Again, let me say that I am not readily inclined to draw simplistic comparisons between Nigeria’s political culture and what obtains in long established western democracies. Yet, it borders on the irresistible to, at least, contemplate how much our politicians and so called leaders at different levels of public service get away with. Just a casual reference to a different political culture elsewhere could serve my purpose here.
That takes me back to Dr. Howard Dean, the personable and articulate former Vermont Governor, who looked set to clinch the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket until, as some would say, he “blew it” in a feat of what seemed to be both rage and youthful outburst. By that episode, Dean turned off a lot of his teaming supporters and thereby paved the way for John Forbes Kerry to clinch the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential ticket.
Honestly, in my own view, I believe that the press was Dean’s albatross. Through making a mountain out of a mole hill, the press succeeded in scuttling Governor Dean’s full blown anti-war campaign that had enough steam to unseat President W. Bush. However, despite the press, the lesson of the tragedy of Dean’s campaign lies in the level of decency and sanity expected of political and public service careerists in the U.S. and elsewhere.
On a similar note, although there seemed to be a consensus that George Bush lost woefully to John Kerry in all the three presidential debates of the 2004 election, especially the first one, Bush’s loss in substantive areas of the debate was compounded by his demeanor and body language in the first debate which helped to hand Kerry the limelight. Lesson: even the demeanor, composure and body language of public officers resonate with the public in a manner that influences the outcome of electoral contests! If demeanor is of such consequence, certainly there is no room for politicians that use foul language let alone those that resort to self-help and fisticuffs such as Senator Isa Mohammed and his likes.
It is debatable weather we should be setting a standard higher than normal for our politicians since they are products of the society they govern or seek to govern and as such, not immune from its ills. Nonetheless, leadership carries with it enormous responsibility, and society is right in demanding from its leadership highest possible standards in character and integrity. A society that is determined to move forward is one that invests in credible leadership; one determined to hold its leaders to account. The danger is that sometime such a society can overdo things as was the case of Dean. But greater danger obtains when society does not hold its leaders to any standard or account at all. The latter is the case with Nigeria.
Perhaps, the first thing an average knowledgeable and politically conscious Nigerian with a commitment to change in Nigeria’s political culture is to demand that people in power should not steal. Elsewhere it goes without saying. It is, however, understandable that such a demand be made deliberately and not a matter of course because we have had, and have continued to have many seekers of filthy lucre in the corridors of power. We do not want thieves in power. We also do not want those who can deep their hands into the till in other offices of responsibility such as the clergy, community and business leadership, headship of youth groups, the professions, NGOs, etc. But I would suggest that this is not all.
As desirable as it may be, having those who would not steal in power has not made and is not making the desired difference in our political culture. Zik, Awo, Balewa, Shagari, and a host of Nigerian leaders of note were not known to be thieves. In a similar manner, if there is anything that stands Obasanjo out from the clique of military interventionists in our political history, it is perhaps that no one can call him a thief and expect to be readily believed. Subject to what I do not know, there is a perceived understanding that in Obasanjo we have a President who is not a thief.
We seem, however, to have put too much emphasis on our abhorrence of thieves in public service. Yet, all evidence indicate that we are far from achieving that feat. In the pursuit of that desire, we have ignored all other components of integrity and character for our politicians and public office holders. How much has not having thieves in power, particularly at the Presidential level impacted the political culture in Nigeria? Not really much. His sanctimonious disposition and his track record lead us to believe that Obasanjo is not a thief, but yet his administration has turned blind eye to all manners of political brigandage in the land today. It is abominable that average Nigerians could make some form of nostalgic allusion, not matter how veiled, to Abacha days under an Obasanjo administration. It is not whether they are right; it is how come this is possible.
I cannot reel out in one piece the litany of evidence in this regard. But let me just plead aspects of Achebe’s terse and now famous letter of rejection of the offer of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) for which he was recently nominated. In the words of the famed intellectual to the President which echo popular sentiments in the land:
For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connection in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance of the Presidency.
Anambra exemplifies the political culture in Nigerian of today presided over by a President who is not a thief. Having a President who is not a thief does not mean the end to a culture of political banditry, brigandage, vindictiveness, self-help, politically motivated murders, election rigging, hydra-headed and ubiquitous corruption, etc
Despite his saintly credentials and decent personality, Shagari did not stop looters of state treasury in the defunct NPN. Corruption was the unwritten slogan of the then ruling party and things became so bad under Shagari’s watch that Buhari’s military intervention had a certain redemptive tinge which sounded credible albeit for months only. But it would seem that in addition to the failure of non-stealing leaders to stem the tide of political and general corruption in the polity, they have not been able to engender through their leadership a culture of integrity in the political class.
