse attendance at polling booths. The rest of the country where opposition parties were able to guard and monitor the conduct of the Presidential election turn-out averaged about 46%. In many constituencies in the South-South and South-East, votes cast far exceeded registered figures.
11. Which brings us to the need for an impartial Judiciary in a democratic setting. The judicial arm of the government, properly speaking, should be the interpreter and arbiter of executive and legislative actions but the Nigerian government since 1999 has successfully emasculated the judiciary and turned it into a yes-man. An independent and impartial judiciary would have overturned all the Presidential elections since 2003. In addition, hundreds of cases of judicial misconduct have marred elections to Local Government, State and Federal Legislatures. The Judiciary has run its reputation down completely since 2003.
12. Here, I would like to say a few words about the international observers. In 1999 the greatly revered former US President, Jimmy Carter walked off in a huff at the conduct of that year’s Presidential election. But compared to what took place afterwards, the 1999 election was a model of propriety. I am sure many Nigerians like me feel gratitude to the international community, notably the Catholic Secretariat who deployed over 1,000 observers in 2003 and the National Democratic Institute in Washington for their work in Nigeria. In 2003 and 2007, all the international observer teams, along with domestic observers concluded that those two elections fell far short of acceptable standards. The Nigerian government, along with the international community ignored those critical reports. Some members of this audience may recall the trenchant criticisms by the UK and US governments on the Zimbabwean elections held about the same time as Nigeria’s. Now the Zimbabwean elections were very much better conducted than the Nigerian elections as the opposition party in Zimbabwe actually was declared to have won the parliamentary elections.
13. Yet Western Governments turned a blind eye to Nigerian elections and an eagle eye on Zimbabwe’s and its supposed shortcomings. No better illustration of double-standards can be cited. Accordingly, in 2011, the international observers, having seen their painstaking work in earlier years completely ignored, took the line of least resistance and concluded after cursory examinations that the elections were okay.
14. So it is quite clear from these brief recollections that many preliminary elements of a democratic set-up are missing in Nigeria namely: level of educational development, level of economic development, homogeneity, level playing field, rule of law, impartial judiciary and free and fair elections.
15. As observed earlier, democracy cannot function optimally without a certain level of economic attainment.
16. Economically, Nigeria is a potential powerhouse, a large population, 167 million by the last official estimate, arable land, more than 300, 000 square kilometers, 13,000 square kilometers of fresh water. In addition, the country has gas, oil, solid minerals, forests, fisheries, wind power and potentials for tourism and hosting of international sporting events. It is a miracle waiting to happen. The lack of leadership and policy continuity has resulted in great under-achievement.
17. Many Nigerians in the audience today will relate to the situation of our countrymen and women. More than 100 million of our people live below $2 a day according to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics and many internationally recognized estimates. We lack security, are short of food, water, live in poor shelters with hardly any medicare to speak of. Small scale farmers, foresters, micro businesses such as market women, washermen, vulcanizers, tailors, street corner shop-keepers and the like lack both power and meaningful access to small scale credit to ply their trade and prosper.
No wonder, the publication, “The African Economic Outlook 2012” under the auspices of the United Nations lamented that poverty and underdevelopment were on the increase. In fact, GDP figures in the raw or in outline tell little about the spread of wealth, employment levels, infrastructural development and the effect of socio-economic programmes such as schooling, health care, and security on the generality of the population. You may sell a lot of oil in an era of high oil prices and boost your GDP and boast about it. But there is nothing to boast about when 100 million of your people are in poverty and misery. Life is a daily hassle; a daily challenge. It is under these circumstances that many a voter is tempted to sell off his voting card for a pittance on Election Day.
