By Senator Ken Nnamani
Today is about truth and a book borne from it. I present to Nigeria and leaders of the African continent the simple truth that for democracy, political stability, and economic development to flourish in Africa, we must strive to maintain due process. Due process is the heart of the rule of law and democracy. In 2007, this principle prevented a possible truncation of democracy. Because we stood strong on due process, the bid to extend Obasanjo’s presidency beyond the constitutional limit failed.
It has been said that every generation must discover its mission – either fulfill or betray it. Let me suggest to us that at this point in our history, our mission in Nigeria is to strengthen the institutions of democracy and ensure that the democratic gains aren’t lost in an ugly power struggle.
Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy and liberty. Our vigilance for democracy requires that we learn from our history, a history of success and failure. This is why I wrote this book: to remind us of the dangerous path we could have taken but for the vigilance and courage of some legislators and to challenge us to never abandon the responsibility of protecting due process for our democracy to survive
Our democracy was tested in 2006, it passed. It was tested again in 2015 and passed. This has culminated in the Buhari presidency. The crucial 2015 test would not have been if we failed the 2006 test. The 2006 test was a test of whether leaders will rise above fear and the politics of the strongman to strengthen democracy by upholding due process. It was a test of solidity of our legislature. The 2015 test was a test of whether a ruling political party and an incumbent president will have the grace and patriotism to accept political defeat and allow the opposition to form a new government. This was not a simple test. Many African countries failed this test. The result of such failure is the collapse of national consensus and retreat into authoritarian politics with its attendant political instability and economic stagnation.
We owe it to the integrity, courage and steely determination of President Mohammadu Buhari and the humility and graciousness of President Jonathan that Nigeria reached the important milestone of countries that have consolidated democracy by peacefully transferring power to the opposition. We have to acknowledge the persistence of President Buhari to continue to peacefully contest for the presidency in different electoral cycles. He was not deterred by previous disappointments, including manipulation of the electoral process. He placed his trust and confidence in the sanctity of the ballot box and believed that deliberation, persuasive, and rule-based conducts are the recipes for democratic governance.
Let us also commend President Jonathan for overcoming the ever-present temptation amongst African leaders who refuse to leave power and find a way to scramble the electoral results even when they have lost clean and square. Such dare-devilry has thrown their countries into utter instability and chaos. We should be grateful that these two leaders helped us overcome the storms in 2015. Their exemplary leadership has made Nigeria a shining light in consolidating democracy. But we have to remember that the challenges of democracy never end and the work of consolidating democracy is ever recurrent. As we move forward as a nation, we will confront challenges that call for wisdom, courage and collaboration.
The story of what happened with the Third Term saga has been told by many people. What I aim to offer in my book is the reflection of someone who was at the driver’s seat during the journey. As expected, there have been some serious omissions and plenty whitewashes about the role of some individuals in the saga. My focus is to narrate the facts in a manner that will help my compatriots appreciate the role that individuals who face a crisis and remain committed to core values can play in taking society to a higher level.
There is a raging debate on whether institutions or leadership matters most in entrenching democratic ideals. On one hand, many institutionalists have argued in support of building institutions. The argument is that irrespective of the character and competence of individual leaders, once institutions are strong it does not matter the pedigree of individuals who occupy political offices. The opposing argument is that we should instead focus on recruiting the most competent and ethical leaders and even if our institutions are weak, we will be ok. I think these two extremes are wrong. We need strong institutions as well as credible and competent leadership to ensure sustainable development. Leaders matters. Institutions matter. Good leaders create and sustain good institutions.
Institutions and leaders played a key role in successful economic and social development in the past three decades. East Asia has exhibited this, with various factors contributing to its economic miracle. Others see it as an indication of the region’s openness to global trade. These interpretations are underpinned by the role of leaders who were purposeful and value-driven in moving these countries into the First World. General Park reshaped South Korea from the 1960s onwards. Lee Kuan Yew and his transformative leadership replicated the same feat in Singapore. What emerges from East Asia is that leaders that matter are those that redefine their society, build quality institutions and work hard to preserve their integrity
Our future depends on how we build great institutions and match them with great leadership. The experience of the Third Term saga illustrates how a combination of good institutions and good leadership can save a people during political turbulence. It is often said that the heart of constitutional democracy is representation. Where the legislature is strong and truly representative, the people are protected against authoritarian impulses that often characterize public leadership. Where the legislature is weak and captured by special interests, the bulwark against autocracy is easily dismantled.
Nigeria’s constitution positions the National Assembly as a pillar of democracy. In the constitution, the legislature is protected from executive override and committed to supporting the executive in managing the national economy. In a constitutional democracy, the checks and balances system guarantees freedom and liberty.