Having tasted power under two different political subcultures and in different stages of Nigeria’s history, Obasanjo’s failure to make the difference in the nation’s political culture from the status is a tragedy. Apart from his near connivance or perceived or apparent alliance with “renegades” and his selective but ineffective war on corruption, his administration has been characterized by a culture of political strife, indecorum and indecent behavior on the part of political office holders at the very top levels.
In the first, second and short-lived third republics, and perhaps even more so, in the present dispensation, the quality of conduct and integrity of our elected political officers leave much to be desired. From the National Assembly to all the state legislatures, rowdy dramas of impeachments, fisticuffs, “flying chairs”, missing maces, all manners of self-help, scandals of all kinds, clandestine exchange of ghana-must-go bags characterize our extant political experience.
Times have been when more than one so called honorable members/senators appeared on the floor of the legislature claiming to be legitimate representative of one constituency in a laughable dramatic circumstance. Even the leadership of the National Assembly continues to feed the shameful dramatic trend. Consider the recent uncharitable remarks and veiled threat by the Senate President, Chief Wabara against Senator Chukwumerije for daring to speak against the hurried and harried nature of the infamous anti-labour bill. Not to mention the countless and often scandalous leadership squabbles and unending intrigues at the senate under the present administration.
How about the executive? Even though gifted with a jocular, and some would say, a-street-boy disposition, our President has temper that gets flayed on occasions, even in public. I recall his encounter with the victims of the Ikeja cantonment explosions where he used the ‘shut up’ word. The latest was his dramatic tearing of ‘ballot’ paper at the aborted selection of Olowu of Owu in a manner that revives the sad memories of June 12. It is apparent that as a warrior (Balogun) and a general with a distinguished military background, the President is an unwilling participant in the democratic process. It is that reluctance that accounted for so much acrimony between him and the National Assembly during his first term. It now clear that a National Assembly capable of working with the present executive is one led by Wabara, one less concerned about its independence than it is interested in appeasing the presidency.
It does seem that the President has now officially assigned his temper and intolerance of opposition to Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, the presidential public affairs assistant (whatever that means). Fani-Kayode’s enthusiasm and fast gathering fame for name-calling and fire-spitting against those that disagree with the government depict the level of intolerance of the government of the day. The last time, Fani-Kayode engaged Abubakar Umar and now, he is doing what he is paid to do, by calling Nigeria’s world renowned writer, Chinua Achebe, names. This trend shows the hard-heatedness of this government to well-meaning criticism.
But, perhaps more worrisome is the disposition of the Vice President who is on record to have threatened self-help against a constituted judicial authority for delivering a verdict against his party and the governor in his home state. Thankfully, that threat did not have to be carried through since the appeal following the despised verdict went in favor of the ruling party to the delight of the Vice President. I am not one to say whether this was as a result of the Vice President’s threat. My fate in our judiciary is still strong. However, anything that detracts the public from seeing that justice is manifestly done is a threat to the independence of the judiciary.
Along the lines of a political culture of strife, Nigerians woke up on October 15 to read another epoch making drama in a political environment that is bankrupt of integrity and accountability. The news was that a senator of the Federal Republic had engaged his lady colleague in a physical assault. The headlines were awash with the drama in which Senator Isa Mohammed of Niger State was said to have slapped Senator Iyabo Anisulowo in a show of shame over crass looting of national treasury! In the silence of his heart, Malam El Rufai of the FCT would be saying “I told you about those folks in the senate…you see?”
If those at the apex of the political ladder are prone to self-help, intolerance, temper, victimization and outrage against well-meaning disagreement and good counsel, what hope is there that we can move away from a political culture of strife? If those at the apex of political leadership ally with “renegades” in order to victimize a perceived opponent even within the same political party at the expense of good governance and the best interest of the people, how are we to expect that their sanctimonious pontifications against corruption should be taken seriously? It is only in a political culture of strife that Professor Achebe could be said to be undeserving of Nigeria. It is only in a political culture of strife and corruption that men of integrity and honor would remain undeserving and isolated for holding unto principles.
Let us take a count of many others who are undeserving of Nigeria. It will surprise the President and Fani-Kayode that there is still hope for Nigeria. There are many out there who are pained about the mess in the land and about the helpless state of an average Nigerian. There are many within and without Nigeria who can identify with Achebe’s position that prevailing condition in Nigeria under Obasanjo’s watch is too grave for silence. Such people are truly undeserving of Nigeria because they believe that Nigeria does not deserve to be the third most corrupt nation on earth.
Their passion, dream and desire for Nigeria are in radical opposition to Nigeria’s less than mediocre level and her continuous drift and slide under the watch of those who would have us believe that they love Nigeria more than the rest of us do. Let those who are undeserving of Nigeria under the present administration stand up to be counted. Unbeknownst to those that prefer to call names, no amount of name calling will shake the resolve of those who stand on principles. Government comes and government goes, those who stand on the side of truth will not lose their relevance.