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Oxford, Cambridge clubs and Nigeria’s democracy (1)

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THE Oxford and Cambridge Unions were the training ground for speakers who intended to climb the political ladder. Both universities were the recruitment centres – de rigour – for British political leadership.

Both have produced more prime ministers and cabinet members than any other university. Each of the Unions was where orators honed their skills, and still do.

International scholars, statesmen, presidents, prime ministers and other leaders look forward to the thrust and cut of debates of the Union. That the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge here in Nigeria have decided to bring forth that tradition here is welcome and commendable.

I went to the Oxford and Cambridge Club 2015 Debate on Nigeria, Democracy and the Economy. The moderator was Professor Kanyisola Ajayi, SAN (Cambridge); whilst the chairman was Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, CFR (Oxford).

There were four speakers, Dr. Bright Okogu (Economist, Oxford), Dr. Ayo Teriba (also an Economist, Cambridge, whose uncle, Professor Teriba, was a good friend of mine; Demola Akinrele, Esq, SAN, (Cambridge) and Professor Fidelis Oditah, QC, SAN (Oxford).

I expected robust debate and or statements and we received five statements in the sonorous, dulcet, clipped diction that now characterizes those properly educated who ended up in Oxford and Cambridge. There is diction I call Nigeria – Oyibo – speak – the moderator also had it and so did the rest.

I remember asking a lady sitting next to me – whether this was a new Nigerian language. It was an exhibition of their command of English and their very professional presentation which were so good that they could get away with saying very ordinary things in a very profound way.

This mesmerising diction broke down twice – when Professor Oditah referred to Fela and he had to speak pidgin, ending with the very wafferian (people from Warri) advice – “shine your eye oh”.

You cannot quote Fela in that clipped diction; so he also quoted some pidgin. The effect was eerie – as if a beautiful mould had suddenly been deliberately smashed! I used to think that Professor Akinyemi in his deliberately deep slow voice usually sounded like an Oxonian.

But today, age told on him – he sounded like an old professor from Ilesha, much the same as I sound like a fisherman from Abonnema.

Professor Akinyemi lamented the lack of that robust debating culture which existed in Nigeria in the 1950s, 1960s, etc., and blamed it all on the military who co-opted the intellectuals into service in their successive administrations. With the military, there was no time for too much grammar (turenshi).

In this present political campaign, what it lacked in issues (as in substance), it has made up for in forced jollity, a great deal of noise and incredible lies and exaggerations: There is no doubt that everyone knows there is an election compared to 2011 when we had a tame parade by the parties.

The panelists attribute this to the presence of a virile (or was it- vital opposition). They all agreed on the largeness of our economy (GDP) and the puny revenue derived from there – our GDP is twice that of Algeria, but the revenue from Nigeria’s GDP is half that of Algeria.

The elephant in the room was corruption which they all found synonyms for – “leakages”, “absence of a middle”, “necessary stomach infrastructure”, etc. When a member of the House of Representatives earns US$2 million, plus the so called “constituency projects allowances”, the result is predictable.

At least, we ought to be able to count 471 federal constituency projects, multiplied by two, that is, one project for every two year period. Add this to the extra projects for each senator, 36 x 3 at least, there should be one constituency project per senatorial district.

The sweetest of these dulcet voices was Demola Akinrele, who, in the old manner of the Oxbridge debates, spoke without notes for the longest time. He too dealt with kid gloves with the judiciary who were the supposed saviours of democracy, pitched against an avaricious executive which is forever expanding its powers. He called for the judges to earn more so that better quality judges could be recruited.

He wanted the establishment of a Constitutional Court, a Corruption Court that could fast-track cases and avoid the blockage which sometimes seem to be haemorrhaging the judiciary. On the legislature, all agreed that the power of oversight of executive actions had been debased into a bidding war by the legislature.

Members of the executive claiming that their bills and/or budgets, etc., could be passed without inducements. The loneliest figure on the panel was Dr. Bright Okogu, who did not look bright at all – lamenting that his budget was always swollen by extra demands for the legislature, the inability to call into question just how well the budget had been followed, the regime of waivers and some fancily calculating of payment of 25% (or was it 75%) for bodies that collected revenue for and on behalf of the government. There was great camaraderie, as speakers tried, in as polite a way as possible, to dig at one another.

One of the most fascinating observations was the fact that nothing on the economy was asked of the executive beyond submitting budgets. It was necessary to build institutions into the whole economic fabric which entrusts specific economic tasks to the executive and the legislature; in the United Kingdom, the Select Committees System performs these functions; whilst the various Economic Committees (Bi-Partisan) in the U.S. Congress and the White House also perform these crucial tasks.

In this season of political silliness, I just wondered why the panelists did not do more than scratch the surface on the crudity of a looting culture and administration.

Crudity is not changed by a refined approach. The political parties all have governments at the state level which are examples of what they can do, and more importantly, cannot do. There is no reason why one looter is worse than another, and justice is not served by avoiding the topic.

It may be argued that such an approach would have negated the caution and stricture given to the speakers by the organisers that they should not delve into the real political arena in this period of electioneering campaign, in order to avoid the possibility of anybody claiming that any of the statements made at the debate was tantamount to declaration of support for any of the political parties.

And I believe that the speakers did rather well in that regard. But at the expense of anonym.

•To be continued tomorrow.
•Ambassador Cole (OFR) is a Consultant to The Guardian Editorial Board.



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