Chairman of Occasion H.E. General Abdulsalmi Guest Speaker Book Reviewer.
All Protocols Observed.
I always feel a special elation each time I am invited to attend a book presentation. The reason is that till date, in spite of advances in information technology and strategies of information, the written word in the form of books still remains one of humanity’s most enduring legacies. Our collective heritage as a species, our achievements, our travails and triumphs are richly documented in volumes that adorn the libraries of the world.
It is often the case that the quality of a civilization is measured by the enduring value of its guiding ideas, the depth and variety of its writers and indeed by the number of writers whose works are domiciled in its public and institutional libraries. It is only through books that we partake of the great harvest that is human civilization across the ages.
Therefore, for me, each opportunity to be present at a book launch, especially in our country, is a special privilege.
With each new book, the march of our national history takes a step forward. When one is present at a book launch, one is bearing witness to the birth of a new body of ideas, to the coming into being of another testimony of history.
You will all agree with me that today’s book presentation is special in many ways. Firstly, today is yet another anniversary of our intervention in the governance of our great country. Secondly, among the very impressive body of literature that our administration has generated in the last decade or so, this is the first work that I am aware of that has been authored by someone who was himself a participant in the exercise that brought our regime to power.
The author, John Nanzip Shagaya, was not just a participant in the exercise that facilitated the advent of our administration from inception to the end. Even then, he was not just a functionary in a passive sense of a disinterested passenger on a historical train.
I am sure that John will allow me the indulgence of accusing him of being also a believer, an apostle and indeed a disciple of the programmes and policies of the administration. He was with us from the beginning. His intimate knowledge of our views and conviction over the years equipped him to understand our motivations and informing ideals.
To that extent, he writes with conviction, with the benefit of inside knowledge, devoid of speculation. Such works as John has authored have a singular advantage. They help fill the factual gap, which is often left in the work of non-participant authors. I believe that historians and analysts of historical events need the authority of facts supplied by living witnesses to the events, which they make their subject. For me, this is the importance of John Shagaya’s very important book on account of which we have gathered here.
I salute him for the courage in speaking out. I commend him for an excellent effort and I challenge others who traveled that road with us to complement the works of other writers so that posterity can be better equipped to understand that chapter of our national history better.
I can take such liberty with John’s sense of commitment and dedication because I have known him for the better part of close to four decades. I have followed his career in and out of service. I have treasured his friendship and counsel. I have sometimes overdrawn on his friendship and loyalty. But he has never complained.
His sterling qualities as an officer and gentleman need no elaboration. Beyond his personal courage and professional excellence, I have never stopped being amazed by the sharpness of his intellect as well as the boldness of his conviction in public service. Since I knew him, John has never been shy to express his convictions about our country. Yet he has done so without the brashness that some people have come to mistake for courage in our social and political discourse. In fact, I think that his candour is rare among soldiers in these parts while his insight bears witness to his exposure to the best traditions of military training.
John, I shall remain proud of you as I am indeed with most of your colleagues with whom we traveled that bumpy road at a critical moment of our national history.
As I read through the draft of his manuscript, I could see in every page the thoughts of a convinced patriot and committed nationalist.
So much has been written about our period of national stewardship that one needs not belabour the issue. Because we instituted such far reaching reforms, it is not surprising that conflicting interpretations of that chapter of our national history have continue to enliven our public discourse. Sometimes, when there is nothing exciting to occupy our national discourse or attract the headline of our numerous journals, an aspect of the Babangida regime fills the gap! In a diverse and complex polity such as ours, this is to be expected. Yet in the growing body of contentions about our legacy, it is now possible to distinguish between factual and objective assessments on the one hand and plain political mischief making on the other. Both perspectives, I dare say, are complementary because in a free society, reality does not have a single face.
Debate and divergence of views can only enrich our history and culture. Let ideas and interpretations clash in the market place of our common heritage. As the Chinese say, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’.
Happily, Nigerian public to whom we gave selfless and patriotic service and who are the ultimate judges of history have become increasingly perceptive and discerning. They know the truth and will always defend it when it is assaulted by the forces of crass opportunism and political expediency.
As we celebrate the birth of a new book on our modes contributions to the nation and commemorate our advent and past contributions to the history of our country, I believe we should spare some thought for the issues that informed our reform programme and their relevance in a vastly changed nation and indeed a fast changing world.
Understandably, our administration has had more than its fair share of public commentary. I doubt that a great majority of these commentators fully understand the informing idea and therefore the enduring legacy of our policies and programmes.
If you ask me to summarise our mission, I would put it this way: We were a military regime that sought to lay the foundations for freedom and liberty in a complex society.
