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Jack Straw, Rotimi Amaechi and the Nigerian condition

Apart from the oddity of a state government appropriating a talk-shop of this nature from those best suited for such – relevant departments of our…

Apart from the oddity of a state government appropriating a talk-shop of this nature from those best suited for such – relevant departments of our Universities, research institutes, NGOs and other think-tanks -my interest in the live-televised conference was aroused by the presence of John Whitaker “Jack” Straw, who has been a Member of the British House of Commons for Blackburn since 1979. Straw served in the British Cabinet from 1997 to 2010 under the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. During this period, he held two of Britain’s traditional Great Offices of State’ (juiciest political offices in Nigeria-speak) – as Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001 and Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006 under Tony Blair.
My strongest memory of him however was in late September 2004 when he was embroiled in a controversy that nearly cost him his ministerial position for ‘shaking Mugabe’s hand’. No, Mugabe’s hand was not leprous. Mugabe was and remains a man British politicians love to hate.
The then Conservative spokesman Michael Ancram, called the handshake a “scandalous betrayal of the men and women of Zimbabwe who are suffering at the hands of Mugabe’s blood-stained regime”.
BBC Newsnight, which had been following Mr Straw around the United Nations, filmed the controversial handshake during a reception for the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, at the UN Building in New York.  In his defence, Straw who had just started wearing contact lenses, said: “I hadn’t expected to see President Mugabe there. Because it was quite dark in that corner … I was being pushed towards shaking hands with somebody just as a matter of courtesy, and then it transpired it was President Mugabe. But the fact that there is a serious disagreement between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom does not mean that you should then be discourteous or rude” – (The Guardian [London], 28 September 2004).  Later Straw’s aides, in what was meant to be damage control, claimed that the hall was dark (and Mugabe being dark too) did not help matters in Straw not knowing the hands he was shaking.
The UK government remains Mugabe’s severest critic, a mode of criticism which, in my opinion, has made the man resolve to die as his country’s president knowing that if he ever relinquished power Britain and his international critics will ensure he ends up at The Hague as a guest of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Britain has for instance denounced all the elections in which Mugabe, 90, was returned to power and has sponsored various opposition groups and parties against him.  Mugabe on his own regularly criticises the UK. In 2003, Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the British Commonwealth. Members of his government, and senior members of ZANU-PF, are in turn banned from entering the EU.
I was honestly pissed off by the furore caused by the Mugabe handshake. Here was a group of politicians who lauded Desmond Tutu and others for their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which forgave White South Africans for the sins of apartheid and even criminalized the anti-apartheid struggle. I saw the whole handshake affair as British double standard. But this is only a digression.
My main concern with the live, televised one-day conference was what the whole conference was intended to achieve. Rivers State government organising what was essentially an academic conference – not even a policy-oriented workshop – to understand the relationship between democracy and good governance is akin to Anambra state or any of the states of the country not directly affected by what is happening in the North-Eastern part of the country, organizing expensive talk-shops to understand the challenges of terrorism in Nigeria.
Several questions agitated my mind after watching the televised conference: Why does the Rivers State government deem it necessary to organize an international ‘academic’ conference on ‘democracy and good governance in Nigeria’ rather than a policy-oriented roundtable or workshops on issues of local concerns? Knowing that former high profile politicians like Straw and Burton command extremely high speaking fees from mostly governments of ‘Third World’ countries, what was the cost of such talk-shop to the Rivers State government? If Rivers State government was genuinely interested in understanding the relationship between democracy and good governance, would it not have been more cost effective and better rewarding if it had commissioned consultants, a research institute or even a relevant department of any of our universities to carry out a research on the topic? Did Jack Straw or John Burton bring any special perspective on the topic to warrant the astronomical fees they were most likely paid? Or are their invitations a hangover of the colonial mentality in which we needed colonial endorsements of the political options we embrace as a proof of our wisdom?  Is the sharing of the same platform with them a proof of our putative global statesmanship? Simply put, is Governor Amaechi losing it?
In his lecture titled: ‘Democracy, Nation-hood and Citizenship Rights, Freedom and Responsibilities in a Global Order,’ Straw argued that a strong opposition party would boost Nigeria’s democracy and welcomed the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Understandably APC apparatchiks had gone to market with this, wrongly giving the impression that Straw endorsed APC as a party rather than what it represents as a strong opposition party.
But even this apparent ‘obvious truth’ by Straw that a strong opposition party boosts democracy is simplistic in fragile societies with deep fault lines as ours. In other words, while the mantra of strong opposition parties boosting democracy may be true in countries where the bases of nationhood are accepted by all the citizens, it is not the whole truth  in multi-ethnic and multi-faith countries like ours where even the basis of statehood remains contested. The fear in democratizing fragile states is that democracy and strong parties (especially those that converge with the fault lines) will aggravate the structures of conflicts in such countries and widen the social distance among the citizens. In essence, if a strong opposition party complicates the nation-building process, it cannot ab initio be said to help in deepening democracy.
I am not in any way against the emergence of a strong opposition party. My position rather is that in our euphoria or desire to get rid of PDP or President Jonathan (or both) through a ‘strong opposition party’, we tend to gloss over what I believe should be a precedent question: how do we ensure that the sharp contestation of ideas in our democracy with a strong opposition party is not hijacked by a cabal or fissiparous forces to unravel the state if such forces do not get their way?
It is instructive that at the conference Governor Amaechi expressed disap-pointment that the people of the South-south had stopped their campaign for resource control, stating that the region might not have the opportunity to press for their rights again. His words: “In 2005/2006, the mantra was resource control. Where are we now? Are we controlling our resources, is oil in our hands? If tomorrow President Goodluck Jonathan leaves office, who will we say is controlling the resources? Why are we not talking now or is it because it is our turn to chop?”  With the one-day jamboree in Port Harcourt funded by the Rivers state government, it is also important not just to talk about ‘resource control’ but judicious management of available resources.

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