A former United States of America ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, in this interview with BAYO AKINLOYE, says Nigeria will face major instability if it fails to conduct free and fair elections in 2015 and that President Goodluck Jonathan should have visited Chibok to show the world that he is a fearless leader
Do you think Nigeria is practising true democracy at the moment?
I am not sure what you mean by ‘true’ democracy. Democracy is dependent on regular free and fair elections which reflect the will of the people. It is those who are elected and not the people themselves who vote on the laws by which the citizens will be governed. If the people are dissatisfied with the actions of their elected representatives, they can remove them at the next election. A representative democracy requires that the government respects freedom of speech, a free press and an independent judiciary.
Nonetheless, would you agree that the current democratic government is better than military rule?
Civilian rule, no matter its flaws, is always superior to the iron-fisted rule of the military in which the citizens have no voice. The people will get a chance to render a verdict as to how satisfied they are with the current government in next year’s elections. These must be seen to be transparent and honest.
You were part of the struggle against General Sani Abacha’s rule. What many found curious is the fact that you were an American ambassador to the country and weren’t expected to be partisan in the political affairs of Nigeria. Why was your case different?
I would agree that an ambassador serving in a country where there is a functioning political system ought not to take sides between political parties. However, during my four years in Nigeria, there was no such system. Abacha had banned political parties. There was no legislature to reflect the will of the people. Several newspapers were closed and journalists were harassed and imprisoned. The country was under military dictatorship. Human rights were regularly trampled upon. I have since my student days been active in promoting human rights. I first came to Africa in 1952 as an American delegate to an international youth conference in Senegal. I was representing America’s leading civil rights organisation, The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. I met many young Africans and Asians who would become active in their countries’ struggles for independence. I joined them in supporting resolutions calling for the ending of colonial rule. I spent ten years working in African countries directing programmes for the Peace Corps. I was dismayed at how detached many diplomats from a lot of countries were from the people of the nations in which they served. I was inspired by a speech by Robert F. Kennedy in which he argued that ambassadors are not only the representatives of the President of the United States to the governments to which they are accredited but that they also are the representatives of the people of the United States to the people of the country in which they serve. When I observed the human rights of the citizens of Nigeria being abridged in circumstances where, if they raised their voice in protest, they risked being imprisoned or killed, I simply could not remain silent. I felt that I had a moral duty to speak out.
In an interview with SUNDAY PUNCH, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. John Campbell insisted that Nigeria is moving toward a breaking point unless its citizens take a drastic step to halt its descent into disintegration. What’s your view?
Much will depend on next year’s elections and whether they are free and fair and whether their outcome represents the true will of the Nigerian people. If not, then I think the country is in for a period of serious instability. Whichever party wins must be dedicated in deeds, not merely in words, to cure the corruption which has infected much of the polity. Only then will Nigeria be able to realise its vast potential. It is crucial that those on the periphery believe that those in power at the centre have the well-being of all Nigerians at heart, not just their own financial enrichment. A concerned centre can hold the country together. Things need not fall apart.
Looking at the corruption level attributed to Abacha’s regime, compared with what we see today in the country, will you say there’s been some improvement?
It is obvious that much still remains to be done. There is, however, more transparency and freedom for the press and civil society organisations to call those who misbehave to task. The problem is that there is still too much impunity enjoyed by those with favoured political connections.
A lot of people and governments see Nigeria as an extraordinary country with great potentials but beset by unending, debilitating crises. Where would you say things went wrong?
It began a hundred years ago (1914) when Lord Lugard, with no regard for the different cultural traditions of the people who inhabited the territories, amalgamated the North and South into one administrative unit to which his wife gave the name, Nigeria. What is remarkable, however, is how well this country, made up of over 250 different ethnic groups, speaking around 500 separate languages, has held together for a century, despite a bloody civil war and a half-dozen successful military coups. Nigeria is the largest and one of the very few countries of any size whose population is nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Yet, in spite of provocations by groups like Boko Haram and local bloody conflicts in Plateau State, the country has done much better in accommodating religious differences than any other sharing many descendants of the two Abrahamic faiths.
During turbulent times, many of your best and brightest left for foreign shores where they have excelled and have been admired as among the most accomplished of émigrés. Yet their opportunities to replicate their successes back home have been severely constricted. They, along with highly educated Nigerians who remained home, have found their chances to succeed in business or politics greatly compromised by their reluctance to go along with a corrupt system. Merit needs to be seen to be more rewarded than it is today. All capable hands must feel welcome on deck.
Some people have argued that unless the Nigerian masses rise up against mediocre leadership, the Nigerian story will remain the same. Where actually does the buck stop — with the people or their leaders?
With the overthrow of the last of its military dictators, Nigeria was bequeathed civilian rule. How much of a democracy it becomes depends on how insistently the people, who have the right to determine by whom and how they will be ruled, exercise their franchise at the polls. Under civilian rule, the power is with the people. They must be organised to use it wisely.
Let’s look at what’s arguably the biggest issue in Nigeria: Boko Haram. Many people have said the Federal Government isn’t doing enough. What’s your position as regards President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the extremist Islamist sect’s insurgency?
