Festus Odimegwu and the Military Question, By Ebenezer Obadare
Once you set aside the crass immodesty and off-putting self-congratulation, there is actually a lot to ruminate on in the interview recently granted ThisDay newspaper by Mr. Festus Odimegwu, former managing Director/CEO of Nigerian Breweries PLC, and former Chairman, National Population Commission of Nigeria.
With his take no prisoners approach, Mr. Odimegwu is an interviewer’s delight, and the interview in question probably contains more truths and forthright answers about the Nigerian situation than anyone might hope to extract from the current cohort of the Nigerian National Assembly. For this alone, and for his searing analysis of our crisis and the seemingly inexorable degradation of our public life, Mr. Odimegwu’s submissions deserve a wide hearing.
Although most of what he says will set the reader’s teeth on edge, it is difficult to dispute their veracity. While painting a sordid picture of what passes as public service in Nigeria, Mr. Odimegwu laments the tenacity of the curious logic that ensures that mediocrity permanently trumps merit in the country, and berates religious leaders for fanning the embers of corruption by welcoming looters of public funds with open arms: “You have somebody today that nobody knows anything about and suddenly, tomorrow he is a rich man with ten private jets and everybody will be applauding him. The churches will tell him to pay tithes and use Holy Ghost to bless him. If he is a Muslim, they will pray for him ten times a day. The government of the day hobnobs with them. That is why you see corruption has reached an unprecedented level in the history of our country.”
Mr. Odimegwu is particularly embittered at the cold shoulder his proposal to undertake a digital imaging of Nigeria ultimately received from all the key people whose endorsement was crucial to the plan’s approval; from Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, through Vice President Namadi Sambo, and finally to President Goodluck Jonathan himself. This part of the interview is the most horrifying, as Mr. Odimegwu shows up the Nigerian federal bureaucracy in all its glorious inertia and casual incompetence.
Yet, while Mr. Odimegwu’s diagnosis of the Nigerian crisis is unimpeachable, it is what he proposes as remedy that I find deeply troubling. Like most watchers of Nigeria’s continued struggles, Mr. Odimegwu is frustrated at the apparent derailment of the democratic system. Furthermore, and again not unlike most watchers, he is dubious about the preparedness of the political class and the general public for democracy. Posing the question as to the readiness of the country for democracy, Mr. Odimegwu, fairly enough, answers in the negative, arguing that although we have “statistical potential…we cannot feel it because of corruption.” Besides, “people are not able to vote according to their conscience. Some people don’t even have a conscience anymore because they are not educated.”
And the solution to this? According to Mr. Odimegwu, the solution lies in a return to martial rule. “Look around the world in Egypt where the military have come back,” he says, “Nigeria should be heading towards that way instead of this caricature these politicians are conducting. It may not be a nice thing to say, but we have to decide what is good for us.”
One struggles to reconcile Mr. Odimegwu’s recommendation with his diagnosis. If it is true that the key features of our contemporary crisis are endemic corruption and civic ignorance, how does a return to military rule help address these problems? Is there any evidence, for instance, that we were less corrupt as a society under successive military rulers before the return to civil rule in May 1999? Since the Nigerian military has proven itself to be every bit as corrupt, if not more corrupt than politicians (see Sani Abacha, Ibrahim Babangida, etc) how then do we justify a return to military rule?
And pray, how exactly will a return to military rule transform the Nigerian civic landscape and turn “supposed writers (who) can’t even speak English” into models of literacy? How can Mr. Odimegwu on the one hand lament the fact that “You have leaders who swear an oath of office and once they enter the office are no longer interested in the oath;” and yet, on the other hand, thoughtlessly advocate the return to office of soldiers who are not even bound by the constitution, and whose first symbolic act upon assuming office is in fact to suspend it?”
How to explain this muddle? Primarily, it seems Mr. Odimegwu, while a fastidious student of current affairs, is actually a poor student of history. For you don’t require more than a brief excursion into Nigerian history- never mind history tout court- to realize that, as far as military rule is concerned, we’ve been there and done that, and not even the undoubted depravity of our political leaders (a reflection, it should not be forgotten, of us as a people) should suffice to take us back to those dark days of unmitigated bestiality.
Mr. Odimegwu comes across in the interview as unrepentantly elitist. There is nothing wrong with elitism. But he is living in fantasy land if he imagines for a second that his status as a member of the elite will protect him from rough justice under a military system. And that, I think, is precisely the point he fails to grasp about the fundamental difference between military rule and a democratic system. It’s simple: soldiers are not elected; hence they can do whatever they like, including enacting a law (see Buhari and Idiagbon) to retroactively designate and punish an offense committed when they had yet to assume power. In such a system, Mr. Odimegwu, who at the moment always sleeps “like a baby” (his words), will have to keep one eye open.
This is not a case for democracy’s infallibility. No such argument can be made. By its very nature, democracy is a messy project, forever susceptible to the shove and trample of the contending social forces in a given polis. Still, a democracy offers something that a military rule cannot, and that is choice, or more properly the freedom to make it. The fact that that choice is often exercised poorly, and by inarticulate citizens no less, as Mr. Odimegwu seems to imply, does not in any way diminish it. In any case, if the issue is the need to exercise freedom in a more careful and more responsible manner, how does the very abrogation of that freedom, which is what martial rule essentially entails, become a solution?
Mr. Odimegwu suggests that we look in the direction of Egypt. He suggests wrongly. I propose India instead. It’s the world’s largest democracy, and it recently, and successfully, held elections in which more than 800 million people voted. Though an increasingly prosperous country (the destination, incidentally, of thousands of Nigerian medical tourists) it is not without its own fair share of ethno-religious challenges and frequent outbreaks of violence. Yet, Indians are not calling for military rule.
We don’t need a return to military rule. What we do need urgently is to take to heart the best practices in democratic engineering from a wide range of countries, including sister African countries. The country needs the expertise of people like Mr. Odimegwu. But first, he must vacate the fantasy of a golden military age.