18. We now come to crux of the matter by attempting some answers to the very pertinent questions which the organizers of this conference put to me. How stable is Nigeria’s economy? The short answer is that it very much depends on the international oil market. The failure over the years to diversify and strengthen the economy or to invest in the global economy has left Nigeria perilously at the mercy of global oil prices. Instead of using the so-called excess crude account which in other countries goes by the name of Sovereign Wealth Fund to develop major domestic infrastructure such as Power, Railways, Road development, the account has been frittered down and applied to current consumption. There is no magic, no short-cut to economic development. We must start from first principles – by developing agriculture and industries. Sixty years ago, we exported considerable quantities of cocoa, cotton, groundnuts, rubber and palm kernels. There were sizeable incomes to the farmers. Indeed in two years, if I recall correctly, 1951 and 1953, Nigeria produced a million tons of groundnuts. Today, other than a few thousand tons of cocoa, hardly any cotton, rubber or palm products are exported.
19. Until and unless serious budgetary attention is paid to agriculture, the vast majority of rural population will remain on subsistence basis and will eventually wither away by migration to the cities and increasing the stress on urban life. What is required is applying today’s technology, primarily improved seeds and seedlings, irrigation systems, use of weather forecasts, and above all, substantial subsidies and access to cheap credit. In Nigeria, the basic tools for agricultural take-off, the Six River Basin Authorities were wantonly scrapped in 1986 under the disastrous Structural Adjustment Programme. They are the best vehicle for our country’s agricultural revival and expansion.
20. Next to agriculture, government and railways industries are the country’s biggest employers of labour. Industries are vital in absorbing urban workforce. Nigeria’s burgeoning industrial growth was brought to an abrupt halt by the Structural Adjustment Programme which massively devalued the naira under IMF harassment and bullying. Uninterrupted Nigeria’s capacity by now would have been able to produce basic machine tools, bicycles, motor cycles, car parts, parts for industrial machinery and the likes. But alas, the car industry is down; tyre manufacturing is down, both Michelin and Dunlop have closed; battery manufacturing and sugar industries are down; cable industries all but down: all in the wake of the Structural Adjustment Programme. The last 14 years have added to the misery due to red tape, high interest rates, power shortages and competition from developed economies under World Trade Organization (WTO) imperatives. Subsuming all these problems is the old and ever-present devil: corruption.
Corruption has shot through all facets of government and economic life in our country. Until serious efforts are made to tackle corruption which is beyond the capacity of this government, economic growth and stability will elude us. On corruption, don’t just take my word for it. The Chairman of one of the bodies charged with the task of fighting corruption in Nigeria, Mr. Ekpo Nta of Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offensive Commission (ICPC) was quoted by the Daily Trust newspaper of 14th February, 2013 as saying that there was no political will to fight corruption in Nigeria.
21. A second fundamental question asked by the organizers is: Can Nigeria as presently structured administratively and politically emerge an economically competitive nation? I believe it can. There is a lively debate going on in our country about the need to re-structure the country. What shape this reform is going to take is uncertain. Even the most vocal advocates of re-structuring the country, although long on rhetoric seem short and vague on details. We have tried regions and this was deemed lopsided and a trap to minorities. We tried twelve, nineteen and now thirty six (36) states and there is clamour for more. I firmly believe that state creation has now become dysfunctional, as disproportionate amounts of our meager resources go to over-heads at the expense of basic social services and infrastructural development. Moreover, I also believe that Nigeria’s problem is not so much the structure but the process. Nevertheless, I believe a careful and civil conversation should be held to look closely at the structure.
22. But how do we go about it? Go back to the Regions? I do not think this would be acceptable; except perhaps in the old Western Region. Try the present Six Geo-political Zones as federating units? I believe there will be so much unrest and strife in South-South and North-Central; this is not to say that there will be no pockets of resistance in the North West and North East as well – the consequence of all these will unsettle the country. Go back to General Gowon’s 12 state structure? Here too, entrenched personal or group interests will make collapsing and merging states impossible to operate in a democratic set-up. It is only when you come face to face with the problem you will appreciate the complications inherent in re-structuring Nigeria.
