Twenty years after

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By Abimbola Olakunle

Twenty straight years of democracy – and Nigeria is a scalding, hissing, whistling crucible.

No wonder: it’s the high season of trendy lamentation; and fashionable melancholy!

Rogue elements, with an eye for the deluded, may locate a parallel for their trauma in American playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; and claim it is all persecution.

Miller’s 1953 play made a stinging allegory of McCarthyism (1950-1954).  But he tucked it all under the Salem witch trials, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1692/93.  So if folks, as corrupt as they come, now bawl “witch-hunt!” you know where that original sentiment came from!

US Senator Joseph McCarthy was the hound-in-chief of McCarthyism — that nefarious five-year anti-communist hysteria, under which the United States purged its so-called “communists”.

Miller himself was a victim, in 1956 facing congressional probe.  He got bullied by the so-called House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities; and got convicted for “contempt of congress”, because he refused to reveal the guys he had meetings with.

The Nigerian crucible, from 1999 till now, could have its own dross still. On balance, however, it would appear squeezing the dross from the truly, truly loathsome.

From 2015, those who had sowed the wind from 1999, appear reaping the whirlwind.  But that does not suggest the new order, from 2015, is not sowing its own fresh winds.

Still, some hard core purification appears dawning.  Though most can’t — or don’t want to — see it in the current bedlam, the public space is going through some corrective heat.  That can’t be bad for any polity.

From tomorrow, for instance, a grand symbol of pretence goes crashing — May 29 as Nigeria’s National Democracy Day, giving way to June 12: Nigeria’s true fount of democracy.

With June 12 as new Democracy Day, MKO Abiola’s sacred but truncated mandate, of 12 June 1993; and his martyrdom, of 7 July 1998; get a laudable national rehabilitation.

That would bring some closure to the grave injustice of Ibrahim Babangida’s electoral annulment.

But as MKO soars, even from the grave; Olusegun Obasanjo plummets, even when very much alive.

Obasanjo erected May 29 to blot, from the public mind, MKO’s personal sacrifice; and the more fundamental sanctity of the vote.  Both motives have turned ashen in his mouth.

Besides, compared to his pre-June 12 (1993) heydays and despite gaining the presidency in 1999, a clinical track shows Obasanjo’s stock has faced what the economists would call diminishing returns.

Now, the old soldier is self-relegated to a VIP among media hell raisers; most times embarrassingly self-serving, to remain willy-nilly relevant.

The Greeks said it all: only the dead are truly happy — and MKO versus OBJ is a classic Nigerian contemporary example!

But the corrective crucible of democracy goes beyond individual fortune or misfortune.  This 20-year democracy haul — haul, because it has been rather tedious and heavy going — appears to have tamed many an institutional hubris.

Take the military.  In the 1st Republic (1 October 1960 – 15 January 1966), the gung-ho boys of military salvation only allowed the politicians five years of foibles.

The 2nd Republic (1 October 1979 – 31 December 1983) was even shorter: four years and three months!

At their peak of tragic conceit in 1993, the Nigerian military, in the grim Sani Abacha, even truncated their eight-year political transition, after Babangida’s wayward annulment of the result of the 12 June 1993 election results.

Yes, in all three cases, the politicians were no angels.  Indeed, they buckled and fumbled and wobbled.  Also, they have not been angels, these 20 years past, any more than they were, in those two failed republics; and IBB’s stalled transition.

Yet, what has changed these 20 years past, that didn’t plague the previous orders?  Practically nothing — except that the khaki boys have been smitten by the wild blunders of own conceit.

That cannot be bad for the polity!  Besides, that grand illusion — nay delusion — is banished, hopefully forever: national salvation isn’t quartered in any military uniform.  It is rather quartered in the people, taking their destiny in own hands.

That has been democracy these 20 years past, warts and all.  Though it hasn’t exactly been political El Dorado, hard progress has been made.

The most spectacular of that, on the political plane, has been the defeat of the ruling federal party.  The year 2015 achieved all that – for the first time since 1960.

That harsh reality just got reinforced, with the 2019 general elections — the ruling party can no longer go a-snoring at elections, simply because it is the ruling party.  The dynamics are fast changing.  That is good for Nigerian democracy.

With their latest Zamfara debacle, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) are fast realizing, the hard way, that they cannot afford the arrogant decadence that ruined and sank the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

A political party has no choice: it must be bound by own rules — and party primaries are good starting points!  Though that hurts the APC today, it is good, over all, for Nigerian democracy, if the right lessons have been learnt.

Still, look and listen around you: it’s free-wheeling jeremiad.  Contemporary Nigeria has developed the old Israelites’ complex: to howl and bawl and moan and screech, at every opportunity; like children whose lollies just got taken away!

The partisan opposition feels obliged to bad-mouth, no matter what — hardly a democratic crime!  The sensation-crunching media finds it rather fashionable to criticize, many times blindly, with unfazed venom, rather than do reasoned critiques.

On the balance, however, compared with the military era, a democratic Nigeria has experienced far better structured growth, even if the growth has come with new challenges.

For starters, 2015 has brought to the federal plain more thoughtful pro-poor policies (emblematized by Tradermoni; statesupported credit for the humblest of trades)away from the PDP-era PAP (poverty alleviation programme), as epitomized by Keke Marwa, and its inevitable urban transportation plague.

Besides, the wild cats, parasites that for too long fed fat while the rest of us shrivelled, are meeting their due nemesis.

Still, the story would appear even more dramatic in the states. But for the democratic order, and the re-engineering that came with 1999, the Lagos economy would perhaps have ground to a halt, even if challenges remain.

Abakaliki in Ebonyi, even post-1999, got dismissed by its dusty roads — not anymore!  Osun, a state that pre-1999 and much after, seemed trapped with poor infrastructure and structural poverty, is teaching the rest of the country how to maximize scarce resources, for the Jeremy Bentham ideal: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.

Pray, what can you say of Borno?  Out of the ashes of Boko Haram, the state is building Osun-like futuristic mega-schools, for the talakawa kids to tap quality education!

That is the colour of democracy, warts and all, 20 years after!

Despite the present challenges, that can’t be bad for anyone.

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