“Senator Wabara and the Politics of ‘Stoop to Conquer'”, Nigeria World, Thursday April 25, 2004

The Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, sounds like a man who wants his name on the good pages of history. Who would not? Wabara is also equally conscious of the amazing recycling, or turner over rate of the occupants of his present office since our putative democratic experiment in 1999. Naturally, he wants to keep his job and would do his best to ensure that his tenure is not truncated. It does seem, however, that he has un/consciously limited himself to one way of keeping his job: stooping to conquer, whatever that means.

For anybody or audience who cares to listen, or those who may not but happen to be within his earshot, Wabara tries to stress that the National Assembly must work in harmony with the executive. There is no need for confrontation, he sermonizes. Separation of powers does not mean a house divided against itself. True talk. I agree. Nobody who intends well for Nigeria would counsel otherwise. And no scholar learned in political science, history, law, and so on, would disagree either. Indeed, scholars and their turunchi aside, even market women know that an executive-legislature rift can bring back the cursed greetings of “fellow countrymen”. Even though the press, the undisputed waste bin of the political and bureaucratic blame game, is often harangued for fanning the embers of animosity between the executive and the legislature, yet it realizes the dire consequences of rift between the two arms, and indeed between all arms of government. Executive-legislature rift is not good even for the business of the press in the long run.

Why then does Wabara preoccupy himself with the obvious when there are more urgent issues that could occupy his attention? This question reminds me of an archived New Yorker cartoon of long ago which depicts a little American boy asking Thomas Jefferson: “If you hold those truths to be self-evident, then why do you keep on harping on them so much?” Why then does Wabara, like Jefferson, harp on self-evident truth? I suggest that Wabara’s interpretation of executive-legislative harmony is not balanced. Wabara is not comfortable with the image of the National Assembly he is leading. Neither is he comfortable with his, and by extension the National Assembly’s, public relations profile in the eyes of discerning Nigerians. The two issues are symbiotically connected. I will address the second issue first.

The circumstances of Wabara’s re-election to the senate left a sour taste in the mouths of many discerning Nigerians. It may have been judicially resolved. All right. But that does not distract from the fact that he was a candidate that had the coast cleared for him from above at all costs, or so it seemed. So what was wrong with that? It depends on whom you ask. The drama, timing, calculations and permutations antecedent to Wabara’s emergence as the senate president, and his subsequent style of leadership make one conclusion inevitable: Wabara has the unshakable appearance of one too beholden to the executive, the presidency. Let me clarify: appearances are not necessarily reality. Nonetheless, they stick, and often they leave indelible impressions. Appearances are sites of perpetual fixation; they inform and influence our judgments in many ways of which we are not conscious. Under the common law, for example, sighting a married woman with a male partner other than her husband in a hotel or like places is a strong ground for initiating divorce proceedings on the basis of adultery. That is the power of appearances!

To him whom much is given much is expected. Much has been “given” to Wabara. Those who gave to him equally expect much in return. And he is delivering. No doubt. Some have argued that the presidency is an interested party with regard to who heads the legislative arm of government. I have no problem with that. But it does not mean that because of the presidency’s vested interest in Wabara as the senate president, the legislature will lose its voice. Hardly so. Wabara is yet to give the National Assembly a voice that is strong and independent in the context of power separation. That voice need not be confrontational; it needs to be transparently independent. Confrontation and independence are hardly near in the range of synonyms.

That reminds me of Senator Arthur Nzeribe’s recent open letter to the President. Nzeribe’s letter stressed the fact that the legislature is not only overshadowed by this presidency but also marginalized by it. What Nzeribe, in his unpredictable frankness, failed to see was that in the leadership of the senate lies its perceived marginalization. Power is not yours for the asking. It is an expendable substance; like money, those that have power use it to negotiate for more. The presidency has negotiated its way through. It is Wabara that interprets and implements the terms of the deal. Nzeribe’s letter of appeal to the President is a big contradiction to Nzeribe’s Machiavellian philosophy of power.

Wabara has chosen to interpret the undercurrents in the power dynamics between the legislature (which he heads) and the executive in a manner that apparently undermines a vibrant legislative regimen in the current polity. For him, the name of the game is “stoop to conquer”. I am not sure whether he means conquering for himself, for the Nigerian people, or to retain his office to full term, and thereby break a jinx. Furthermore, I am yet to figure out who is being conquered. I sure know who is stooping. There is a yawning vacuum for a robust, lively and vibrant legislative activity in our extant polity. It is even worse since the onset of Obasanjo’s third term in office. The alternative to an inactive and independent legislature is civil dictatorship that has been unleashed on Nigerians.

