Fashola: Democracy works when a working majority exists

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KEYNOTE SPEECH DELIVERED BY H.E BABATUNDE RAJI FASHOLA, SAN AS GUEST SPEAKER AT THE NICHE 2022 ANNUAL LECTURE ON THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 8, 2022 AT THE MUSON CENTRE, LAGOS

The theme chosen by Acclaim Communications Ltd, for this year’s annual lecture, which is “2023 AND THE FUTURE OF NIGERIA’S DEMOCRACY” was perhaps too tempting for me to resist, and the invitation, issued since April 20, 2022, was more than timely, which is not easy to say these days for some speaking events.

Given that we are 20 Days to the formal commencement of campaigns for the 2023 general elections, this year’s annual lecture coming 170 days to the first of the elections in February 2023 provides a potential platform for many possibilities.

However, I have elected not to be partisan, and instead chosen to be even-handed, I believe this is the challenge, albeit self-imposed that the theme of the lecture now presents.

Let me start from the beginning about the 2023 general elections.

Shortly after the announcement of the results of the 2019 General Elections proclaiming the victory of President Muhammadu Buhari, and whilst the opposition petition in the election tribunal was still pending, I started hearing talk of 2023.

Initially I dismissed it as offhanded or, at the worst, isolated but it turned out that I was mistaken; it continued.

Therefore, long before the Presidential Election petition was resolved and before Buhari was sworn in for a second term in 2019, talk of the 2023 election, especially the presidential one, had started gathering momentum.

This is the context in which I present my thoughts about the 2023 General Elections and Nigeria’s democracy.

Therefore, you can see that rather than focus on what was going to happen to our lives as a result of the new mandate, now clearly won and lost as determined by the Election Tribunal, some were already thinking about the next election.

So, it should not surprise anyone when you hear rhetoric like: “this will be a most defining election,” “this will be an election like no other,” and so on and so forth.

But truth be told, this rhetoric is common in every democracy and at the onset of a new election cycle.

This is understandable because no two elections are the same; and the intensity always varies anyway as indeed the number of voters and sometimes the number of parties; and the novelty of some candidates.

Unlike economists who urge the probability that “all things being the same,” politics and elections draw their oxygen from the probability that things will not remain the same, especially if you are in opposition.

For example, young people who were by age not eligible to vote in a previous election, would have attained voting age at the next election cycle and become eligible to vote if they register.

In our current situation we now have 12,332,336 newly registered voters for the 2023 election, whereas there were 14,360,053 newly registered voters in 2019, while 6,944,752 registered as new voters in 2015.

So, if the hype about 2023 is anything to go by, the number of 12,332,366 newly registered voters does not support it, because it is 2,027,687 less than the 14,360,053 newly registered voters in 2019.

Obviously, we have seen all the hype before and they detract from the real question which in my view should be: how can democracy, especially the 2023 elections, make our lives better and our country greater?

I think we should focus on this question because we must remember that democracy is simply concerned about the popular participation in choosing a leader or set of leaders.

Democracy does not guarantee that the leader or those leaders will deliver or indeed are able to deliver on what we want.

Put conversely, what really is it that we expect from those we elect and what do they promise to do before we vote, and what have they done for us?

Did we vote for, or did we collect tricycles, sewing machines, generators etc. from them?

If we did, can we legitimately expect that the budget from which these things were procured will also provide healthcare, drugs and diagnostic equipment in our health facilities?

If they have sponsored weddings for our families, financed the burial of our dear departed ones or paid school fees for a whole community, do we understand that these things or some of them are funded by the budget from which we also expect good schools, good roads and other public infrastructure and services upon which our prosperity depends collectively?

Put differently, how many of us who vote truly understand how the process works?

How many of our electorate understand what the actual constitutional roles of our legislators, Local Government Chairman, Governors, and President are?

These questions may look ordinary, but my experience in government suggests that they are not. I have been surprised by how unfamiliar some of us are with the constitution and our responsibilities, although I must concede that we are fairly well acquainted when it comes to our rights.

Truth be told, elections are only a part of the democratic process; and this requires not only the successful party to play their role in the formation and running of government, but the opposition as watchdog, and government in waiting, has an equally important role to play in enriching the process.

Governance in power is not easy, and I daresay opposition is even more hard work.

