The MKO Abiola Fund

Remarks at the 10th anniversary of the Concerned Professionals in Lagos

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Everyday, all around us we are witnesses to monuments being erected. Many of those monuments are tributes to vanity or the idolatry of a very crude narcissism. The celebration of 10 years of the Concerned Professionals is in itself an opportunity to ask the question: what kind of monument will CP erect? Was the CP phenomenon a flash in the pan at one moment in history and this moment just a part of the cloud that trails that meteor? In many ways the idea of the MKO Abiola Fund for sustainable democracy begins to throw some light on the kind of monument CP aspires to erecting.

Democracy, much talked about, but not always fully understood in all its colours, is a process, it is an ethic, it is a culture. To make it beneficial, producing those dividends we all anxiously seek, there is need for institutionalised processes of contesting the public space. It also involves a recognition that ideas, especially as they shape values are ultimately the seed of all human progress. If I may dare say, Nigeria's prolonged stagnation is not about good people and bad people in charge.

It is about the devaluation of the power of ideas and values that drive how ideas become concrete constructs. How have sustained ideas that affect culture or policy emerged and taken hold in democratic societies? A closer look at Think Tanks in North America, and increasingly, in Europe will reveal the invaluable place of knowledge farms that seek to cultivate particular ways of thinking. It is in learning from the experience of such institutions as The Brookings Institution; the Hoover Institution and emerging lately the Brand Africa Initiative led by Elizabet Tsehai and others in Washington D.C. committed to ideas change the image of Africa, that the CP programme is about.

If mature democracies depend so much on ideas to shape how society is ordered and presented to people to make choices, surely we who have been starved of progress must desperately need idea banks. Even though such ideologically inspired Think Tanks that brainstorm social policy and contest for the minds of citizens are of value in Nigeria, our concern in CP, for now, is not whether liberal or conservative ideas should hold sway but how our democracy can be deepened.

Even though we see how young conservatives regrouped from the Clinton drubbing and have now so dominated OPED pages that great liberals like McGregor Burns almost felt extinct, we realise that what we must do is work for shared values about what democracy really is. This is inspired by the hope that we do not have leaders who are held hostage by Court Jesters who bring them rumours and lies of how they are hated by everybody that expresses themselves beyond praise singing of the leaders.

This is so that they may be as wise as Clinton who had a team dedicated to opposing every idea, in-house, to prepare him for what even the most disagreeable person would think of every policy idea he puts up. For then and only then can we have those who speak truth to power, making social progress possible.

Given general perceptions that our democracy is not deep enough, the need for ideas to sustain our democracy is the paramount matter of the moment especially as popular culture is currently disposing people to increasing cynicism about democracy. The object of the MKO Abiola Fund is therefore to start with attracting outstanding scholars in the social sciences to spend sabbatical leave as well remunerated and motivated fellows during research, writing books and OPED pieces and being engaged in public speaking, setting the agenda for contestation of the public space.

Our expectation is that from such more modest beginnings we can build a Think Tank like the Brookings Institution. Our hope is that we can create more intellectual contemplations, as Reuben Abati once said. It is also the hope that with this fund we can enlighten politicians to understand that disagreement on issues is public duty and not evidence of who their friends are versus who their enemies are. Indeed they may find out that those people, who bring them gossips about those critical of their actions say much worse things, often very treacherous things about them, behind their backs.

Finally, we hope this will help not only open of public space but to create vehicles that see ideas translate to policies and to institutions with advance of the common Good. When we decided to set up such a fund to propel our democracy into the 21 century we wanted to name it for someone who had contributed to the advance of democracy in Nigeria. It was not difficult to settle on Bashorun MKO Abiola whose monumental personal sacrifice proved a watershed in the quest for a renewed democratic ethic in Nigeria.

Professor Utomi is with the Lagos Business School, Pan African University


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