While in office as Senate President, I gave serious thought to this structure of constitutional governance. I considered that the constitution intended cooperation not competition between the two political branches. In seeking for a conceptual framework to manage the intricate relationship between the executive and legislative branches, I conceived the idea of the ‘Third Way’. The ‘Third Way’ as a model of legislative leadership meant that the basis of relationship between the executive and legislative is ‘interdependence’. In Nigeria’s legislative history since 1999, we have seen two dominant modes of executive-legislative relationship. The first is the way of antagonism between the legislature and the executive. The second is the way of subservience of the legislature to the executive. The first leads to unnecessary turf battles between the legislature and the executive. The second requires that the legislature abandons its constitutional responsibilities and become a rubber stamp to the executive. None of these models lead to sustaining an effective and stable government. None of them can provide effective legislative framework for inclusive economic growth.
As Senate President, I abandoned these disruptive models. I developed the Third Way which I called the Theory of Interdependence. In this theory, the legislature must protect its independence while providing legislative support to grow the economy and manage the polity. Interdependence recognizes the overriding responsibility of the President to manage the national economy in a manner that is complemented by the power of the legislature to oversee the exercise of presidential power. Interdependence requires a new orientation that weans legislators away from undue antagonism and competition with the executive on the paraphernalia of power, but rather focus on providing a strong legislative framework for socioeconomic development.
To resolve Africa’s underdevelopment and political instability crises, we need legislatures who have embraced a cooperative culture and transcended their delight of competitive politics.
In the 5th National Assembly, we attempted to follow the path of interdependence and co-management and it yielded the fruits of sustained economic growth. We didn’t need to agree with everything the executive did or said. We didn’t need to accept all the provisions in their bills. But we offered them utmost respect and responsibility and aided the effectiveness of executive programs through legislations, appropriations, and oversights. We recognized that the unity and development of the country trumped any lust for power or passion to spite and abuse. I believe that the present National Assembly is on that path and, in spite of the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will see a resurgence of sustained economic growth during the administration.
In my earlier book, The Third Way, I presented the ideas and principles that informed my leadership of the National Assembly between 2005 and 2007. In this book, I present the drama and the upheavals that threatened to derail constitutional democracy in Nigeria. I detail some of the important conversations that strengthened our resolve to uphold due process and guide our country away from the cliff-hanger. My intention is not to sensationalize; rather to present a factual account of that defining moment without malice to anyone. I recognize that actions of political actors are often guided by many strategic considerations. So, I feel sympathy for those who failed the test of leadership and I am full of praise for those who kept faith with constitutional responsibilities. But, it is important to point out the failures and highlight the successes so that we provide future generation of legislators a model of an effective legislature.
My model of legislating is shaped by the debate about whether the legislator is an agent or a trustee. This debate is an enduring one. The concept of an agent means that the legislator goes to the assembly to vote according to what his constituents want. As a trustee, the legislator is elected to employ his best reasons to represent his constituents. He does not always say what they want him to say. He says what he thinks is the right thing for his constituents. So, based on the concept of trusteeship, a legislator is permitted to vote his own perceptions and belief.
During the debate on the Third Term Bid of President Obasanjo, I weighed these two competing concepts of the role of a legislator. I decided to marry the two concepts. I wanted Senators to vote their mind on the question whether to amend the constitution to allow President Obasanjo a Third Term. I also wanted them to effectively represent the views of their constituents. To be an informed trustee, the Senators needed to understand the views of their constituents before casting their votes.
On this basis, the Senate adjourned to allow Senators to consult with their constituents about the constitutional amendment. With this intervention, some Senators returned to the plenary with enlightened views. Many who were previously overwhelmed with exigencies of politics returned with stories of the vehemence of their constituents. This ‘Damascus experience’ changed the game on the Third Term vote. It was obvious that majority of Nigerians wanted the National Assembly to keep faith with the constitutional limitation on tenure.
To ensure that Nigerians saw how their representatives were responding to the most important question of democracy, the Senate decided to televise its proceedings. Publicizing the proceedings was faulted by those who wanted to smuggle into the constitution the extension of tenure through undefined and darkly proceedings. They knew that if we isolate Nigerians from the proceedings and therefore reduce public pressure on the legislators it could be possible to ram through with their agenda. But I stood strong. The principal officers of the National Assembly stood strong. We overcame this intense pressure even from the highest level of government. We continued to broadcast the proceedings. The result of the publicity and openness was that we ultimately secured our democracy.
The degree of public interest the debate generated owed largely to the decision to televise our deliberations. This was about the origin of the now institutionalized use of television to publicize the proceedings of the National Assembly. The publicity of the proceedings made legislators to sit up and take seriously the art of law-making. No one wanted to be caught on camera either sleeping or making disjointed statements. No one wanted to be seen by members of his community taking a disgraceful position on such important issue. Publicly televised proceedings became a new incentive structure to improve the quality of proceedings in the Senate. Suddenly, we gained a new insight into the legislative craft, we were then ready to subject our decisions to public scrutiny.
