In 1789, the United States (U.S.) Congress considered whether President Washington should issue a proclamation, possibly containing a declaration of U.S. neutrality. The aim of such proclamation was to prevent U.S. citizens from participating in the European war involving France, Great Britain, Spain and Holland. It was the same year that the U.S. Constitution became operative. In the Cabinet, the then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, argued that the president had no authority, under the new Constitution, to issue such a declaration of neutrality. The Cabinet debated this issue and ultimately agreed to issue a proclamation of neutrality.
The Neutrality Proclamation of April 22, 1793 was controversial for two reasons. First, it was issued without congressional approval. Secondly, it was viewed as a breach of the obligations espoused in a 1778 U.S.-French treaty which required the United States “to help protect French possessions in the Americas and disallow the use by France’s enemies of U.S. ports for outfitting privateers and selling prizes.” When the criticisms of this proclamation intensified in public, Alexander Hamilton, a Cabinet member, defended the Neutrality Proclamation in seven different newspaper articles using the pseudonym “Pacificus”. James Madison, another Cabinet member, answered Hamilton in five newspaper articles under the pseudonym, “Helvidius”. The Pacificus- Helvidius debate is among the most celebrated arguments in U.S. constitutional history. Till this day, the broad themes discussed in this debate, centering on the “nature and scope of presidential power, the separation of federal powers and the proper method of constitutional interpretation”, significantly shaped the laws governing America’s foreign relations.
I took away several lessons from the Neutrality Controversy of 1793 and the ensuing debates…so many refreshingly, eye-opening lessons! I will examine these lessons one after the other.
The first lesson is that it takes the extraordinary acts of ordinary citizens to redefine legal concepts and reset the moral compass of a nation’s history and political future. Without waiting unduly for Congress to debate this issue in line with its parliamentary bureaucracy and rule-making protocols, Hamilton and Madison, both of whom were ordinary citizens, acting in their private capacities, fired by raw passion and deep convictions about democratic beliefs, went ahead to contribute to the management of the affairs of their country. Although they were both cabinet members, using pseudonyms to publish their writings was possibly their own way of separating their private passions and activities from their executive responsibilities. Although this happened more than a century ago, the compelling arguments, the explosive thoughts and breathtaking legal analysis shared in those debates do not just form part of the history of U.S. foreign policy, but it has also continued to inform contemporary debates regarding the divided responsibilities of the legislature and executive organs in the conduct of foreign relations. It is in fact, nearly impossible to have any deeper conversation and understanding of the American Constitution without referring to these debates.
Cast your mind back to the Nigeria where the political temperature has risen to its feverish peak. It is clear that the two parties – PDP and APC – have blatantly refused to engage citizens on their governance precepts and ideological propositions for moving the country forward. What is most unfortunate is that the citizens have followed suit, refraining from artful intellectual engagement and political analysis that could possibly help to reshape electoral behaviour in Nigeria. Campaign of calumny is rife, both on the social media and traditional media portals. In a dramatic twist of rabid politicking, ethnic bitterness, unfounded animosity, hate-fueled suspicion of another and broken relationships characterize citizen interactions while slanderous statements are regularly hurled at anyone that dare hold a contrary view. Just imagine if a small fraction of the energy dissipated on trifling outpourings of emotion and overzealous chants was channeled into recreating Pacificus- Helvidius kind of political discussions, there would have been no other louder way of announcing to the political class that it is no longer business as usual.
Secondly, no nation averse to new ideas, debates, and citizen engagement, has ever flourished in human history. In most prosperous nations, whatever idea that is proposed for the good of the nation is put on the table, and subjected to rigorous intellectual, mathematical and scientific dissection. Should that idea contain any heresies and fallacies, it will certainly not survive the heat of the blast furnace of rigorous debate. Though perfection is not the ultimate goal, debating ideas affecting a nation simply affords broad-based opportunities to learn, relearn and unlearn concepts and shift grounds where and when necessary. That was what Pacificus and Helvidius achieved. Their private debates did not only enlighten the public, but continue to influence political thinking and direct academic learning in all schools in the United States.
Cast your mind back again to Nigeria where the reverse is, unfortunately, the norm. As the 2015 elections have clearly shown, Nigeria is a society alien to debate, and frowns at intellectual discourse. Thus far, we have seen no debates either between the political parties or between their respective candidates. And voters don’t mind anyways. The pass rates in the West African Examinations (WAEC), Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and all other national examinations continue to drop every year because of poor heading habits. An essay written by an average graduate can break your heart. Libraries across the nation are in a despicable state of disrepair and attract little or no visitors compared to entertainment and musical shows where stampedes are routinely recorded. Those who stand out from these tragic developments in our country are routinely labeled as “wannabe analysts, I-too-know, okachamara, attention-seeking bloggers, bookworm etc” and other infantile outbursts. It is not difficult to see why Nigeria still lags behind in developmental and political progress.
Thirdly, the debate between Madison and Hamilton is a lesson in political loyalty. Loyalty does not equate to outright stupidity or blind followership. Although both of them were members of President Washington’s Cabinet, it did not stop them from bluntly telling him the truth to his face, in accordance with constitutional limitations and prescriptions. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson told President Washington directly, during a Cabinet meeting, that he (President Washington) had NO authority, under the new American Constitution, to issue such a declaration of neutrality. Perhaps, in response to Jefferson’s warning, the full text of President Washington’s Proclamation did not contain the word, “neutrality”.
Cast your mind back again to Nigeria – even in the dream, a Cabinet minister, or Secretary to the State Government would not dare oppose the President on any issue, let alone publicly. Loyalty is synonymous with deitizing political leadership. Loyalty means: seeing-no-evil, hearing-no-evil and speaking-no-evil about any political leader/candidate you support. That is why accountable leadership in Africa is almost an impossible goal despite the abundance of local and foreign initiatives to achieve same. At no time have we seen obscene levels of political deitization more than the period preceding the 2015 elections. Even the very lettered are involved. As long as these habits remain entrenched in our democratic trajectory, Nigeria shall continue to replace bad leaders with worse leaders and worse leaders with the very worst leaders. It’s a vicious cycle of nothingness, aided and legitimized by the electorate who later turn around to complain after the deed has been done.
Nigeria does not lack Pacificuses and Helvidiuses. They in fact, abound! They have either been swallowed up, or totally overwhelmed by the firepower of the mass movements that perpetuate the vicious cycle of nothingness. That is why a Goodluck Jonathan who has squandered his never-seen-before political goodwill in six years, and under whose watch Nigeria witnessed a carnival of corruption, still has the impetus to stand for reelection. That is why Muhammadu Buhari, a frail 72 year old, ex-general, with questionable academic standing, who has no track record of investments in leadership and respect for democratic tenets, still has the impetus to contest another election in 2015. It is also understandable that rooting for Buhari, despite his poor democratic credentials is the people’s own way of revolting against Jonathan’s six years of treasury depletion. Whichever way, its quite sad!
Nigeria is certainly between the rock and a hard place. For people like me, who insist, that Nigeria of the 21st Century deserves better than the Jonathans and Buharis foisted on the electorate, we have no regrets for the choices we make. There has to be a Pacificus or Helvidius standing on the outer ring, watching keenly from the sidelines. There has to be a Pacificus or Helvidius, in our midst, refusing to lower his/her expectations because crumbs have been offered as real meals. There is a reason why a lion will never eat grass, no matter how hungry. That reason propels me. Call me, Pacificus or Helvidius, if you like!
Victoria Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a youth-development and policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is currently a post-graduate student of Harvard University in the United States of America. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org