That apparent contradiction is the basis of our controversial heritage. That is what fuels the conflicting interpretations of our heritage. But it is also the source of the enduring public fascination with what we tried to do. Even now, we make no apologies for the choice we made. The sacrifices we made were selfless. The options we offered were patriotic while the paths we chose were well thought out.
We took a hard look at our country and realised that the common denominator that binds our people together is the love for freedom: Freedom of expression, freedom of enterprise, freedom to feel welcome and at home in every part of our country, freedom of political association and freedom to believe differently and still inhabit our common Nigerian household. Our defining imperative was therefore to liberate the energies of Nigerians and lay the groundwork for a free society.
Because of our professional orientation, there were bound to be instances of unintended consequences. But these did not detract from our cardinal goal. Even today, with the passage of a decade, I stand firm in my convictions about our nationalistic objective.
Most importantly, nothing has happened to change my conviction that freedom and the love of liberty remain the essential defining attributes of our national character as a people. Even our worst critics will, in their private moments, acknowledge that freedom and democracy were our ultimate policy destination. It is of course the nature of historical contraction that the shortest distance to a historical destination is never a straight line. Even today, I stand by my belief and commitment to that higher goal and value. I make bold to say so because providence placed me in the role of chief priest of that ritual of national self-redefinition.
Of course, time has passed and the challenges of freedom have been redefined by changed circumstances. The frontiers of liberty have extended to include a wider world. Liberal democracy, which we variously tried to re-engineer and nurture here in our own image over a decade ago, is gradually taking root in our land and in some of the most unlikely places. Economic liberalization has assumed fresh dimensions as the drive for free market national economics in the Third World have been complicated by the phenomenon of globalization.
Nearer home, crises are erupting in places where people had hitherto lived as neighbours because resources are becoming scarcer while the machinery for resource allocation is growing weary.
Arguably, the challenge of governance in our country has become more daunting. Since this book takes on the title of ‘Governance in Nigeria’, this is perhaps an appropriate forum for me to share my thoughts on the practical problems of governance in our country as defined by the challenges of the moment.
In my view, those who govern today’s Nigeria are burdened with a triple yoke. Firstly, they have a responsibility to establish and consolidate the institution of formal democracy after a long period of arbitrariness. Secondly, they have to build or rehabilitate the infrastructure necessary for economic development. Thirdly, they have to satisfy the yearnings of an increasing population that is clamouring for material dividends of democracy to be delivered here and now.
This triple burden defines, in my view, the central problematic areas of today’s Nigeria. This is no doubt a daunting combination, requiring titanic energies and unusual creativity.
In the history of the advanced Western democracies, hardly were these three challenges presented simultaneously and with the urgency and stridency that we face today. In those societies, they had the luxury of an evolutionary approach. In the Western World, the economic benefits of the Industrial Revolution created a necessity for wider political representation, which led to the advent of formal democracy and representational institutions. These institutions have continued to evolve and be fine-tuned for centuries. Infrastructural development followed on an incremental basis as centres of commerce, industry and population grew.
Our situation in Africa is almost the reverse. The logic of world history now dictates that we proceed from the adoption of formal democracy first and use the resultant freedoms to pursue both economic development and the deepening of democracy itself.
Distressingly, we have to do this with the burden of crushing external debts whose terms and conditions are determined beyond our shores.
The resultant social stress is putting undue pressure on our national cohesiveness and worsening the problems of maintaining law and order. In my view, this is the central philosophical challenge of this moment in our national and indeed continental history.
It is also the context in which we must appreciate the efforts of those who are today at the help of affairs in our country. In this regard, I have a deep appreciation of the efforts of the current administration in grappling with these simultaneous challenges. In fact, given the complexity of the situation, I would argue that the government has performed creditably in a relatively short space of time. I urge Nigerians and indeed friends of Nigeria in the international community to appreciate the efforts of the government and accord it the necessary support.
I make this appeal because I take a long term historical view of reality. The entrenchment of freedom and liberty is a historic challenge. It cannot but take decades and even centuries and generations to accomplish.
Each dispensation, rightly regarded, is only an episode in the long relay race toward the evolution of these supreme values.
I, therefore, plead with our compatriots especially those who control and influence public opinion to adopt a more contextual approach in their assessment of specific administrations. If we agree that democracy founded on freedom and liberty should constitute our enduring and unifying national value, then each successive democratic dispensation must be seen as an episode in a long march of history until we become a civilisation. That is the expectation of the African world. That is the wish of the rest of the world. That is what will transform our greatness from a potential to an actuality.
As I rest my case, I leave you with these thoughts in the hope that we can begin to engage our reality at the level of ideas. Only then will the task of changing that reality for the better be made easier.
Once again, I congratulate the author and I thank the organizers of this even for the honour of their kind invitation.
I thank you for listening.