Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, in this interview with BAYO AKINLOYE speaks about his struggle for the enthronement of democracy during Gen. Sani Abacha dictatorship and his optimism about President Muhammadu Buhari’s capacity to tackle corruption
Looking at your activities as a United States Ambassador to Nigeria and as an activist who led the struggle for enthronement of democracy during the dark days of military rule under Gen. Sani Abacha, how do you feel now that Nigeria is celebrating 17th year of uninterrupted democracy?
There is nothing of which I am more proud than, despite all the tribulations of the past 17 years, Nigeria remains a nation whose leaders are elected by the people. Power now comes from the people’s ballot and not from the barrel of a soldier’s gun.
In your struggle to return Nigeria to democracy at that time, who are the people you remember as heroes and heroines who fought to enthrone democratic rule in the country?
The list of those brave Nigerians is too long to enumerate but not too long to forever be remembered. It is for the living to make sure that, in the words of the national anthem, the labours of those heroes and, might I add, heroines shall not have been in vain.
During the struggle to enthrone democracy in the country, was there any threat to your life and your family?
There were a couple of plots hatched by the Abacha government which we learned about in time to prevent them from being carried out.
Could you tell us some of the plots Abacha hatched against you and your family?
I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I publish my book. I’ll be detailing them there.
Your role in that struggle was so popular back then that it was easy to identify you with the anti-government movement, while your position as an ambassador to the country expected you to be neutral. Or was that struggle part of your brief?
There is no neutral ground on which one ought to stand in a time of tyranny. As the title of my collection of speeches proclaims, I felt a duty to speak. I had been involved from my student days in the civil rights struggle at home and later in support of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. There was no way I could remain silent during the reign of Nigeria’s worst military dictatorship. I believe an ambassador is an envoy not only to the government to which he or she is accredited but also to its people.
Some people feel the death of Chief MKO Abiola was part of the US conspiracy to keep Nigeria in a perpetual state of crisis or political uncertainty. What do you think?
I think that is an absurd conspiracy theory. The United States has never sought to keep Nigeria in a state of crisis or political uncertainty. (It is) quite the opposite. We favour a stable democratic country. Nigeria is a major source of our oil. Its petroleum is highly sought because it is a light sweet crude which is comparatively easy to convert into petrol. It is one of our most important allies in Africa. I consistently called for Abiola’s release from prison both when I was in Nigeria and after the death of Abacha. It was obvious that MKO’s health had deteriorated badly during his incarceration and that he should be set free so that he could receive proper medical attention.
Today, do you think democracy has come to stay in Nigeria or there is a need for eternal vigilance?
Democracy is a fragile flower and must be constantly watered and cared for. It can never be taken for granted. There are always those who would like to subvert it to their own ends. Democracy does not produce quick dividends but it establishes the enabling environment in which they can be realised. It can be frustratingly imperfect but it gives citizens the possibility to perfect it and improve their circumstances, an opportunity that does not exist under military dictatorship.
Winston Churchill once described democracy as the worst form of government except for all the others. I have always favoured the metaphor which compares democracy with sailing down a river on a raft. Your feet are always wet, but you never sink. One of America’s wisest founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, when asked what the new Constitution had bequeathed to the people replied: ‘A Republic, if you can keep it.’ The challenge to keep this new republic is one to which all Nigerians must forever be dedicated.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is described as a dictator-turned-democrat who enjoys much international goodwill. Do you think he’s the right man for Nigeria today?
Nothing is a greater symbol of the strength of electoral democracy than a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. I remain optimistic that President Buhari’s fight against corruption will prove successful. He faces enormous economic and national security problems. The collapse of world petroleum prices shows the urgent need for diversifying the economy and reducing the nation’s dependency on oil. Such a restructure must include building up the agriculture, manufacturing, electrical power and technology sectors. Accomplishing all this while dealing with security problems throughout the country is a daunting task, indeed. We must all hope that President Buhari proves to be the right man at the right time for Nigeria.
Have you met him before?
I once met (Muhammadu) Buhari when I was the United States Ambassador to Nigeria when he was the head of the Petroleum Trust Fund. I met him briefly. I did not have the chance to sit down and talk with him. I had met him on a couple of occasions but rather briefly.
It’s ironical that some of the billions of naira stolen by Nigerian generals were stashed in the US leading many to conclude that the US is undermining Nigeria’s democracy and economic development. How correct is that?
The United States has some of the strongest banking laws in the world against money laundering and the receipt of stolen money. Especially since the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery law was enacted in 2010, US government actions to identify and return stolen money by Nigerians and others have intensified.
In peacefully handing over power to President Buhari, not a few think by that token that ex- President Goodluck Jonathan did something extraordinary. Do you feel that way too?
Speaking on this, it is very important what he did. That was probably one of his finest moments. It would be extraordinary in the sense that generally in Africa, there has not been that many examples of a change of political party through the ballot box. I think ex-President Jonathan has set an example that I hope will be emulated by other leaders in Africa. One of the true tests of whether you have a democratic functioning system is if the party in power is defeated and then steps aside gracefully for the opposition. That is crucial for democracy because no country can have a functional democracy if those in opposition feel that they will never have a fair chance of winning. And so, what democracy does is, ‘OK, look, we lost this election but there is another one to come.’ I have gone through that in the United States. I am a member of the Democratic Party. We had two terms of George Bush – I didn’t vote for George Bush; nevertheless, he was my president.
He could have at most two terms and after that he had to leave. We had another election and the Republican lost and the Democrats took over. That is really important and I think Nigeria being a leading country in Africa did demonstrate such an example by the fact that the head of the ruling party accepted defeat when his party lost in the last presidential election. It was the first time that will happen since the return of democracy. There were no riots; there were no disturbances and no killing. I think that is a very good thing.
Ex-president Goodluck Jonathan certainly should be praised for the way in which he accepted defeat. Because you know in other countries around the world you have situations that had not been the case. It is extremely important to set that example, not only for Nigeria and Africa that even though your party is out (of power) you have to try again in the next election.
As a lover of Nigeria, tell us about your current role in the country?
My wife Arese, and I treasure every opportunity to return to Nigeria. I have given lectures in several states and look forward to doing more. I take every opportunity I can to explain Nigeria to Americans. I am currently working on a book about the country.