The original title of this piece was, “Hero of the Revolution,” but I was persuaded at the last minute to change it to what you see now. And you will know why as we approach the end of this column. To begin with, the question as to whether President Umaru Yar’Adua would want to have or should be given a third term in office will sound unthinkable, mischievous and, indeed, unpatriotic to all lovers of democracy. And I regard myself as one of them. No Nigerian leader should be allowed to rule beyond the tenure stipulated for him or her by the constitution, and no one should be allowed to tinker with the two-term limit in existence today unless of course if it is to reduce the number of years from four years to three in the first term or a maximum of seven years instead of eight for two terms. But in a country such as ours, where values are spelt correctly but read backwards, where compromises are made as easily as joining and quitting political parties at whim (and I am not referring to Abubakar Rimi’s sudden switch back to his original party), one shouldn’t expect any surprises. Political jobbers are always looking for cracks in the wall in order to sneak in their diabolical agenda because doing so would help guarantee their survival and growth on the arena.
Hang me if you catch me campaigning for anyone’s third term – because it is unconstitutional and, in any case immoral. I decided to re-headline this column out of a personal study of the debate on the Etteh affair. There is a clear link, even if at first imperceptible to the ordinary eye, between the scandal in the House of Representatives and the political future of this country vis-à-vis the role of the president in resolving this and similar crises. For at the height of the crisis, before Hon. Patricia Etteh shifted ground and agreed to give her opponents a chance to appoint a so-called speaker pro-tempore, not a few commentators did ask Yar’Adua to step into the crisis. Some of those commentators are some of the leading lights in our national consciousness. This makes it all the more disappointing because the task of leading this country out of the deep woods, where it has been stuck for ages, rests squarely on their proud shoulders.
They know quite well, probably more than you and I, that it is not the job of the president to delve into this matter no matter how bad it has become. They need not be reminded about the constitutional provisions that make separation of powers between the three arms of government – the executive, the judiciary and the legislature – an unshakeable pillar cornerstone of our brand of multi-party democracy. Yet they asked President Yar’Adua to ignore this all-important proviso and call Mrs Etteh to order and make her resign or “step aside” (whatever that means). I can’t remember reading any commentator pointing out any section of the constitution where the president is required by law to intervene in such constitutional crises. But yes there is no such section in the books. Therefore, since the constitution has made it abundantly clear that Yar’Adua has no business forcing anything on the legislators, why did our commentators, including my professional colleagues in the media, ask him to do so?
There may be other reasons, but the main ones are the Nigerian’s incurable incapacity to quickly remember events of the recent past as well as his cunning desire to cut corners in order to achieve short term, nay selfish, benefits. I shall elucidate. It is almost generally agreed that our democracy during the Obasanjo years (1999-2007) was an aberration, something akin to a sheep with a donkey’s (or a hyena’s) head. The body was that of a sheep while the head was that of Obasanjo. It was not what Nigerians voted for. They had voted for a system that would entrench respect for the rule of law while working in the interest of the nation, not self. But what they saw on their plate was untenable – a Godzilla which fed on lawlessness, fear and loathing, an unspeakable contraption that looked like a sheep but was in reality a hungry hyena feeding on the carcass of our collective fears and passivity. The simple reason was because the president believed sincerely that democracy bore the same spelling as his own name and that he it was who should set the rules of the game in Nigeria, not the legislatures. He turned the Senate and the Reps into his personal napkin which must take any of his dirt.
The hyena of that era had chopped many heads, including those of Evans Enwerem (now late), Audu Ogbeh and, a few rungs down the ladder, Ghali Umar Na’abba. The blood of those political martyrs was splashed all over the skin of that absurd system. Ogbeh was reported to have had a gun pointed at his temple when he became recalcitrant and told to sign a prepared resignation letter as chairman of the ruling party. An earlier chairman of the party, Anyim Pius Anyim, who fought gallantly, still had to leave his seat when the president continued to turn the screws on him; today as Baba continues to play big in Abuja, Anyim is battling harder than normal to realise his ambition of becoming the chairman of the ruling PDP as a result of his past tackles. Many other politicians are nursing the painful wounds of their opposition to Obasanjo in one way or the other.
