TOPICS > Politics

Choosing Democracy in Nigeria?

July 21, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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PHIL PONCE: Two perspectives now. Ibrahim Gambari is Nigeria’s ambassador to the United Nations. He’s a political scientist who has studied and taught in Nigeria, Europe, and the United States. Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti is chairman of the Nigerian Campaign for Democracy, a coalition for democracy and human rights. He was released from prison by General Abubakar last month after serving three years of a fifteen year sentence. The military had convicted him of being an accessory to treason after he’d worked to defend the legal rights of others. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Ambassador, the military has made promises in the past of a transition from military government to civilian rule. Why is this promise different?

IBRAHIM GAMBARI, U.N. Ambassador, Nigeria: Because of the person who has made the recent one and also because of what he has done to us to create good faith, which has been recognized as such by I think a wide segment of the international community. If I may just elaborate, here is a very senior general, who has never held political appointment like cabinet minister or military governor of a state before assuming the present position. We came to him, as you know, by default.

Secondly, we have to judge him by what he has done differently. He has freed political prisoners. He has committed a death sentence he’s passed on alleged coup plotters who were, in fact, subsequently convicted. He has leveled the playing field by abolishing some of the transition institutions, which apparently lack credibility. He has also rejected the result of the elections. We did not command the confidence of the majority of Nigeria. So I think if you judge by who he is, what he has been, and what he has done so far, I think you have to make the point that perhaps this time we are on the right way forward.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. Ransome-Kuti, the litany of reasons that the ambassador just gave, do they give you cause to trust the general?

BEKO RANSOME-KUTI, Nigerian Pro-Democracy Activist: Well, the ambassador, himself, knows that we have always before-we’ve had at least seven, eight attempts at the military to transit to democracy, and it has always been scuttled by them. So we’re not talking about individuals. We are saying that the military has outlived its usefulness in governance. It has demonstrated very clearly that it has no wish to go back to the barracks. All the ambassador has said has been everything that has been said before by Abacha, by Babangida, by all of them. So why must the military insist on staying in governance? I mean, I can’t understand it. And what we are talking about is what has Abubakar done? He has held Abiola till he died. Most of us believe he was poisoned so as to scuttle the aspirations of Nigeria, who have rallied around Abiola as a sign that this is somebody who has won a free and fair election. Now they’ve killed him. Now they are now going back on the rigmarole of transiting again. Why must they teach us? Why can’t civilians do it? There must be elections.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Ambassador, how about that, is there an institutional-is there institutional momentum, as Dr. Ransome-Kuti puts it, on the part of the military to remain in power, notwithstanding General Abubakar’s statements?

IBRAHIM GAMBARI: I must admit that there may be some elements in the military that would like the military rule in Nigeria. But as my good compatriot will also recognize Nigeria has changed, Africa has changed, the world has changed, and I think the climate is no longer conducive for the propagation of military rule in Nigeria or anywhere else, as he knows–Nigeria is right now the only member of the Commonwealth of Nations that is still under military rule. I think that times have changed and that we must seize the opportunity to move forward.

Let’s forget about the events of the past, and let’s move forward and take advantage of the opportunity. And if we say let the civilians take over now, how can we, as the general said, replace one undemocratic institution with another-for example, to call for the government of national unity, which would be hand-picked by supposedly both the military and civilian groups in Nigeria. I think now the game is set, the playing field is leveled. Let the Nigerian politicians and civilians take advantage, organize themselves, and have the elections-as promised-have it concluded by the first quarter of 1999.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. Ransome-Kuti, do you see your release as evidence that things have changed in Nigeria?

BEKO RANSOME-KUTI: On the contrary. There were so many political detainees the general released eight or nine of us, and he released me on health grounds and on compassionate grounds. What he’s trying to say is that all the atrocities they have committed, he also was-the general was also part of the government, he was in the army, but all the atrocities they have committed, all the people they have shot, there has been no mistake. So even on my way to the states for medical treatment my passport was seized, although it was eventually returned.