23. However, once a national consensus is reached, however defective, the environment will facilitate political and economic stability. At long last we can look forward to Nigeria finding its place among the BRIC nations and instead of BRIC, the media would be talking of BRINC nations: Brazil, Russia, India, Nigeria and China. I sincerely hope this happens in my lifetime.
24. The third question put to me by the organizers is: Can the present electoral body in Nigeria guarantee and deliver credible elections that will strengthen the nation’s democracy in 2015?
25. All the present indications are that INEC as it is presently constituted would be unable to deliver any meaningful elections in 2015. I have gone to some lengths earlier in my talk to describe INEC’s conduct in the last decade. The Electoral Body has developed a very cozy relationship with Executive and Judicial arms of government that its impartiality is totally lost. In the run-up to the last elections INEC requested (and received with indecent haste) in excess of 80 billion naira (about £340m.) a hefty sum by any standards, so that it could conduct the elections including organizing bio-metric voters data specifically for the 2011 elections.
26. But when opposition parties challenged the patently dishonest figures it announced and subpoenaed the bio-metric data in court, INEC refused to divulge them on the laughable excuse of “National Security”. INEC’s top echelon is immersed deep in corruption and only wholesale changes at the top could begin to cure its malaise. What is required is a group of independent minded people, patriotic, incorruptible but with the capacity to handle such a strenuous assignment of conducting elections in Nigeria. It is not difficult to find such people but whether the Government and the National Assembly have the inclination to do so I am not so sure. The only way I and many more experienced politicians than myself expect the 2015 elections to be remotely free and fair is for the opposition to be so strong that they can effectively prevent INEC from rigging. I would like, here, Mr. Chairman to repeat what I have said time and time again at home in Nigeria with regards to the election aftermath. Some commentators and public figures have wrongly pointed accusing fingers at me for inciting post-election violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been a public servant all my adult life: a soldier, a federal minister, a state governor and the head of state. My duty is to Nigeria first and foremost. Post-election violence was triggered by the grossest injustice of election rigging and accompanying state high-handedness.
27. Lastly, Mr. Chairman, I will attempt to address the two very important questions you put to me namely: How can the poverty level in Nigeria be reduced? And How can the masses generally benefit from the nation’s vast wealth? As remarked earlier, there is no short cut to poverty eradication than to get people to work and earn money. Poverty means lack of income. If serious efforts are made to support agriculture through states and local government apparatus in the shape of inputs, i.e fertilizers and pesticides, extension services and provision of small-scale credits, agriculture will boom within 5 – 7 years. Farmers will generate more income to enable them to grow the food the country needs and to look after our environment. In addition, the drift to urban centres will be greatly reduced. Equal attention should be paid to the revival of employment-generating activities such as Railways, Industries, notably textiles and other land and forest resource based industries to absorb urban labour to tackle poverty, reduce urban stress and crime and at the same time boost the economy. However, these two major policy initiatives can only succeed if there is substantial improvement in power generation. As remarked earlier, adequate provision of power will help small scale business to thrive and link-up with the general economy. Power is the site of the legion, in other words, it is central to all economic activity.
28. May I, Mr. Chairman, conclude this presentation by referring to the distribution of income in Nigeria today? No better illustration of the huge income disparity can be quoted than the statement of Malam Adamu Fika, Chairman of the Committee set up by Government to review the Nigerian public service. In the course of presentation of his Report, the Chairman pointed out that 18,000 public officers consume in the form of salaries, allowances and other perquisites N1.126 trillion naira (£4billion) of public funds. The total Nigerian budget for 2013 is N4.9 trillion (£20 billion). This is the worst form of corruption and oppression. A wholesale look at public expenses vis-à-vis the real need of the country has become urgent.
29. Mr. Chairman, the Honourable Members, Distinguished Guests, I thank you for your patience and attention.
Mr. Buhari delivered this speech at The Africa Diaspora Conference, House Of Commons, London, United Kingdom, on Tuesday, 5th March 2013