The poet, erudite scholar, intellectual and public commentator, Niyi Osundare was recently made a Distinguished Professor of English at the New Orleans University . Now on summer vacation in his home country, Osundare spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU of The Guardian, in Ibadan about the current political dispensation. It is vintage Osundare,  master of the word and eloquent commentator.

We know you live abroad but you still follow events at home with a keen interest. What were your hopes and fears before the April elections and were they justified or assuaged eventually?

Yes, wherever we go, we carry this country with us. It’s like being so far away but being so close at the same time. If I’m allowed to borrow a phrase from my refreshingly innovative friend and ace columnist, Olatunji Dare, I will say that concerned Nigerians are more or less ‘at home abroad’, even though they would have preferred to be ‘home at home’.

Now, we had our fears before the elections, serious fears. First, we were wondering if the elections of 2011 would be different, radically, clearly and manifestly from those of 2003 and, especially those of 2007. And I remember sounding a note of warning that Nigeria couldn’t afford to repeat the terrible electoral fraud of 2007, for it was capable of causing the disintegration of the country.

My fears also had to do with the way the chairman of INEC was appointed. I did say to our friend and colleague: Congratulations and condolences! Congratulations because Prof. Attahiru Jega deserved whatever honour was bestowed on him and whatever kind of responsibility was placed on his shoulders. We knew him at the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) level, and we knew him to be a capable person, level-headed and principled….  Condolences because I sympathised with him over the dangers of conducting an election in a country like Nigeria – a notoriously lawless country noted for political and criminal impunity of all kinds. The question was, how would this man manage to ride the turbulence of Nigeria’s electoral sea?

And then the nature of his appointment! I was thinking that the recommendations of the Uwais Report would be followed to the letter, particularly the two concerning the appointment of INEC’s Chair and the funding of the Commission. And Jega was a member of the Commission, a very prominent member, for that matter. So, I saw the irony in his being appointed in breach of what many people consider the most important recommendations of the commission.

My other worry had to do with the funding of INEC, which, according to the recommendation of the Commission, should be transferred to the NJC. This, again, was cleverly ignored by President Yar’Adua, then quietly side-stepped by his successor, President Jonathan.

My views may sound merely academic now that the 2011 elections have come and gone and have been certified ‘free and fair’. But the dangers are still there. We have so far relied on personalities and NOT the Law. What happens in the future if the appointing President turns out not to be as unmeddlesome as President Jonathan has been this year, and the appointee does not have the kind of integrity so helpfully demonstrated by Jega? These are two issues that need to be tackled, for they are the proverbial banana peels under the heels of future elections. As things stand today, the ‘I’ in INEC remains a dangerous illusion.

Now, back to the 2011 election and my assessment of it. To a very large extent, Attahiru Jega has succeeded in redeeming the battered image of the Professor-Chair of INEC. I remember an interview in December last year in which I pointed out that Nigeria’s moral roadside is littered with the carcasses of rubbished professors. From Humphrey Nwosu, who conducted Nigeria’s cleanest presidential election but was robbed of the triumph, to Maurice Iwu, the Ebola professor, who infested Nigeria’s body and soul with the virus of his electoral fraud and brazen devilry, the Nigerian academic had shown that he hadn’t the solution to the country’s sickening run of electoral fiascos.

Attahiru Jega has been able to heal the wounds in a number of ways. He stood his ground and brought some sanity and direction to the electoral process. He proved to be unbuyable, thus, giving the lie to cynics who are often quick to say that every Nigerian has a price. His integrity and singleness of purpose ‘trickled down’ the ranks: he had a firm moral control over his staff. Which is why his own handling of the 2011 elections never produced an Ayoka Adebayo and her appalling moral somersault.

Of course, I’m not saying that the elections were faultless; they weren’t. They weren’t excellent, but I would say that in relative, comparative terms, the elections of 2011 were much better than the ones we had in 2003 and infinitely better than the Iwu-supervised selections of 2007.

The weaknesses? Virtually all the incubi of the ‘Nigerian Factor’ were at work: late arrival of voting materials, underage voting, monetary inducement of voters even a few yards from polling stations, snatching of ballot boxes, etc. So, we have to be very careful the way we gloat over the 2011 elections. They were better than their predecessors, but they were not free of the typical Nigerian drawbacks.  Many foreign observers, who praised the elections, did so in relative, comparative terms with regard to Nigeria’s recent electoral history. We have to read their reports between the lines.