Let us ask ourselves when last an opposition party prepared and detailed an alternative budget to that of the party in government.

True enough, we hear criticisms of what the party in Government is not doing or getting right; but when I ask, can you recall an opposition party offering a credible and alternative solution to what the party in Government has done wrong.

To be fair, I must acknowledge the generalisations such as we will do this and do that, but very often that is where it ends.

On the question of revenue or lack thereof for example and the borrowing by Government, apart from the legitimate concerns about borrowing which are rightfully expressed, I have challenged the critics to provide the alternative; and I am still awaiting a response.

If you listen to any of the several Morning shows the issue will come up and you will hear the criticisms, which are legitimate, but you will not get any credible answer to the question – what are the alternatives?

The answer must lie somewhere between cutting waste, reducing the size of Government, raising taxes, stopping some programmes, projects or policies.

But who is ready to have these conversations in real politics?

This is something we must demand in the run up to the 2023 General Elections in order to sustain the future of our democracy.

Yes, democracy heralds freedoms including the freedom to speak. But what kind of speeches are we engaging in? Heckling, online trolling, hate and in person verbal abuse in some cases or talk about ethnicity or religion.

How do we resolve the revenue problem we have with fuel subsidy without leading to social unrest which the two dominant parties have not yet resolved, and the other contenders remain quiet about.

Why has parliament, where all the people of Nigeria are represented, not taken a bipartisan position on the matter after consulting with their constituents, the Nigerian people, and say that we have your mandate to do this or that about the subsidy.

Why can we not have a voting process that shows how each legislator voted, to show that the vote was the result of consultation with the constituents and ensure that they will re-elect the legislator again.

Why is it not a stipulation that our elected representatives live in our constituency so that they understand what we experience and present it for government attention.

Is this type of hands-on representation less important than the occasional goodies shared at seasonal meetings by absentee representatives?

When the campaigns for election to executive office starts and we hear of free this and free that, do we engage in a conversation about how much it would cost and where the money will come from?

After all, to use the cliche nothing is free even in Freetown.

When those promises do not materialize, are we complicit in their stillbirth by the lack of engagement or the quality of engagement.

Let me segue to another issue, to which perhaps we should pay attention, and this is the Federal Government.

In particular, I seek to highlight what I perceive to be a lack of appreciation of what constitutes the Federal Government and what her role is.

To start with, there is a lie that is being told and repeated and some are beginning to believe it, that we do not have a Federal type of constitutional governance partly because they think our Federation is not perfect which I agree with, but an imperfect federation is not the same thing as a non-existent Federation.

The truth is that the imperfection is probably one of the reasons there are provisions for amendments in the constitution.

If a constitution provides that the federal, state and local governments have different responsibilities and some shared responsibilities as our constitution does in the exclusive and concurrent list of the second schedule and the fourth schedule, I think the minimum requirements of federalism have been met.

Whether the states or local governments should get more powers, lies with us to exercise the amendment in a process requiring federal legislators to initiate it and 2/3 of the states to concur with it.

If that has not happened, it seems to me that it does not extinguish the existence of a federal arrangement, neither is it solely the fault of one person such as the president or the federal government.

This brings me to the heart of the matter about our understanding of the Federal Government.

Not infrequently, I have heard some federal legislators laying the blame of some failing or the other on the “Federal Government,” when in fact what they probably intended is the “Federal Executive” arm of the Federal Government.

The fact is that the federal judiciary, legislative and executive all constitutes one Federal Government operating in three arms.

If we decompose the constituents of the federal government, it will become obvious that it is all of us, the states, through our representatives who make up the federal government.

For example, in the Federal Executive arm of Government, the election of the president and vice president only represents a partial composition of the federal executive. By virtue of section 147 (3) of the constitution, ministers must be appointed from each of the 36 states before the federal executive is probably properly constituted.

In effect, each of our states makes up the much-vilified Federal Executive because the ministers represent us there.

On the federal legislative side of the federal government, the 109 senators and 360 representatives are elected to represent us from senatorial districts and federal constituencies created within our states.

The same is true in the federal judiciary at least at the Federal High Court level and largely so at the Appeal court, except for the supreme court that does not have 36 seats.

The point I seek to make therefore is that it is the representatives of the 36 states who truly constitute the federal government rather than any behemoth or entity.

