I have a lot of respect for senior citizens, especially those who have crossed the three-scores-and-ten mark and are still active.
In most African cultures, there are certain benefits that come with advanced age: you can afford to be blunt, even have an acerbic tongue, because you are assumed to have passed the stage where your utterances are actuated by pecuniary or career considerations.
For this, elders, especially 'Very Senior Elders' (VSEs), that is, those in their 80s and above, are often regarded as the conscience of their communities, with some licences such as to exaggerate or use insulting words without these being counted against them. A much younger man who embarks on essaying about a VSE therefore risks opening himself up to accusations of not showing proper respect to age in any portraiture that suggests a challenge to the Very Senior Elder's wisdom or speech form.
At 85, Chief Edwin Clark is an elder in the VSE club. For his age, he is very sharp intellectually and physically.
Largely because he comments on many controversial political issues and is thought to be very close to President Goodluck Jonathan, Chief Clark's bluntness has been treated differently than it would have been if he were operating strictly in village and communal settings.
He has been taken on headlong from several quarters and successfully labelled as the 'undisputed Ijaw leader' who is unabashed about his support for President Jonathan, his fellow Ijaw, and who essentially believes that the President is being undermined because he comes from the 'wrong' section of the country. His critics pigeonhole him as the Rottweiler against the President's enemies - real or imagined. The latest group to be taken on by VSE Chief Clark is the Nigerian Governors' Forum, NGF.
In an Open Letter to the NGF, Chief Clark was quoted as saying: "The Governors' Forum is now acting as an opposition party to the Federal Government. It deliberately breach (sic) with impunity the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the constitution of the PDP, without any challenges. The Forum has now become a threat to the peace and stability of Nigeria. Most of the governors today are more dictatorial than the then military governors" (National Mirror, January 25 2013, online). He also accused former President Olusegun Obasanjo of working in cahoots with the NGF to undermine President Jonathan.
Though Chief Clark's letter to the NGF was infused with his characteristic bluntness and passion - with that licence to exaggerate, shock and awe often allowed to VSEs in village meetings - peel off these, and one will notice he has raised a few significant issues: No one doubts that Nigerian governors are indeed too powerful. Virtually all the state legislatures are mere rubber stamps of the state Governors. Several governors have engineered the impeachment of their deputies or speaker of their state House of Assembly on a whim. In fact state governors not only choose the principal officers of their state houses of assembly but also often engineer their removal at their convenience. It is also almost unheard for a state government (read state governor) to lose a case before its state high court. While elections often hold on schedule since 1999 at the federal and gubernatorial levels superintended by the national electoral commission, INEC, at the state level where the governors determine when local government elections should be held, only a few governors have been able to organise such elections. And even the very few that did, the state-appointed electoral commission usually ensures that the party of the state governor wins in virtually all the local governments, often without even a consolation prize to the opposition. In this sense, Chief Clark was right. At state levels, the governors are Leviathans, meaning that liberal democracy, with all its imperfections as practised at the federal level, is yet to take off at the State levels.
Aside from the grains of truth in Chief Clark's position on NGF, several observations could be made about his position on the NGF:
One is the inherent contradiction in calling for the proscription of NGF ostensibly because the governors have become more dictatorial than military regimes and the forum is being used to oppose the president. The truth is that the words 'ban', 'proscription' and 'censorship' - which Chief Clark apparently endorsed in dealing with the Governors - smack of a certain nostalgia for the authoritarianism and dictatorship that were the hallmarks of military regimes. In other words Chief Clark was calling for the use of dictatorial methods to deal with the Governors allegedly because they have become dictatorial. This is a contradiction in terms.
Two, there is absolutely nothing wrong with state governors forming a pressure group to promote and defend their common interests. If anything, the NGF, given the depth and politicisation of the fault lines in the country, could be said to be a force for unity and national reconciliation by showing, through their regular comingling, that despite the fault lines and regional differences they can sustain a forum to discuss common problems. The Governors have actually managed themselves and their differences under the NGF far better than politicians and all the political parties have done - despite such shortcomings as not developing a peer-review mechanism and not doing enough to stem the suspected looting of state treasuries by some of their colleagues. The governors, despite their political, regional and political differences, once rallied together to successfully resist a suspected attempt by agents of the presidency to impose a chairman on the group.
Three, just as the powers of the governors are enormous; those of the Nigerian President are simply imperial. The Nigerian president is in fact often said to be even more powerful than the president of United States - a situation that is aggravated by the federal government's control of oil revenues and the subsequent power of the purse that it gives to it. Largely because of this and the feeble character of Nigerian opposition groups, there is a need for a 'third force' powerful enough to serve as a restraint on the majestic powers of a Nigerian president. This is the role the NGF has been trying to play, though not always very successfully.
Four, pressure groups such as the NGF and civil society groups are normally ubiquitous in a democracy and are often used as barometers for measuring the strength of a country's democracy project. It is in fact remarkable that VSE Clark recently spearheaded the formation of one such pressure group, which he called the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly. It does not really matter the motive behind the formation of any pressure group provided that such a group goes about its business legitimately and peacefully. True, some pressure groups can aggravate the structures of conflict in our type of society. However banning such groups will often be counter-productive. Not only will such a ban amount to an invitation to dictatorship, they will easily drive such groups undergrounds, which will subsequently lead to the romanticization of the causes they espouse. The hope is that such groups could be countervailing - by balancing and cancelling one another or that they will come together under one umbrella organization that will formulate a code of conduct which will serve as a sort of self-censorship on the members.
Five, though Chief Clark pursues whatever cause he believes in with gusto and single-minded devotion, there is a feeling that the way he uncritically defends the Jonathan administration is counter- productive because the VSE's position is unwittingly defining the president as sectional when those who know him often swear by their mothers that he is no such person. There is also a feeling that regarding any criticism of the president Jonathan as an attempt to undermine his presidency is tantamount to using blackmail to muffle free speech and prevent the electorate from making the president to be on his toes. This apparent resort to blackmail can truly be alienating, especially to the undecided voters. Vigorous debates, including acerbic criticisms of elected officials, are the soul of politics in a democracy.
Six, politics is essentially a contest for power. It is in the nature of the game that the opposition will do everything legitimate to 'undermine' incumbents of power positions for this is the only way the electorate will reject such incumbents and vote them in as better alternatives. This happens in all democracies, including the mature ones. Those who often romanticize the way Americans close ranks after elections probably do not listen to opposition media houses such as Fox News or conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, whose show is broadcast in over 600 radio stations in the US, constantly lampoons President Barack Obama and no one has called for his arrest or the banning of his talk show. Americans take pride in their free speech principle as guaranteed by the First Amendment to their constitution. And since we all like to point to the way Americans run their democracy as a model to be emulated, their respect and defence of free speech should be food for thought for those of us who are intolerant of dissents or criticisms