It was the power that Obasanjo seized from the constitution, like a coup-maker, which gave him the chance to ride roughshod on our nascent democracy. The whole idea about securing a third term in office, which would have grown into a bigger monstrosity – the fabled life presidency – was inspired by lawlessness. And lawlessness was earned through subterfuge. Again, you know that subterfuge is got through various little devilish acts, one of which is intervening in legislative duties by a civilian president. Unlike Yar’Adua, Chief Obasanjo did start to delve in house matters early enough. That was because he saw the system in place as a result of events surrounding him, such as giving him the presidency on a platter off gold by some self-serving army generals. Having “been there” as a head of state two decades earlier had also made him paternalistic, regarding every elected person as either his son or his daughter. As such, any sign of independence by any legislator (ask Na’abba) would be regarded as a sign of child-like impetuousness and rascality. In most times, the child was flogged heavily.
To be fair to those urging President Yar’Adua to intervene in the house scandal, however, one would say that some are doing so strictly out of patriotic concern. They have watched how members of the house were acting like campus politicians with all the rambunctious razzmatazz, name-calling and overzealous schemes. They feared that things were getting out of hand and, if something urgent was not done, someone could get seriously hurt. One of those tiny political parties even warned that a military coup could take place. As it turned out, one of their worst fears had come to pass; a member of the House of Representatives and confidante of the president, Dr Aminu Shu’aibu Safana, a cardiac patient, slumped and died when he got worked up during a session of the house.
Nevertheless, I daresay most of those appealing for executive intervention in the Etteh affair are unwittingly or mischievously trying to create an Obasanjo in Yar’Adua. By urging him to scold Etteh privately or otherwise, they are telling him to break the law. Now that was exactly what his godfather, the former president, did and attracted opprobrium at home and abroad. As indicated above, Obasanjo’s carrot and stick treatment of the last National Assembly was responsible for making that tier of government subservient to him and its failure to impeach him on many attempts. During his presidency, legislators were at his beck and call. Many dirty things were committed, some of which are still being covered up by those involved. For a lot of Nigerians, the Nigeria of that era was a dangerous one in which to live as many found out when it was too late.
The problem with such intervention is that you do not know just when it will stop. We shouldn’t expect Alhaji Yar’Adua to get actively involved in this crisis and not expect him to participate in another. Nigeria being one of the most problematic countries in the world, soon enough he would find himself enmeshed in so many constitutional crises that he would find it near impossible to devote his mind to the serious business of administering the nation.
The constitution has created different ways of solving crises without the president’s personal involvement. If Nigerians are not satisfied with those provisions, they should canvass constitutional amendment as soon as possible. I tend to think that even where Etteh is concerned, his friends could have spoken to persons on both sides of the disagreement without being appointed his official emissaries. That is the African way working in a Western-type democracy. The PDP had begun to broker a truce in the matter which became messy because it was done the Obasanjo style. Presumably that intervention was not the president’s but the initiative of tireless old man Ahmadu Ali. If Yar’Adua had texted Ali and said, “Oga, pls talk 2 reps on etteh prblm.,” that should be fine with any democrat. In simple terms, that would be indirect lobbying and we would read about it only if Ali publishes his memoirs when he retires – if he will ever retire. But for Yar’Adua to extend his long arm into the problem, that would be unconstitutional. The same crowd which is barking at him to intervene would turn around and ask for his head.
Happily, the crisis is from the look of things ending. Madam speaker is leaving her seat on Tuesday to allow the house appoint a “temporary” speaker or chairman. The general thinking is that she would then be gone for good because no one has ever stepped aside and came back to their former position. Apparently Yar’Adua did not intervene the Nigerian way. The speaker must have been weighed down by the moral burden of the problem and decided to accede to the demands of her colleagues and other Nigerians. The drums of revolution in the house have finally reached a crescendo with this final decision by Mrs Etteh. But the president’s decision to sit on the fence while the crisis lasted has compelled this writer to regard him as the real winner in the tug-o’-war. Add this to his stance on the judicial process going on in the various election tribunals in the states, where his son-in-law and friends have lost their gubernatorial positions. The courage he has shown in the midst of intense pressure has tested the nation’s experiment with democracy. He is the hero of the quiet revolution going on in our polity, a revolution against the Obasanjo era’s self-centredness. He is gradually changing Nigeria for good. Yar’Adua should be encouraged to continue this way, for there are bound to be such cases in the future. That is, assuming that the Etteh affair will end from her stepping aside this week.
Published on the back page of LEADERSHIP SUNDAY, 28th October 2007