JETS, KILLED BILLS, AND OTHER PLEASURES OF POWER
The major reason political races in Nigeria are marked by high voltage violence is that occupants of political offices see themselves, and are seen, as lottery winners. In the public imagination, public office is simply an occasion to quaff, gorge and luxuriate at public expense. It’s an all-expenses paid pleasure trip with few, if any, duties, tasks or responsibilities.
A friend of mine jokes that he’d start taking Nigerian politicians seriously only when they stop scheming to grab power by all means. "The day it becomes difficult to persuade people to run for various political offices in Nigeria – from local government councilor to president – is the day I’d start respecting those who present themselves as candidates," this friend – a medical doctor – often says.
It’s difficult to refute his point. Does anybody imagine for a minute that Nigerian politicians hire thugs to intimidate, maim or kill their opponents just to win an opportunity to serve, to improve the lot of people, or to better their environment? Do politicians rig themselves into office out of a desire to transform their society for the better?
Only a fool would believe that this is the case.
Our politicians bring a desperate pitch and deranged tactics to their angling for "elective" offices precisely because political posts offer stupendous material rewards while offering few, if any, challenges. To be a Nigerian president, governor or legislator is to bask in huge perks of office. It is to eat and drink until your belly sags and your neck disappears. If you happen to be a man, it is to poach women on a daily basis, from underage Egyptian teenagers to other people’s wives. It is to live above the law – in fact, to thumb your nose at the law and to mock the misery of fellow citizens.
Last week, Nigerian politicians, from the National Assembly all the way to the Presidency, put on display their patented trite sense of what it means to be called a "leader."
Nigerians were scandalized to learn that Goodluck Jonathan and his cabinet had approved the purchase of three new jets for the presidential fleet. The Reuters report conveyed a sense of how blasé, disconnected and arrogant these politicians have become. Reuters reported: "The cabinet approved the purchase of two Falcon 7X aircraft from France's Dassault Aviation and one Gulfstream G550 from the U.S. plane maker for the presidential fleet at a cost of $150 million." Then the news agency quoted Information Minister Dora Akunyili as telling reporters, "After consideration, council approved the purchase."
If Akunyili ever took care to explain why the presidential fleet needed new aircraft to begin with, it was not reflected in the report. As far as the Jonathan administration is concerned, the presidential appetite for new jets should suffice as justification.
Talk about the relentless pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, and by extravagantly paid public officials who do little or no work to begin with.
It’s sad that Jonathan has chosen to adopt former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s obsession with purchasing new jets as if they were a child’s toys. Think of what $155 million would have done for our universities and polytechnics that lack laboratories and are starved of books and research funds. How about our dismal healthcare system? Imagine how far $155 million would have gone if invested in equipment for our teaching hospitals that, now, often resemble dying chambers.
In a nation as wretched as Nigeria, with decrepit infrastructure and festering poverty, how could Jonathan and his acolytes have concluded that the purchase of three new jets was a priority?
For answer, all we have is that nonchalant statement by Akunyili: "After consideration, council approved the purchase."
Pray, what exactly does consideration mean in this context? Was there no minister in that room with enough presence of mind and decency to remind the rest of them that there were eminently more sensible ways to spend $150 million? Did nobody have the insight, and courage, to tell Jonathan that he and other office holders were already overpaid, over-pampered, over-indulged – and that it was time to spend less on themselves and more on alleviating the grim condition of Nigerians?
This profligate habit buttresses an essential disconnect between those who pose as "leaders" and the vast majority of Nigerians. Alert Nigerians should insist that any man or woman who aspires to "rule" must first spend a few days and nights in Agege, Ketu, Ajegunle or some of the slummy quarters in other Nigerian cities. Yes, let our would-be presidents experience first-hand where most Nigerians sleep, eat, pee and shit. Let them come face to face with the squalid, mosquito-infested, septic life that is the reality for most of their fellow citizens. Perhaps – just perhaps – this brutal form of familiarization would give members of the cabinet pause when next they sit to "consider" the fatuous idea of squandering $150 million on luxury jets for the exclusive use of a few men and women.
If the cabinet’s approval of three jets was vulgar and thoughtless, the National Assembly’s "action" on a money laundering bill was an instance of political irresponsibility.
Last week, the House of Representatives, as reported by NEXT, "indefinitely suspended consideration" of an anti-money laundering bill. Two days earlier, the Senate had also indefinitely postponed debate on the bill.
It’s not as if the members of the National Assembly are unaware that Nigeria is plagued by money laundering. They know that British police had picked up several former governors and their cache of cash. They know that, in 2004, American authorities tried Andy Uba, an aide to Obasanjo, for smuggling $170,000 on a presidential jet that landed in New York City. They know that former Governor James Onanefe Ibori was arrested in Dubai, and faces extradition to the UK to answer to money laundering charges.
No, it’s not the case at all that the "honorable" members of the House of Representatives and their "distinguished" colleagues in the Senate just arrived from Jupiter and are blissfully ignorant of Nigeria’s money laundering peril. Why, many of their number are longstanding and dexterous practitioners of that game that transfers billions looted from the public treasury into private accounts, domestic or foreign. In fact, certified money launderers are so well represented in the legislative chambers that some ingenious Nigerians have taken to addressing the lawmakers as legislooters.
Make no mistake: the assembly’s decision to file away the anti-money laundering bill was dictated by an instinct for self-preservation. It is similar to the instinct that moved these so-called lawmakers to frustrate the freedom of information bill that would have served greater transparency and accountability. The majority of the men and women in the National Assembly can’t stand the idea of anybody snooping into their affairs, or peeping into the "business" of other public office holders. They prefer to conduct the business of governance in the dark, away from the prying eyes of the people whose resources they steal and waste.
The anti-money laundering bill jettisoned by the Senate and House of Representatives has international implications. According to NEXT, the bill was shaped to meet an "international framework against corruption." By passing it, the legislators would have served notice to the world that Nigeria was serious about combating private and public sector looters. In pushing it aside, the legislators sent a loud message that they relish the culture of looting and want to see it fertilized and perpetuated.
You’d never see these legislators postpone any discussion about increasing their already over-bloated perks. Hell, no! But when it comes to passing any bill that would have a salutary impact on the polity, they invent all manner of technical ruses and dodges to put the matter on snooze.
That’s why Nigerians must approach the coming elections as a make-or-mar event. Those who seek public office in order to spend their waking (and even sleeping) hours dreaming up schemes of jollification at the expense of the rest of us should be opposed at every turn. Voters should look to men and women who come with sound, practical ideas, and reject those who view public office as pleasure trips.
Okey Ndibe is at [email protected]