What we had in 2011 has saved us from the usual crisis but we need to make things much, much better. So, in a way, I would say that the Jega team has set this country on some kind of electoral plateau; we must not go below that plateau but we need to rise above it.

All right, how do you access the post-election events, especially the violence that erupted in the north?

The presidential election has exposed our Achilles heel and left a deep scar on this country. Anybody who looked at the voting pattern in that election would realise that Nigeria is still a sorely divided country. The electoral map, according to the election, shows a discernible horizontal line cutting the country into two. The northern part is so disturbingly CPC/Buhari; the southern part is so unconscionably PDP/Jonathan. That is what I call the Sudanese Syndrome, a dangerous geo-ethnic pathology that has eventually resulted in the breaking up of Sudan into northern-southern blocks, after so many years of bloodletting and waste...

In the Nigerian case, the recent electoral map also brought into bold relief the lingering anomie of the Lugardian Amalgamation of 1914. Almost one century after that act, Nigeria is still very much a ‘gathering of the tribes’ (to borrow Wole Soyinka’s prescient phrasing); a country still very much in search of itself. A random, knocked-up contraption held together by the oil from the Niger Delta. A country, not a Nation.

This fact was frighteningly demonstrated by the rampage and massacre following the presidential election, a situation that brought chilling memories of similar massacres in the mid-sixties, the Civil War, and a near-disintegration of Nigeria. The cause, the modus operandi, the theatre of operation, the sheer senselessness and wanton destruction of the recent carnage look very much like a re-run of the previous one. And the result is the same: Nigeria is still a country ruled by primordial fears of ethno-religious domination, a country still in search of a unifying ethos beyond political sloganeering and opportunism. A country in search of unifying leaders and unifiable followers.

And, finally, those who, out of sheer enthusiastic surprise, have been calling the 2011 election the fairest and freest election in Nigeria need to look just 18 years back. The June 12, 1993 election re-drew the ethno-political map of Nigeria and set the country on a sure path to nationhood.

It provided us with a possibility and a fact. General Ibrahim Babangida and his cohorts fractured that fact and dissipated that possibility. Since then, Nigeria has been beating around the bush.

Just compare the presidential electoral map of the June 12 election with the one of April 2011. The difference is clear. The former carried no faultline in the country’s midriff; only pathways to a corporate, national dream. Which is why, in the thinking of many Nigerians with a fair sense of history, June 12 is really Nigeria’s Democracy Day. A day of a thwarted national dream, which is still not beyond the realm of fulfillment. A national blueprint. An exemplum.

This year’s presidential election is like a merchandise with BUYERS BEWARE written boldly all over it. It is a grim reminder and a warning. We must make sure it doesn’t become an omen.
Do you think the government headed by Goodluck Jonathan has what it takes to bring about a healing to all parts of the country?

It will take more than a Jonathan to heal the wounds of the country or to address the cleavages that I have been talking about. These fissures have been there from time immemorial; they have been there since Lord Lugard’s amalgamation act, and politician after politician has merely paid lip-service to the healing of the scars.

For us to do this the country will need to set its politics right. Nigeria is the artificial creation of the British; they didn’t create Nigeria for Nigerians; they created it for their own interests. Now, the country has passed into our hands and we cannot perpetuate the pattern that the colonial masters have left behind. We have to look for ways to refashion this country to suit our needs.

One way of going about this is to address again the nature of our federalism. We’ve said this time and again. We have to get together and ask ourselves: Do we really want to live together as a country - all 300 odd ethnic groups in this country with our different cultures, languages? If the answer is yes, under what conditions?

The British didn’t ask this question in a normal, candid way in spite of all their Constitutional Conferences before independence. Chief Obafemi Awolowo addressed this issue with perspicacity and prescience extent in his book of 1948, where he was talking futuristically about Nigeria as a federation.

It is we, the people, that will have to decide the nature of the country, of the union we really want to forge. We’ll need the national conference that we’ve been talking about all along – a Sovereign National Conference whose recommendations will be binding on all and sundry, and not subject to manipulation and tampering by the usual military and civilian political elite.

All constitutions we’ve been operating in this country have been dictated to us. The pre-independence one was literally dictated to us by the British; and the ones we’ve been using have been dictated to us by the military and their civilian collaborators. The 1999 Constitution we’re operating now is defective in many ways. There is too much focus on a unitarist structure for Nigeria and this is not working.