That means that all the apparatus of repression that we’ve been practicing is all in place, and unfortunately what the general has now stated, they are going to regulate elections, why must parties be national? Why can’t I form my own party? Why does he want to regulate parties? Why can’t people have a chance to have free association? You see, they’re going-they regulate parties, they regulate elections. At the end of the morning they will either regain or put their own nominee-why does General Abubakar have to control my own party, if I have this small party, I’ll win a few seats? By party politics it means people have to cooperate in their manifesto. We don’t need General Abubakar to tell us how to form our parties. It is still the same thing that they’re trying to manage the whole thing so that the aspirations of Nigeria’s never fulfilled.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Ambassador, right now, if somebody wants to form a party in Nigeria, can that person do that?

IBRAHIM GAMBARI: I think so, but as my compatriot will also recognize we’ve been through a terrible civil war. We don’t want that again. We don’t want parties that will be based purely on ethnic and religious grounds. We don’t want to-I see recognize-there are some people at one period of transition-they form their party-asking the white man not to leave Nigeria, so Nigeria to be recognized. There are also some parties that see it’s your future, which means the party which will perpetrate corruption. Clearly, we have reached a stage whereby we have to lay some guidelines-very broad-to say that all political parties have to be national in outlook, they cannot be ethnic; they cannot be religious, because that’s what we are trying to move away from.

PHIL PONCE: So, Mr. Ambassador-

IBRAHIM GAMBARI: General Abubakar to be-to be allowed for anybody to just form any parties without any controls, even if one of the purposes is to break up the country.

PHIL PONCE: So, Mr. Ambassador, just to make sure I understand you, you’re saying that the government will still have-will still have the authority, what, to recognize which parties are-can exist or not?

IBRAHIM GAMBARI: No. The government has dissolved the present electoral commission, and they are going to set off an independent and a commission which will now set broad guidelines within which political parties can be organized and so we can be registered not by the government, but by this electoral commission, which has civilian authorities will be represented, and, in any case, the head of this also announced that at every stage of the election process in Nigeria and this is new-this is for the first time-all international observers will be involved from the United Nations, from the commonwealth, from the OAU, and other recognized international organizations, so the outside world will keep watching and monitoring what it is we are trying to do in Nigeria.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. Ransome-Kuti, what has been the reaction to the speech-last night’s speech in Nigeria itself?

BEKO RANSOME-KUTI: Well, I’m not in Nigeria but-

PHIL PONCE: Have you been in touch with anyone?

BEKO RANSOME-KUTI: I have been, and the point really is that we have not made any progress. The ambassador and his military friends just want to perpetuate themselves there. Why can I not form a party to ask the white man to stay in Nigeria? He may say he wants them to go-and will come-in the elections. Why must he choose for me what I say? And then he’s-you see, and then he’s saying that they have started a new rule that international community will be there. What was the international community able to achieve with Abacha, while he was going around, assassinating people, locking people up, and all kinds of atrocities? Now that he’s dead, all of them have now recognized those atrocities. Even now there are thousands of political prisoners that have not been released, and why someone-some were not released-why Amb. Gambari released and all the other-I mean, people who suffered under the unfair trial-why have they not been released? They released Abacha to soothe the international reaction.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to get your reaction to that.

IBRAHIM GAMBARI: With all due respect-and I have tremendous respect for Dr. Ransome-Kuti-I do not have accept the fact that there are thousands of political prisoners in Nigeria. Even the Human Rights Watch, New York Times-which tends to be quite hysterical on these matters-even though downright inciting people to violence in Nigeria-they’ve never said there are thousands of political prisoners left. As far as the government of Nigeria is concerned, all political prisoners have been released, and I want to assure all our listeners that, you know, Nigeria is not a perfect society. No country is.

What we are saying is now there’s an opportunity to move forward. Even our biggest critic abroad, the European Union, and the British government-the Commonwealth of Nations, the United States, now feel that there’s enough in this timetable and enough good faith to encourage Nigerians to participate in the process-South Africans-who have gone through years of apartheid-they have now come out to say they invite Nigerians to take advantage of this window of opportunity and move the country forward.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. Ransome-Kuti, in the very short time we have left, what is the next step for opposition parties for the pro-democracy movement?

BEKO RANSOME-KUTI: Well, we would insist that the military go back to barracks. We’ll insist that the military or anybody else doesn’t have the right to tell Nigerians what they want or to regulate their association-that a party cannot ask that people who, one, cannot invite white people or anybody they want to come back, while at the same time, they’re welcoming them to come and supervise the elections, and then that we want a national conference because of now-we feel the major problem is that there is oppression of the group of Nigerians by section.

PHIL PONCE: And I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.