IN observing the physical world, sooner or later we all recognise that sunrise and sunset come independent of our deeds and misdeeds, of our hopes and our expectations. No matter how mightily we try, we have no influence over night or day. We do not set the schedule of sunrise or the schedule for sunset. These things lie in the hands of a power much greater than we are. Yet, what is true in the world of nature does not govern the world of man. In the realm of human affairs, our actions do determine whether "the sun" rises or whether it falls. What we do determines whether we will bask in the sunlight or retreat under the cover of darkness. Democratic commitment, love of country, love of justice, tolerance and a co-operative selflessness bring forth great light while the scourges of avarice, ambition and lust for power beget an unregenerate darkness that eventually becomes the nemesis even of those who created it.
I have had the distinction of representing my country in Nigeria for the past two years. Even prior to this, I visited Nigeria 16 times and spent many years working on issues at the core of the US-Nigeria bilateral relationship. While I don't profess to know the full story of Nigeria, what I say here today is not the musings of a novice or a stranger. These remarks come from someone who, in his heart and his head, considers himself a stalwart friend of this vibrant yet sometimes difficult and perplexing country. I have seen a dynamism in Nigeria not equalled in many places. From North to South, East to West, I have witnessed a creative spirit that drives people to better their condition. I have seen ardent farmers, working day-in, day-out tilling the soil to realise a good harvest. I know industrious market-women who, relying on nothing but their grit and determination, build profitable businesses, step-by-step, sale by single sale. And I have seen the joy of wide-eyed and energetic children on their early morning treks to modest school houses to learn more about the world around them and to create a future better than the present they have today. These scenes of honest, hard-working people trying to win the present in order to make a better future are the images that I will take from Nigeria.
We all know, however, that many people do not share this vision of Nigeria. But I submit that these images are more representative of the country than the gloom and doom stories often sounded by Nigeria's naysayers, those who misunderstand Nigeria or doubt its potential prospects. There is no question that Nigeria faces major challenges and a spectrum of difficult problems that require hard choices. Yet, because of the positive images I have, Nigeria has always seemed to be a country with its sun on the rise due to the energy, imagination and industry of its people. As the most important event in this current chapter of Nigeria's history, the 2003 elections represent a chance for the Nigerian Sun to rise.
These elections will shape the nature and scope of the Nigerian polity for many years to come. We all know that Nigeria has not had a successful civilian-to-civilian transition. By definition, the ability to achieve that civilian transition is essential to sustainable democracy. There are those who believe Nigerians cannot pull it off; they point to 1983 and 1993 as if to say that what happened then - some 20 and 10 years ago - will absolutely predetermine what happens today. I refuse to accept that argument. There are those of us who know that Nigeria will rise to the current challenge as it did in 1999. Now is the time to say "No" to the nay sayers and to silence their pessimism and doubt.
An opportunity to transcend a nation's past history is golden because it only may come around once. Opportunity follows a time-table not readily discernible by the mind of men. You cannot anticipate historic opportunity and you cannot hurry its emergence, no matter how hard you might try. All one can do is take advantage of fleeting openings of the "window of opportunity" to enter into a new future. Once past, today's chance is gone forever. One would be left only with the hope that the future will bring another chance. Yet, there is no guarantee that this hope will be honoured. Thus, Nigeria should handle this election with care, treating it as if it may never happen again.
Clearly, this election should serve as an affirmation of Nigerian democracy. It should be an exercise that encourages the creative passions of the country's best and brightest to develop solutions to its most urgent and difficult problems. It should be a process where the citizenry is treated to full discussion of the critical issues of the day - jobs, economic growth, security and stability. Such a process would facilitate the creation of that elusive national consensus that could propel Nigeria forward. What this country lacks, is a broad national consensus, a roadmap of what and where you should be and how its people, united and indivisible, should get there.