Theoretically, our Senators, and members of the House of Representatives should be closer the people. They ought to know where the people are hurting. In theory, our lawmakers see and feel the peoples’ hurt more than those who are tucked away in the bullet and noise proof heavenly high rock, far removed from the lived reality in Nigeria. Ideally, our lawmakers maintain an active liaison in their constituencies and feel first hand the realities across the land. These are only in ideal cases. Take the recent Nigerian Labour Congress-led resistance against an arbitrarily imposed fuel tax. Clearly, the legislature would have taken up the matter and spared the country the barrage of bad press internationally and locally, not to mention the wasted manpower and the truncation of social activities that resulted from the protests. A vibrant legislature would earn the respect, and trust of the electorate, the executive, and the judiciary, strengthening the cause of stability and democracy. A virile legislature is indispensable for the health of every democracy even more so for one that is blessed with a messianic, all-knowing, incorrigible and strong-headed and petty-minded executive.

I read Wabara a few days ago counseling his Governor, Orji Uzo Kalu against confrontation. Wabara laments that, because of Kalu’s confrontational disposition toward the Federal Government, Abia State is suffering and missing out in a number of areas. Good talk? No so good. After reading Wabara’s sermons, I recalled Orji Kalu’s lamentations about the frustration he has undergone in seeking approval for Abia State bond. Then, I recalled the suspension (or have they decided whether it is revocation) of Slok Airlines’ operating licence in the wake of Kalu’s running battle with his party leadership. Those are not my immediate concerns here; Kalu should fight his own battle.

Despite his position as the nation’s number one lawmaker (Nigerians, we like numbers), Wabara does not believe in the rule of law. Rather, I understand him to support government by vindictiveness. Wabara seems to subscribe to the view that if someone disagrees with the presidency or other power wielders in a democracy, then such a person will not get what is due to him or her; it is ok if such a person is treated unfairly. Wabara forgets that he has taken an oath of office to treat all Nigerians fairly without fear or favour and in accordance with the constitution of the land. All his co-travelers in the democratic highway are pledged to this oath. But Wabara will have us believe that so long as a disagreement is re-christened a “confrontation” no one has any rights worth protecting anymore. We must pander to the wielders of power in order to get anything from the system. I am deeply disturbed given the fact that both Wabara and Kalu are in the same party. What would happen to a vocal critique of the presidency or Wabara himself from an opposition party? May be it is good thing there is no opposition.

During Shagari’s presidency, my then Governor (Dr. Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory) was in NPP. Despite frustrations from the ruling party, Mbakwe was able to impact the life of all in his then constituency in an indelible way. He was critical with grace, style and candour. He earned President Shagari’s respect. It was to the credit of the ruling party that we had a Federal University of Technology sighted in Owerri even when we had a popular and indefatigable NPP Governor. I would not dare compare Kalu with Mbakwe. However, I am compelled to observe that Kalu, a governor of a ruling party, cannot secure approval for state bonds! This, for daring to be critical of his party or the presidency, whatever! Mbakwe had similar experience with the NPN. But he was not blackmailed as being confrontational, even though he was in an opposing party. Recently, Slok Airlines, in which Kalu has a private interest, had its operating licence revoked. I am not privy to the details, but again, appearances are very powerful. The timing of the Slok’s licence revocation speaks volumes.

Wabara sermonizes that Mbakwe was an exemplary public servant who left an indelible legacy. He failed short of commending Mbakwe’s example to Kalu. What he so easily forgot was that Mbakwe was a champion of justice for the powerful and the powerless, for the high and lowly, strong and weak. An Mbakwe senate presidency would hold the executive to task and check abuse of power. It would not take kindly to an executive with vindictive tendencies. It would facilitate tabling before the floor of the national assembly acts of the executive that border on abuse of power and violation of the constitution. It would not kill people’s constitutional aspirations for new local governments. It would encourage vibrant debate and due process on matterS of that nature. It would be interested in scrutinizing our burgeoning romance with Zimbabwean farmers and our sudden transformation into an asylum haven of sorts.

Again, Mbakwe in Wabara’s shoes would not condone the Ngigegate. He would loathe a situation where an elected executive governor is stripped of his constitutional rights and privileges for spiteful purposes. Mbakwe’s senate presidency would call the executive to account over an unprecedented security crisis and litany of unresolved murders that threaten to truncate our putative democracy. It would not term disagreements in a polity as confrontations and thereby justify executive meanness that undermines the rule of law. Neither would it condone unconscionable victimizations in the polity. Mbakwe would not stoop except before the constitution. He would give each their fair share in accordance with the law and not on the basis of how low they would stoop before an imperial executive. He would give our National Assembly a distinguished voice in the polity in order to strengthen our democracy. Soon it will be one year since Wabara’s senate presidency. If truth be told, he is yet to point this august body of accomplished Nigerians to a vision, or direction. He is yet to give it a voice beyond the shadow of an imperial executive. Surely, in a ‘stooped’ position, voices get drown and visions, shortsighted.

 

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