Why Nigeria’s democracy is not going so fast —Arrion, EU Ambassador

After serving in the European Union (EU) for 25 years, and in various African countries, Ambassador Michel Arrion is currently the EU Head of Delegation to Nigeria. In this interview, Arrion speaks on democratic development in Africa. You have been in diplomatic service for about 25 years now. What has been your experience? Yes. I’ve worked in many countries. I don’t think it is a good idea to generalize and say Africa is like this or like that. It is exactly like Europe is very diverse. When I hear people referring to Europe, I’m always explaining that Portugal is not Greece and Finland is not Italy, and, am quite convinced that Rwanda is not Nigeria. Even, Nigeria is very different from Mali where I also served. But there are some issues that African countries have to address. For example, we firmly believe in economic integration. African solidarity and the renaissance of the African Union. We firmly support the African Union as a global effort of African nations to be more united. With unity, you are stronger. So, what I’m saying is that with all the promise in Africa, you lack the sense of true African solidarity beyond the words. Of course, every African leader will tell you that he is in favour of African unity, but if you dig a little bit, it’s also the same in many countries including Europe. It’s a long term effort to build real solidarity, real union and real integration.. Of course, you are a young nation; you were created around 1960. So, 50/60 years is still quite young for a nation, but there is also a very long African history. Therefore, you can also base yourself on your African values. It is not because you are a young nation that you should not immediately be more united and working together. I know it’s a very sensitive issue but when I hear sovereignty or sovereign, I don’t like the word because the concept of sovereignty has been abused in many instances because it is not sovereignty of the sovereign, it is not the sovereignty of the President, but it is the sovereignty of the people. If the President is sovereign or if a government is sovereign, it must be on behalf of the people. So, sovereignty goes along with democracy and that’s a concept that must be understood. This is why when people refer to sovereignty, in most cases, it’s dictators that refer to sovereignty, and that’s not good. Africa has over the years made a u-turn from militarization to democracy. How far have we gone? Are you comfortable with the level of progress that we have made in ensuring that leaders and politicians imbibe the culture of democratic dividends impacting on the people in an effort to reduce poverty? Arrion, EU Ambassador Arrion, EU Ambassador My experience in Africa started about 25 years ago, right in the late 80s or in the beginning of the 90s which was the time democracy started in Africa. There are however sad elements to that because what triggered this movement for democratization was external to Africa, it was the fall of the USSR. So, what we refer sometimes to the bi-polarization of the West and the East or the western bloc was not relevant any longer and it had an impact on the Third World. Even without the events in the USSR, I would assume that African nations would have taken the path to democracy, maybe later. Though the trigger events were external, it was a good thing. I don’t think democracy was imposed on African nations. I think African people were willing to go that route. It was just an opportunity for the people. I’m sure you remember the democratic coup d’état that happened in the early 90s. I was in Mali in 1991 during that coup. It was a democratic coup. You know there is this concept that there is no good coup d’état. But when it’s the people that want to free themselves from dictatorship, sometimes I would reconsider the concept that there is no good coup d’état. Revolution is also a coup d’état I am not necessarily a revolutionist. Meanwhile, I think that sometimes revolution is necessary when it favours democracy. There are some revolutions that turn bad, into another dictatorship, going from fascism into communism. But there are revolutions that lead to democracy and so I think we must keep this idea that sometimes when people take their destiny in their hands, it’s important to recognize that even if it’s a coup, we always have to analyze the question on a case-by-case basis. In the course of your job, you regularly interface with African leaders. Has Africa evolved in democratic norms, in terms of leadership, in terms of reduction of poverty and responsibility in leadership? Yes! But it’s a long term effort; you cannot ask a country to become immediately fully democratic and fully transparent. We have seen multi-partism, we have seen free, fair and credible elections taking place in Africa, but what have we seen as well? We are seeing a few leaders who have been elected relatively freely wanting to stay in power; wanting to change their Constitutions, wanting to do third mandate. I won’t say that it’s bad in all cases because there are countries where the Constitution does not contain any article preventing its leaders from remaining for more than two mandates. We have systems, sometimes three mandates of five years is better than