Unfortunately, it appears too many people are intent on denying Nigeria's greatness right at the time when that greatness is needed most. Instead of affirming democracy, too many people have treated the democratic electoral process with contempt. In public, these people act politely and utter niceties about democracy and fair elections; however, once behind closed doors, they mock and abuse these noble principles. Instead of bringing people together, too many politicians are playing ethnic, religious and geo-political cards to inflame the electorate and incite the prejudices of a puzzled citizenry. If Nigeria loses in the process, that is of small consequence to them. No sacrifice is too big as long as someone else makes it and as long as it puts them in office. While there are a multitude of well-meaning and selfless public figures who have done extraordinary work in the service of Nigeria, there are also those whose thirst for power is matched only by their quest for wealth. A key challenge of this and any election is whether Nigeria will sufficiently recognise and value the welfare of the many over the ambition, avarice and political narcissism of the few.
Already, too many people have given the ultimate sacrifice during this election year. The spirit behind elections should be celebratory. Politicians and voters should be excited about elections, seeing them as an opportunity to improve their communities and usher in a more productive future for them and their children. Instead, for too many Nigerians who have lost loved ones, the election season has become a time of mourning. For too many Nigerians, talk of elections has become a funeral song. I ask how many more people must be added to the list of victims before we abandon the dangerous folly that has set brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend merely for the sake of a brief stay in public office? The temporary prize is not worth these permanent costs.
In the heat of political competition, it does become difficult to be your brother's keeper especially when he happens to be in the opposing party; however, that provides no excuse for plotting your brother's demise. How can a person profess to serve the public when his path to office is stained with the blood of the very public he claims he wants to serve? Moreover, those who use violence to get their way should be careful. Violence recognises no master but itself. If you set calamity against your neighbour today what prevents calamity from visiting you tomorrow? The fruit of a poisoned tree is as dangerous to the tree's owner as it is a passerby. Violence is the antithesis of political competition in a democracy. Conversely, fair elections epitomise the democratic process. Elections should be waged solely in the arena of competing ideas and policies, not in a den of mortal combat. We all must remember that elections are win or lose; they are not live or die.
This brings us to the essence of the democratic spirit. "Tolerance." A democratic politician requires two key traits - an open mind and a thick skin. Democracy thrives on constructive criticism, differing opinions and alternative policy choices. Debate and discussion are the twin engines of democracy; they are the pillars on which representative government rests. No one can rightfully expect 100 per cent support from the electorate. No matter how qualified you may be, there will be many people who believe someone else should occupy the seat you covet. Not only that, they will make their preference known in ways that might hurt your feelings and wound your pride. However, the choice to enter politics is a voluntary one and criticism is an inherent in politics as wetness is to water.
A democratic politician must be strong enough to accept that his opponents deserve their political space and that they should be able to function in that space in safety, peace and free of intimidation and fear. If a politician is incapable of accepting opposition and cannot withstand the heat of criticism, that politician may want to consider another vocation. There are other avenues of service to one's country, if rendering patriotic service is what you are after.
In a few days, Nigerians go to the polls again. These are important decisions not to be taken lightly. It is not up to me to tell you how to vote. Even if I could, I would not. However, as a friend of Nigeria, I will ask that you exercise this sacred duty in wisdom and dignity. Make your decision based on who will service you best and on the interests of Nigeria; avoid the trap of petty prejudice and bias. The familiar pedigree of a candidate is much less important than the pedigree of his ideas. Make a decision based on what you truly believe helps the collective good. You also have the right, indeed, the duty to ask the politicians who are now busy currying your favour to behave in a manner that will strengthen democracy and not strain it. If a person cannot act responsibly during the elections, when they need your goodwill the most, how will that person behave once given the power of office?
Progress has been made in many areas and this gives hope for the future. Registration of additional political parties has expanded the political space and increased competition. If a citizen cannot find a place among 30 political parties, then, that citizen will probably remain lost. Courts have objectively applied the rule of law in the elections-related cases brought before them. In other areas, such as a computerised voters roll, the groundwork is being laid to make future elections less contentious and more structured. However, there have been problems. INEC has had its budgetary and logistical challenges. There have been long delays along the way. As stated before, violence has reared its ugly head too often. Nevertheless, Nigeria can still have credible elections. To do so, however, all Nigerians must recognise that all will not be perfect but still must resolve to work together to pull this off.
