Thank you Barrister Ojo for all your efforts and willingness to collaborate with the U.S. Consulate Public Affairs Section to put on today’s African-American history month program on “Non-Violent Democratic Change.”
I would like to recognize all the dignitaries present here today, (distinguished politicians, Gubernatorial candidates for the PDP and APC); Officials of INEC, Nigerian Police, Mrs. Beko Ransome Kuti and Nike Beko Ransome Kuti, members of CDHR and other human rights activists here, the dynamic team from CENROLAW, alumni of our programs, invited guests and media present) . But, in order not to offend your distinguished and right titles, I would just like to say “All Protocols duly observed.”
I am so privileged to be in the midst of such powerful and engaged Nigerian movers and shakers at this power house, known as the Right House! I want to thank you, sincerely, for taking out time to join us for this historic and timely program that is taking place in the run-up to the Nigerian elections which will take place on March 28.
We’re here to celebrate democracy in Nigeria and African-American History Month, which celebrates the heritage of African Americans and their contributions to U.S. society. African-American History Month, as you may know, was the inspiration of Carter G. Woodson, a noted scholar and historian, who instituted Negro History Week in 1926. The celebration was expanded to a month fifty years later, during the nation’s bicentennial. Each February, African-American History Month honors the struggles and triumphs of millions of American citizens over the most devastating obstacles: slavery, prejudice, poverty as well as their contributions to the nation’s cultural and political life.
Now you may be asking yourself, what does African-American History month have to do with Nigeria’s democracy and the upcoming elections? I’d like you to consider the following facts. January 15, 2015 would have been the 86th birthday of one of America’s, and indeed the world’s, greatest citizens — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His role in expanding the reach of American democracy to Americans of African descent was unparalleled. As many of you probably know, a new American movie was recently released about Dr. King titled, Selma. It stars two young British actors, as Dr. King and Coretta Scott King, named David Oyelowo
and Carmen Ejogo, both of whom are born to Nigerian parents.
My recent viewing of this film on Sunday at the Church of the Rock prompted me to reflect on lessons from Dr. King’s life as a civil rights leader as Nigerians prepare to go to the polls in a few days. I believe that his legacy is tremendously relevant to your democratic exercise. I’m going to take you through a short history of the civil rights movement, and I hope that you will stay with me as I show its vital relevance to Nigeria today.
During the early 1900’s in the American South, racial segregation was the norm and African-Americans had limited opportunities. But the 1950s brought forces to bear that would launch a powerful civil rights campaign to change the laws and give African-Americans the full rights they deserved in a democratic society. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a gifted orator who had been influenced by India’s Mahatma Gandhi in his belief in nonviolent protest, rose quickly to lead the movement. It was a movement of children and adults, preachers and lawyers, sharecroppers and presidents. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, pivotal leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, were all Baptist ministers who led churches in Alabama. In the United States, African-American churches provided leadership to their communities and church leaders headed the civil rights movement as well. In the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality, an integrated group that promoted nonviolent methods to achieve racial equality, sent members to ride on public buses and trains to protest segregation of transportation networks. These Freedom Riders were beaten in Birmingham, Alabama; firebombed near Anniston, Alabama; and mobbed and handcuffed in Jackson, Mississippi.
On August 28, 1963, King spoke to a gathering of more than 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the famous March on Washington. This multitude of people from every race and every walk of life had come to Washington to demand passage of legislation to ensure that African-American people be given the same civil rights as whites. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that day brought the crowd to life. With its simple images and repeated phrases, the speech still endures today, 51 years later, as a message of hope and inspiration. King said his people would not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
A little over two weeks later, the African-American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by white racists. Thousands of children came to the church for protest marches. Some were jailed; others were dispersed by police dogs and high-powered hoses. Photographs of such violence and mistreatment of innocent people brought the civil rights movement new worldwide support. And the non-violent approach of the civil rights protests brought about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Almost 100 years after the Emancipation proclamation that freed the slaves, this law finally banned discrimination in public places and in employment and provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities.
On March 7, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King and 600 others marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in a right-to-vote demonstration. John Lewis, leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and others were beaten by State Police Troopers during this march. Protestors walked into a force of state troopers and civilians who viciously attacked them. Brutal television images of the shameless attacks – known as Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” — shocked the nation. Two more marches were attempted; the final one was successful. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed for a mass enfranchisement of African-American citizens who had been denied the right to vote through a variety of nefarious means, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence. At the White House signing ceremony, Dr. King spoke, stating that “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.” I’m pleased to report that after 1965, African-American voter registration rose significantly in the South. In Mississippi, for example, 7 percent of African-Americans were registered voters in 1965, but 70 percent were registered in 1969. Correspondingly, the number of African-American elected officials across the United States increased from less than 1,500 in 1970 to nearly 5,000 in 1980 to well over 10,000 in 2011.
So here we are today, in Nigeria, in 2015, three days away from your federal elections. What lessons can we draw from the U.S.? First of all, it is SO important to cast your vote. People have marched, been bitten by dogs and beaten by police and died to obtain the right to vote. When we have the right to vote but don’t use it, we disrespect their memory. So, I urge all Nigerians who are eligible to vote, to do so. Vote. It’s one of the most powerful weapons that we have in large, animated democracies like Nigeria and the United States. Please vote!
Secondly, for the first time in the history of the United States, we now have an African-American President in the White House. Having lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, and having recently relived the experience through watching the film, Selma, I can confirm that the contrast is startling. Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that it would even be conceivable to have an African-American President of the United States of America? This just goes to show how genuine change, through the democratic process, is absolutely possible. But you must exercise your right to vote to make change happen, to vote into office people who have a vision for a new Nigeria.
The third and final lesson I draw from the civil rights history is the power of non-violence. As Dr. King taught Americans, and as he taught the world, “nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” It is in that same non-violent spirit of Dr. King’s that our U.S. Ambassador James Entwistle and I have been so outspoken over the past year on the importance of non-violence in Nigeria’s upcoming elections.
We’ve been delighted to see Nigerian media and civil society and entertainers like 2Face with his “Vote not Fight” campaign take up the cause. As President Jonathan said in his New Year’s message, no one’s political ambition is worth the blood of any of your countrymen, women, and children. And as General Buhari recently tweeted, electoral violence is unacceptable, and every Nigerian life is sacred. Both presidential candidates have also signed on to the so-called Abuja Accord, which commits them to running exclusively issue-based campaigns, refraining from violence before and during and after election day, and speaking out against any violence that does emerge.
These are commitments that we need to see from everyone and they are commitments that need to be kept. Chairman Jega and the thousands of Independent National Election Commission employees are taking concrete steps in order to guarantee that this election is successful. We’ve also urged all of Nigeria’s governors to call for peaceful democratic engagement among their residents, and we ask all parties and all candidates to do the same. Some weeks ago, we were able to get the governorship candidates in Rivers State to come out and take this pledge in public. On Monday, I hosted a peace pledge event where we invited the leading Lagos gubernatorial candidates to go on record that they would not support violence before, during, or after the election. Their pledges were witnessed by senior religious figures, the Resident Electoral Commissioner, Commissioner of Police, and local media.
Committing to non-violence, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also means that you will not engage in or support violence for any reason, no matter what others do. And if you hear about plans of violent acts to be perpetrated by others, you will do whatever you can to stop it. And you will speak out against those who advocate violence to let everyone around you know that Nigerians can do better than that. That, and no less than that, is what Dr. King would expect.
Thank you very much.