As a graduate student in the US, I followed some of the most contentious debates in the US Congress. When I became a Senator I wrote a book, My Mission as a Senator, where I articulated my legislative priorities and the legislative framework to grow the economy. In furtherance of the vision, as Senate President, I restricted myself from the procurement process in the National Assembly so that I can maintain a high level of credibility and engagement with legislative business in order to transform the institution of legislature. I recruited the best and the brightest I could find across the country as economic, legal and political advisers. I created a policy research group that included industry stakeholders and experts to improve the rigor of law-making.
These innovations paid up huge social capital for the National Assembly. Suddenly, the National Assembly became the most credible public institution in Nigeria. The National Assembly became effective, credible, and efficient. Nigerians now came to regard the National Assembly as a collection of patriots devoted to generating laws and legislative framework for economic growth and social inclusion.
From my stewardship at the National Assembly, I learned the importance of integrated leadership. As their own choice, I had great relationships with my fellow senators. I remain eternally grateful to my colleagues for finding in me the competence and integrity to lead at that difficult time in the life of the Senate. Every success we achieved was because of that unity of purpose and determination to frustrate the devices of the enemies of legislative independence.
In the green Chamber, we found a great friend in Rt. Hon Masari and his principal officers. We formed a bond of trust based on mutual respect for parliamentary privileges. Without the leadership of the House of Representatives, we could not have carried out the people’s business and foiled the orchestration to undermine Nigeria’s constitutional democracy
My overriding message today is that institution matters. But leadership matters most. We need to focus on building the strongest and most resilient institutions of democracy and development. We need to have the best-in-class institutions since economic and social development turns mostly on the quality of institutions. However, recent political experience teaches us that crafty autocrats can rob these institutions of meaning and use them against democracy and development. The Third Term Bid was almost a disaster, but for the vigilance and courage of the National Assembly leaders who supported the due process and opposed an invasion of self-serving politicians.
My book chronicles my monologues and dialogues when I was seeking the strength to serve my country. I found great support in the late maverick US Senator, John McCain. McCain said that courage is not the absence of fear but the determination to do what needs to be done in spite of the fear. My mind echoed incessantly with his words as I pondered the possibility of a military overthrow of Nigeria’s democratic government
With my colleagues on my side, I decided to ride the storm. I struck upon a concept that defined what I did in the storm of political firework in the Senate. I conceived myself in the role of a judge holding the fair balance between contending parties to a dispute. I decided that my responsibility was to uphold our rules of procedure and the overriding requirement of the constitution. I made sure that no one forced a decision on the Senate. I insisted that Senators have the freedom and presence of mind to make the best decision. I knew that if given the freedom and the information they needed, they would make that decision to reject the agenda.
The morning of May 16, 2006 was very tense that I could even hear my heartbeat as a thick silence descended on the Senate floor. Many prominent politicians were on hand to observe proceedings. It is important to note that while the Senate was on recess, I decided to write a speech that will emphasize to my colleagues the historic moment that they will usher in through their votes. I revised the speech several times but hid it from any Senator. That speech will be my last act of statesmanship to urge my colleagues to walk on the path of constitutional democracy and not allow political expedience to overwhelm their sense of patriotism.
The speech worked magic. After I delivered it and called for votes to determine whether the bill should be read a second time, there was total silence. To take it beyond doubt, I called for votes a second time. There was no vote for the bill to go on to the third reading. I struck the gravel. Third Term was dead—hurray! Jubilation filled the hall. Senators pumped hands and embraced one another. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Both those who supported and those who opposed the Third Term bid now agreed that it deserved to die. One of my fears was that the outcome of the debate could damage the solidarity and support we had in the Senate but I was proven wrong. The death of the Third Term in fact generated more solidarity and cooperation in the Senate. We became a closer family. We saved the nation. In doing so, we saved the National Assembly from ridicule.
Dear Compatriots, I have taken us through this narrative to restate the simple truth that the salvation of democracy anywhere depends on protection of due process. We have imperfect institutions. But as long as we are willing to uphold the basic tenets of democracy which primarily requires that the citizens choose their leaders and leaders while in power should not extend their mandate, we can cure these imperfections. The work of building a prosperous and stable society will task national and local leaders. It is work that requires us to mobilize all human and natural resources. It is work that cannot thrive in societies riven by conflicts and violent disagreements. In 2007, we came close to becoming such a society. But we survived because the leadership of the National Assembly realized the imperative of upholding legislative due process. We won because we respected due process.
The question remains: should we build institutions or recruit competent and ethical leaders. I say, let us do both. Let us build strong and resilient institutions. Let us also look for men and woman who have the intelligence, the courage, and the honesty to defend those institutions from cynics and autocrats who may creep in the cloak of democrats. Always, we should stand strong on due process.
May God bless Nigeria
May God bless all of us
▪︎ Nnamani, former Senate President (2005-2007), presented this speech at the Public Presentation of the Book: Standing Strong on October 21, 2021 at the International Conference Center, Abuja