The centre is too strong, unconscionably strong, and this is why politicians take their bid for the presidency as a do-or-die affair. The Nigerian president is too powerful; in comparative terms, the president of this country is more powerful than the president of the United States. This may sound strange but it is true. The president of Nigeria could do many things that the president of America would dare not attempt.

Consider the written and/or unwritten acts of impunity, extraordinary power in the disbursement of favours and largesse (don’t tell me you don’t know how some Nigerians come about the allocation of oil blocks that turn them into instant billionaires!), and so many other powers arising from the typical Nigerian way of treating elected officials as Kabyesi (absolute, unchallengeable ruler). The Nigerian president (as well as the governors) is treated and behaves like a medieval monarch.

We have to weaken the centre a little bit but without making it ineffective. The federating units of the country, that is, if we agree that we’re going to be a federal institution, have to agree on how to federate. What kind of power do we have to allocate to the centre? What kind of power should devolve to the federating units? What should these federating units be called? Will they be states? Will they be regions? Provinces or whatever?

Dividing Nigeria into states hasn’t helped much in the forging of national unity (as evident in the electoral map of the 2011 presidential election). It was a master-stroke by General Gowon during the Nigerian Civil War to break the so-called Biafrian stronghold. It worked at that time, but it hasn’t brought this country together in a really fundamental way. In fact, it has created fissures in our walls; more and more people are asking for more states of their own; if we are not careful, we may end up with 300 states patterned after our 300-odd ethnic groups/languages.

A country is like a machine, like an engine; you have to constantly look at the parts and see how they are working together. A country is systemic entity; all its parts have to work in tandem and independently. They have to be able to work independently but they also have to be able to work together for the common interest, which in this case, is the federal centre. As things stand, the federal government takes too much. It plays Father Christmas to the states which are always all there with begging bowls in their hands.

The Nigerian President combines the power of the old military dictator and the absolute authority of the feudal despot. This is why democracy is not working; this is why there is so much sycophancy. Which governor would dare offend the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? Which governor would dare disagree with him? Go and ask the governors who disagreed with President Olusegun Obasanjo and hear their tribulations, including impeachment by all kinds of Byzantine methods. This is not how to run a democracy. Nigeria is not a federal state, not even a ‘Republic’, as she is wont to claim. We have to create our own federal republic; and it is the people of the country that will do it.

It’s something that will take a long time if we decide to convoke a sovereign national conference in the end. It may take a whole year or even longer; we will have to spell out so many things; we also have to agree on a number of issues and disagree on quite a number of others. In the end, it will be the consensus of the people of Nigeria that, yes, we have agreed to stay together and this is the Constitution that we have created ourselves and this is what we want to be governed by. Those in the countryside will have to be fully in the picture. This means the Constitution will have to be translated into the local languages for easy understanding of the peasants across Nigeria.

At the moment, we are talking over their head. What we have is an elite dispensation that we call democracy crafted to the benefit of retired military officers, and moneyed civilians. I have never seen a political elite more corrupt, more debauched and more misbegotten than what we have in Nigeria. These people cannot lead us to progress; it is they who make free and fair elections impossible; it is they who steal and squander the country’s wealth. So, for us to have a country where the citizens count, we will need to address the state of the union; this is very important.

Nigeria is like an elephant killed by a benevolent spirit and left in the public square. Everybody is wielding a knife; every ethnic group wants a chunk from that elephant. How many chunks can they scoop before the meat is finished? In their desperate scramble for the juiciest piece, how will the booty-hunters avoid turning their knives on one another? Nigeria operates a political structure that encourages blatant cannibalism.
Let’s look at the Southwest, where the ACN has chased away the PDP, and a lot of people believe real progress has come at last. Do you this optimism?
Ah, progress and problems! Two very important Ps; progress and problems. I like your word choice: ‘chase away’. Yes, the PDP has been ‘chased away’.

The question we have to ask is, How did the PDP sweep into the Southwest in the first place? Of course, it was through the political wizardry and chicanery of the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

But people, who blame Obasanjo for the disaster of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) in 2003 are not telling the whole truth. There was also a lot of dissatisfaction with the AD back then, and Obasanjo largely rode on the back of that disenchantment. If all were well, Obasanjo would have found it impossible to trick his way into the AD strongholds. This is an important fact of history for the present ACN victors to remember and note.

