One thing about being a leader – whether good or bad – is that you can change the conversation with your utterances. That is exactly what President Jonathan did with his Democracy Day speech. He seems to have mastered the art of being able to distract people from his less than encouraging one year in office – or two years depending on who you ask. His announcement that the University of Lagos (UNILAG) will be re-named after MKO Abiola – to honour the late politician who died trying to claim his June 12, 1993 election mandate – is just the latest in a series of distractions, and it seems to be working.
In outrage, students of the institution took to the streets in protest only hours after the speech. The protests escalated on May 30, leading to mounted barricades around the premises and the Third Mainland Bridge was obstructed. In response, UNILAG authorities have closed the school for two weeks, and are also heading to court to challenge the President’s action. Social media is awash with debate from people on both sides of the argument. It is expected that mainstream media will follow a similar pattern in the days to come.
Of course, that was the point. The only way to get people to stop talking about you, is to give them something else to talk about. It almost never fails to work. In fact, there should probably be a National Distraction Commission, but that might immediately make it less effective. Let us call this re-naming what it is: shameless pandering, executive over-reach and the use of MKO’s memory for cheap political points. For a little while at least, his performance will not be at the forefront of national debate as it should be. It is the kind of cheap symbolism at which Nigerian politicians excel.
Any decision to re-name the university should have been taken only after due consultation with and approval from the National Assembly, as stated in the law establishing it in 1962. Also, it only makes sense to consult with current students, lecturers and alumni of the university before taking such a step. Other options could have been looked at as well. Harvard, for instance, has a School of Government named after John F. Kennedy. A similar thing could have been done in honour of MKO, while leaving the name of the institution intact.
There is something hypocritical about extolling a martyr of democracy, while those who have benefited from what he fought for are doing a poor job of running one. MKO did not die for shamelessly rigged elections, and the use of state power to subvert the will of the people. He did not die so that we continue to grope in darkness almost 20 years after June 12. He did not die so that two-thirds of Nigerians continue to be kept in poverty by those who lead them.
This is the real problem, and this is why the announcement was greeted with emotions ranging from bewilderment to disgust by a lot of people. There is something deeply wrong with clinging to a symbol, while denying its substance. MKO’s campaign was called ‘Hope ’93′, but more and more Nigerians are losing hope about anything good coming out of the next three years. With every Boko Haram bomb that goes off, another little fragment of hope is blown up with it. With every additional hour of darkness, hope becomes harder to see. With every day spent without quality education, the average Nigerian child cannot even spell ‘hope’, much less convert it into prosperity for himself and society.
How many schools even teach contemporary Nigerian history? How many people born after 1990 know anything about those dark days? What effort has been made to properly document the events of that period, and the antecedents of the main actors? This is what we should bother about at this stage. Re-naming of universities can wait.
The best tribute any current Nigerian politician can pay to MKO Abiola, is a country that works. All else is a poor substitute.