So, if we agree for example to amend the constitution to allow state policing, I don’t see who can stop it. But do we have a consensus on this matter?

If the Government is not giving us what we expect, I think we should all look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we have put into it, because we are the ones who constitute it.

I must emphasize that democracy works when a working majority exists. Without a working majority in parliament, the work of the executive becomes more difficult.

Therefore, I fail to understand why a party that has a Legislative majority is accused without more, of being a Rubber Stamp.

They are not elected to “fight” the executive especially of their own party, and they are expected to use their majority to push their Party and government agenda through.

That is why elective seats are hotly contested and won. But I find it even stranger and inexplicable that a party that have won legislative majority then literally surrenders its mandate in the parliament by handing over not just Committee Chairmanship seats to the minority, but also committees that are critical in the party’s agenda.

Apart from Public Accounts and probably Ethics, minority should not chair a committee.

Of course, if only briefly I cannot but point out the fact that there are things we expect from different levels of government and legislators that are not their constitutional responsibilities. We would do well to read our constitution before the campaign starts and before we vote. (EXAMPLES ORALLY).

It is these things that should shape the future of our democracy in 2023 and beyond.

These things require us to focus on the kind of people we will elect to states and federal constituencies because it is those people who will determine many things that will affect us.

The kind of people we elect for example to the Senate, will determine what kind of people they will confirm to become ministers, heads of parastatals and so on, which will determine the quality of service we get.

The kind of people we elect, will determine the quality of policies, budgets, programmes and projects that are designed and delivered to us.

The local elections, to elect people to serve in the local governments, as state legislators and as governors are extremely important to our quality of life and deserve that we pay the utmost attention to them without losing sight of the federal elections.

Issues like water supply, rent, land acquisition, building permits, refuse management, sanitation, traffic management, primary health and education, community development are local and not federal issues.

As a small business operator, you need more support from your State Governments than the Federal (save for fiscal and monetary issues) in order for your business to thrive.

I have spoken to the freedoms that democracy offers and the freedom of speech in relation to our rhetoric. The other side of the coin is the role of the press.

While I respect and understand the responsibility to report the news, I hold the view that the press has a big responsibility in shaping the news.

Before I am misunderstood, let me explain.

While they have done a good job serving us with the developments relating to fallout from the choice of running mates and even the purported suspension of a presidential candidate, they can do more to focus on conversations that affect the majority of potential voters.

I am certain you agree with me that the majority of potential voters will be more likely interested to know if there is any plan to improve their children’s education and access to healthcare.

They certainly will be interested to know if something will be done to bring water to their taps at home and what the plans for more reliable electricity will be.

You can bet that those who pay 2 to 3 years rent in advance will be interested to know if anything can be done about it and what that would be.

These are examples of conversations that I think the media can focus on and thereby shape the news.

While there is a lot of work still to be done, it is proper at this point to also highlight the successes our democracy has delivered because the democratic experience since 1999 came at great cost.

Therefore, before I close, let me remind us about some of the things our democracy has delivered since 1999 so that we keep stock, and we believe and reaffirm our commitment to the choice that democracy offer is us and we remain faithful to its ideals.

Our democracy has delivered an interstate train service, the first and only one since the one built by the colonial government.

Our democracy is delivering solutions to problems that seem to have defied solutions, like a road and bridge network to Bonny Island, like the Second Niger Bridge and the reconstruction of the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway, Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, Kano-Maiduguri Expressway and an extensive broadband rollout nationwide.

And lest I forget, our democracy delivered access to telephone service for many Nigerians.

Our democracy has delivered an increasing reliance on Tax revenue as the basis of Government expenditure.

This is important because it increases the focus on representation.

While there is still a lot to do, these are building blocks of hope around which to build our prosperity.

They represent critical items of infrastructure and fiscal options about our current and future livelihoods around which to frame the issue for 2023 elections and plan the future of Nigeria’s democracy.

Therefore, let me close by saying that we can win elections without exaggerating our problems. We can do so by offering credible service and well thought out solutions.

We can win elections without disrobing our country before the global community.

We can do so by valorising Nigeria’s possibilities and not by widening her fault lines.

Elections and Democracy must represent for us a feast of ideas and choices that bring out the best of us and the best of our country.

Thank you for inviting me, and thank you for listening.

Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN
Honourable Minister of Works and Housing

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