two mandates of seven years. So one has to be pragmatic there. The point is that people should not change their Constitutions against the will of their peoples just to remain in power. So, there shouldn’t be any ideological position on that question, I would say. The question is: Does that change in the Constitution reflect the will of the people? Not an advice, pronouncement or judgment of the Supreme Court where all the judges are bought by the President or whoever is in power. On a case-by-case basis, we can look at those things but to answer your question about whether we have seen positive development in Africa, I would say, globally speaking, YES, without any doubt, but there is still a very long way to go. I like to refer to our own history, it took us almost a century, roughly speaking, to be where we are, but you have already taken half a century, but you still have certainly more years to go. Are we crawling, are we walking or are we running? What stage are we in now? Comparison is difficult, but you see Nigeria is quite well positioned in this race to democracy in the sense that the issue of two mandates has never been put into question. There is absolutely no debate on that. Nobody in Nigeria of today will ever consider that the President will remain in power more than two mandates of four years. That’s a no-issue, it is not a problem in Nigeria. If you look at your methods, it may be an issue, but I want to insist on one thing – there is no democracy without education! It is absolutely clear; if everybody can vote and if one man or one woman equals one vote, then those people must be in a position to decide, on the basis of a minimum criteria that they do understand. To proffer the answer, you must understand the question, so to understand the question, you have to be educated. So if 90% of the population are illiterate, how can you have genuine democracy? How can they really choose on relatively rational basis, on using their minds, their intelligence to vote? Take, for instance, the European political history; democracy, as I said, took almost a century from 1850 to 1950. 1950 was actually a turning point, only then could women vote in many countries. We had to wait until the end of the Second Woerld War to see women voting, and there is no democracy if men only are voting or if women are voting and there are restrictions on their husbands. We have well established democracies in the sense that we have gender equality. There are gains compared to that, but I think it is quite an important issue. So, yes, you are going in the right direction, but in my view, a generalized Africa does not exist, there are a lot of African countries, and West Africa is not Southern Africa or East Africa. One has to understand that formal or institutional democracy is not enough and that credible elections mean also that there are credible number of voters. This is also an issue for me, because in Nigeria, for instance, what is missing is probably more inclusiveness in the number of voters. At the end of this relatively good process that took place last year, only about 20 million people voted. I will definitely come back to that shortly, but let’s look at the EU’s mandate in Nigeria. What are your core mandates, what are you set to achieve and how far have you gone with your benchmarked process? In the EU, there has been a revolution; the EU of the 60s is different from what the EU is today in 2016, 56-58 years after the creation of the EU, and those changes in the EU have had impact on the work and competence of the EU in foreign countries. So, we have gone a long way from being just a union or a free market where goods and people will move around freely to being a political body. So the delegations in the Third World (or third countries, as we call our partners) have changed. In the 60s, we were a kind of development agency, but, today, we are almost a diplomatic mission. So, we have forayed into diplomatic sanctions but we have also retained some activities in diplomatic cooperation. We are working more and more in trade and economic cooperation and we have seen also a development in the field of consumer protection or consumer cooperation which remain a mixed bag between our member states and the EU. So, indeed, our delegations now work in the private sector in good intelligence and good division of labor with our member-states. In a country like Nigeria where you have 20 member-states represented by Bilateral Ambassadors, there is the value of the microcosyms and the business of the delegation must be establishment, re-establishment every day and organized with our colleagues from member-states. But we want to avoid duplication and gaps; so we are here to work together and also to represent the EU, as I said, in the best intelligence with our colleagues from the member-states. I don’t know of any major difficulty in any country, but again the situation can vary from one country to the other. Here in Nigeria you have a huge number of bilateral embassies from the EU and my job actually is also to make those embassies represented in Nigeria to work together. There is nothing better than the French, the British, the German, the Spanish, the Italian and the Dutch, etc, all working together.

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