First and foremost, civil society must not abdicate its responsibility or underestimate its role as the conscience of the nation. Civil society must insist that politicians act responsibly or contend with an offended and disappointed electorate on election day. Traditional rulers, religious leaders, captains of industry must pressure the politicians to end the violence and intimidation. Second, citizens should insist on campaigns based on issues. To win your votes, candidates should do more than deride their opponents: they should tell you their plan for promoting social tranquility and economic growth in your local areas as well as across the length and breadth of Nigeria. We know many politicians have said that the electorate is unsophisticated and does not respond to politics based on issues. I find that hard to believe. This is Nigeria, a land filled with intelligent, creative, and ingenious people.
I find it hard to believe that a farmer would not be interested in what a candidate has to say about agriculture or that a businessman would not open his ears to a discussion on economic policy. I think concerned parents would rather know more about a candidate's stand on healthcare and education than what part of the state that candidate comes from. Although late in the campaign season, there is still time to prove the cynics wrong. To the extent that politicians discuss issues, there will be less focus on the factors that can divide Nigeria. This, in turn, will lessen the impetus of violence. A candidate's stand on economics will affect you, no matter where you come from, East or West, North or South, and no matter what religion you follow.
Now is also the time for committed and responsible politicians to take the lead. I think that good politicians are more numerous than conventional wisdom would suggest. No political party has a monopoly of them and no party is utterly devoid of people who have this nation's best interests at heart. Now it is time for them to work within the political arena to ensure that the remainder of this election is conducted in peace and harmony. An important way they can help the process is urge their parties to live up to the Code of Conduct for political parties, to eschew political violence and intimidation, and pledge allegiance to the goal of open and fair campaigning. Moreover, there has to be a level playing field where all candidates have fair access to the public media. Politicians must also work, within their parties to sanction their members and supporters who stray from the path of peace. That may entail publicly criticising fellow party members or denouncing supporters who participate in thuggery, or even reporting them to law enforcement if internal party discipline fails to bring them in line.
Well meaning politicians must also more actively engage INEC to try to resolve some of their concerns about the conduct of the elections. Request INEC to reveal its workplan and the challenges it faces. I have been surprised to learn from INEC the enormity of the task they face. I believe that INEC is led by men and women of integrity and goodwill. INEC should be asked to brief the public each and everyday. That is what transparency is all about. In these elections, no more than the future of Nigeria is at stake. Already, West Africa is in crisis.
Liberia continues to sink under the weight of bad governance and might drift closer toward civil war. Cote d'Ivoire is mired in turmoil and still may implode. Post civil war Sierra Leone is trying to heal but it is now one of the poorest countries in the world. Throughout the sub-region, poverty is both the cause and the consequence of civil strife and political violence. West Africa has become a tough neighbourhood with many bad actors that have plunged their populations - literally millions of innocent people - into homelessness and despair.
Nigeria has been the leading state of the sub-region. Whether you like it or not, that status confers on you a huge responsibility. When the history of the sub-region is written much will be made of what Nigeria did or did not do. Nigeria can move this region from the edge of a bleak future. A Nigeria that emerges from these elections more confident in its democracy and more united can help those countries around it overcome their political tribulations by bolstering the democratic impulse throughout the sub-region. Going into these elections you not only carry the weight of Nigeria on your shoulders, you carry the best hopes of the region with you. If Nigeria fails, West Africa will fail and the entire African continent will suffer.
Nigeria is at a crossroad; important, indeed historic, decisions must be made. If Nigeria joins the ranks of Cote d'Ivoire, the second and third largest economies on the continent will be endangered and that could plunge the region into greater despair. On the other hand, Nigeria can become a beacon of hope that leads the way for the rest of Africa. I know the road that I would take but ultimately the choice is not mine, it is yours. Which path will you follow? (I know that Nigerians will make the right choice!)