There was also the fallacy and fiasco of the mainstream-seekers who said the Southwest was tired of being ‘in opposition’, and should join the big players in the centre, the natural locus of power, profit, and preferment.

Many bought this lemon without asking what the water in the mainstream was like, how deep, how wide? The purposeless PDP sold the idea; many Southwest politicians bought it; scooped the federal elephant for themselves; grew fat and forgetful; then sank in the 2011 elections.

Now back to opposition politics once again… Without a doubt, a very important political development took place in the Southwest this year. In fact, the most important regional political development of the 2011 elections took place in the Southwest. When you are talking about change, about a hard, determined struggle for change and the instance of democracy at work, the 2011 polls gave us a lot of this in the Southwest. This happened not because the people of the Southwest are special or exceptional, but because the people have grown savvy and poll-wise from experience. The purposelessness and violence of the PDP engendered profound disillusionment with the mainstream unconscionably dominated by that party.

The Southwest longed for an alternative and the ACN answered their call.

The people fought for their freedom, policed the polls; they watched the electoral process very critically. The ACN triumph in the southwest is a phenomenon with many causes. One of them, surely, is the spectacular success of Governor Babatunde Fashola in Lagos State. Fashola’s achievements were/are there for everyone to see.  Lagos has become an indelible, incontestable advertisement for Fashola and the ACN. It has also given us a positive example; it has shown us that we could make things work in Nigeria. It has shown us that we are not a doomed country and land of the impossible.

Fashola’s Lagos story goes beyond Lagos; it has become a parable, a symbol and an article of faith. I hope someday soon Fashola will have the opportunity to repeat at the national level the feats he has so spectacularly achieved at the state level. And when that time comes, let no one thwart the chance with the incubus called zoning or suchlike geo-ethnic atavism. With people like Fashola and a handful of equally competent others from different parts of the country, the long-deferred Nigerian renaissance will be within our reach.

With the ACN and Labour Party in control in the old West, let’s hope for  a holistic and corporate development that is not restricted to just this region of the country. Let the ACN emulate the principled progressivism, political commitment, and people-oriented programming of the old Action Group shorn of provincialism and undue exceptionalism. And let there be   accountability, accountability, and accountability.

Nigeria is not a poor country; we’re only poor because our money is being stolen by those who rule us. And we have to say this without mincing words: This is no time for disingenuous euphemisms and innuendos. Most of those who rule us are thieves and criminals! If you don’t believe me, consider what is happening to former public officeholders right now. If you don’t believe me, consider what happened to the hairdresser, Mrs. Patricia Etteh, who was roundly indicted and kicked out of office a couple of years ago only for her fellow ‘law makers’ to clear her of any wrong-doing and then beatify her some days ago. You wonder: are the perpetrators of these acts the shameless, thoughtless bandits on whom the country squanders nearly half of its earnings? How can people like these lead a country to progress?
Accountability is very important; let the ACN governors know that those who elected them never forget. No, the people of the Southwest never forget. The PDP plunderers didn’t remember that; the people jolted them into remembrance with a crushing defeat. Let the ACN learn a lesson.

A major problem in the present political scenario in the Southwest is that of extreme homogeneity. Too much sameness may constitute a political and moral problem. How do we deal with a situation in a supposedly presidential democracy in which the governor and all or nearly all the legislators come from the same party? With the merging of the executive and the legislative arms in a system in which the two are expected to be separate and characterized by mutual oversight, how do we calculate the enormity of the harm done to the principle of check-and-balance, which undergirds the very idea of democracy?

Government without opposition is like heaven without hell: the absence of the fear of the latter naturally leads to self-adulation and atrophy of the former. Without an alternative mirror in which to see itself, power soon bloats into self-beatification and self-indulgence. Untried, untested, uncontested virtues are sometimes worse than outright vices. Experience has shown that the one-party state (even when that state is a state within a state) can only pay lip service to genuine democracy.

In our present dispensation, the executive and the legislature could easily conspire against the people. And when that happens, the judiciary stands every chance of joining the first two arms, thus completing a vicious circle. Government without opposition is the shortest route to tyranny. In sum, our governors have to handle the present situation with extreme care and circumspection. We all wish them well. They cannot wish themselves anything less.

- This interview was first published in the Guardina  Newspapers on  Sunday, 19 June 2011

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