Let me also suggest another — Ebola. Nigeria has got high marks around the world for the fact that it has handled the outbreak better than any country in the region. The Ministry of Health and the Governor of Lagos State have, thus far, done a commendable job of containment the disease but the battle has just begun. Awareness seems to be improving among the people of the dangers of this scourge and how to prevent being contaminated. It would have turned out to be the greatest danger the country has ever faced if it wasn’t under control, quickly. The government must be open and transparent in its reporting to international health bodies of all cases that develop. The international community, in turn, must give Nigeria all the help it needs. Otherwise, the chances of Ebola crossing the Atlantic will be far greater than from any other country in West Africa. If the current Ebola outbreak is not controlled, it will have grave rippling effects on the health care system, the economy and Nigeria’s ability to conduct robust elections in 2015. My wife, Arese, who is a medical doctor, has been on television in the US talking about the issue and advocating for support from the West to help in controlling it and preventing its spread.
Unlike its initial handling of Ebola, Nigeria has not received high marks for its efforts to defeat Boko Haram. I am puzzled as to why the Nigerian army, which has been widely praised in the past as one of the most effective of the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces, has been so ineffectual against Boko Haram. Something is terribly wrong.
We’ve heard about pockets of complaints coming from troops ranging from poor welfare, lack of equipment and poor leadership. How much impact can all these have on the troops fighting against terrorists?
I served two years in the United States Army at a time when it was mandatory for all able-bodied young men to do so. One of the lessons I never forgot was the truth of the old adage that when you are going to war or facing the threat of insurrection, the first thing you do is make sure that your troops are well fed, properly paid and equipped. Without inculcating high morale, the battle is lost, no matter how much larger your forces are than theirs.
Many Nigerians expect the US and Britain to be more committed to their country’s fight against these Islamist militants, but what they have seen so far does not meet their expectation. Do you also think these two countries should do more and, if so, in what areas?
I believe the United States will do all it can to help in training and logistics but it is up to Nigeria, which has the largest army in Africa, to instill in its troops the morale and will that can lead them to be more effective than they have been in the past. Outsiders can only do so much.
While Nigerian troops appear battered by the terrorist group, its public image hasn’t fared better either, as Amnesty International accuses the soldiers of committing human rights violations in states worst hit by the insurgency. What is your advise to the military hierarchy?
These allegations are extremely serious ones. To the extent that if they are believed to be true by the US government, they limit, under our laws, the assistance that can be provided. A recent documentary has just been shown on one of the United States’ most respected television programmes displaying graphic images of atrocities committed, not only by Boko Haram, but also by the military and local militias. These atrocities appear to be carried out against large numbers of people who are falsely accused of being either members or supporters of Boko Haram. I fear that this film will tarnish even further the reputation of the Nigerian military among the American public. I believe that fighting terror with terror is counter-productive if there will inevitably be a lot of so-called collateral damage resulting in the killing of many innocents. Such tactics will only end up alienating communities you need to have on your side. The government must do all it can to avoid actions that result in people fearing their forces as much as they fear Boko Haram. According to the documentary evidence provided in the film, the government is not doing nearly enough.
The rescuing of the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls held hostage by the insurgents since April this year doesn’t seem to be a matter of time again; haven’t we lost these girls with more than 170 days gone by?
I would hope not. Arese and I remain active in the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign in the US. I am not privy to what behind-the-scenes action the Nigerian government is engaged in. But I have been discouraged by the actions publicly taken. The children’s rescue does not appear ever to have had the priority it should have had. Nor does it seem that their families have been given the support and comfort they need and deserve.
Talking about the girls’ families; the President has been repeatedly accused of being unsympathetic for failing to visit the area where these female pupils were abducted. Does he have to visit the area?
I think he should have.
I think it would have been a great morale booster and portrayed him around the world as a compassionate and fearless leader.
Some have also argued, ‘Let’s do this once and for all; Boko Haram can’t continue to hold a nation to ransom. Let’s storm its stronghold, smoke the insurgents out and save as many girls as possible.’ Will you not say that’s the most pragmatic step to take at this point?
I doubt if that approach would save any of the girls. I would not want to risk the girls’ lives by such a move. However, this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing. A much more sophisticated strategy must be developed with the help of outside experts who have experience in carrying out such rescues. At the same time, the government must demonstrate its capacity to prevent Boko Haram from continuing to take ground and oust them from areas they have already overrun. It must seize the offensive and prevent the terrorists from occupying any more towns on the roads to Maiduguri and Yola.
Would you suggest that the Nigerian government swap Boko Haram detainees for the release of the schoolgirls?
If such a swap would work, it ought to be considered. Nothing should be automatically ruled out on behalf of getting the girls back safely to their grieving families. However, this would take very skillful negotiations. The government would be in more of a position of strength to negotiate the terms if it could be more successful on the battlefield than it has so far been.
2015 seems to be a landmark year for the country for many reasons. Do you see Nigeria conducting violent-free elections and/or free and fair elections?
As I said earlier, it is essential that this be done for the future well-being of Nigeria. There are persisting problems of corruption, security and poverty that must be dealt with by a united country willing to support the leader that the majority has freely and fairly chosen.