Urchins in power
As a small town boy, the countryside holds a special attraction for me. I went back to my roots some days ago for a ceremony and the grinding poverty at home would seem to have notched up a few steps towards the worse. It seems to have taken on new colours and assumed new dimensions.
I thought I had seen the worst last December when, in a state economy powered only by the 30-day cycle of income, workers were not paid their salaries for months even till Christmas! Oh, nothing ages a man like poverty! I saw young men looking like their grandfathers. The women, hitherto spring chickens who could only be courted by self-assured brothers, skilled successful artisans then, or employed in booming agricultural ventures from E.O Ashamu-owned Pioneer Farms Limited, the tobacco farms of the old NTC or even their own small-holding farms, wore the scars of a depressed time on their hollowed cheeks. Many hold what are supposed to be jobs in the civil service, either in the state or the local government. Those on the farms, exhausted, red-eyed, crusty-palmed and dry-skinned, were physically bent from their year-long toiling as the produce they laboured so hard to plant and harvest had no buyers. No money. No market thrived. Every thing simply came to a halt. Including some lives!
That situation subsists even now, only in worse fashion!
Poverty in the cities is, of course, phenomenal and very real but it wears a veneer. Maybe it is the crowd or the infrastructure, the glitter of modernity and everyone’s reflection, real or imagined, in it. Maybe it is the flurry of activities everywhere, with everyone disguisedly engaged in so much motion and movement. Poverty in the urban centres is somewhat spared such nudity as you would find of it in the villages.
In rural Nigeria, it has no clothes! You see it on the faces of the people, in their bodies, on their apparel, in their abode and even feel it in the air. O ro sho sho sho! Things are bad, money is so scarce you wouldn’t get a drop of water squeezed out of supposedly wet clothes!
And so, as I shared a few bottles with old friends in my mother’s living room a few days ago and heard the news review on local radio of the billions of naira now the subject of allegations and denials in the Federal House of Representatives in Abuja, I couldn’t help but feel more than a little disgusted at the callousness of those young men privileged to be in positions of authority who have conveniently forgotten the people who put them in power. With my understanding of Nigeria’s history of deficit of leadership integrity as well as the predisposition of members of the elite to avarice, primitive accumulation and impunity, my anger rose a few notches. What on earth is wrong with Nigeria? What is the crime of a people so blessed with so much but so cursed with irresponsible leadership?
Since my return to the city, the media space has been filled with fresh reports of impudent fiddling with the people’s money, especially by the leaders of the lower house of the National Assembly. I have been filled with more than dread for Nigeria’s democracy.
After the allegation that they connived to inflate the federal budget and added items to serve only them as well as their immediate constituencies, the latest revelation, from the same source, is that some of the principal officers in the House of Representatives approved for themselves very sumptuous allowances at the expense of the people.
Those principal officers, it has been said, have allegedly shared more than N10 billion amongst themselves as “office running cost.” Wow!
We have always known that something must be wrong with a system that makes an instant wealthy of a renowned needy just because he manages to get into an elective office. But no one could have contemplated a geometrical progression from zero to billions by a bunch of laggards and criminals without even the modicum of decency to make, even if only briefly, stop-overs at a few million marks!
This, however, is not the only tragedy. From Nigerians’ reaction so far, on the scale of revelations about greed in high places to which, understandably, Nigerians are now used, this, it would seem, is too light to rouse the people to an outrage. Or, the amount involved must seem too puny to warrant any meaningful interest! A couple of billions here and there for a few leaders of the people needs not cause any uproar! Hence the silence of Nigerians as former Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin, continues his new-found activism and deluge of accusations against his colleagues. Hey!
But with one revelation after the other on the sleaze in the hallowed chambers of the House of Representatives, Jibrin’s supposed sour grape, which is what opponents call his accusations, should not obviate their confirmation of what Nigerians have always known about their leaders: not yet for them a culture that prices mind over money and accords character a prime place in the pantheon of virtues, apologies to Professor Niyi Osundare.
The fact that this culture of greed was instituted over time and mainstreamed to the point of numbing our collective sense of outrage should, however, not be comfort to the perpetrators. They must not only be regarded as urchins in power, they should be investigated and brought to justice as criminals if found guilty.
No doubt, Nigerians’ hunger for people-oriented leadership remains till date unassuaged. Instead, the people still reel under bare-faced corruption, mindless impunity by an insensitive, self-centred political class, hollow in mind and shallow in thoughts, a leadership so mindlessly driven by convenience and no principles, hypocrisy and vain craze for opulence.
At this point in time, that body of the people’s representatives, Nigeria’s National Assembly, especially the recruitment into it, begs for a re-appraisal if democracy would ever be deepened and if the people would ever profit from it.
What is coming to light now is part of what has obtained over the years during which a tawdry bunch in the guise of the people’s representatives have demonstrated wanton insensitivity and added so much to an already bloated cost of governance with their sumptuous perquisites as well as lavish lifestyles.
Remember, the legislators were once found to have appropriated so much for their salaries and allowances that about 25 per cent of the nation’s annual recurrent expenditure went to the National Assembly alone. With, at best, little productivity, members have continued to live large while the rest of the people barely get by. Their penchant for the blackmail and intimidation of other divisions of government have been well documented. The legislators’ constitutional power of oversight, with the noble democratic intent of holding ministries and other agencies of government accountable, in the spirit of checks and balances, is known to have become an instrument of coercion and extortion.
Worse still, the proceeds from such crimes are not only flaunted, impudently, in the face of an unquestioning citizenry, they are used to perpetuate themselves in their seats.
Now, more than ever, Nigerians should be strident in their agitation for drastic reforms in the status and structure of the legislature with the most urgent and most practicable solution being a part-time arrangement.
With many laggards, sinecurists and cheap rabble-rousers in the chambers, where many members barely meet the minimum attendance prescribed by the law, such woeful attendance level and poor contributions in terms of ideas short-change Nigeria and ridicules our democracy. Indeed, the financial burden of a full-time legislature is too much, unjustified by productivity level and mocked by the irresponsibility of some of its members.
Nigeria cannot begin the journey to progress unless we strip all public offices of all material attractions and institutionalise a culture of service. When the offices in the legislature and the executive especially are stripped of free money and perks, only the truly endowed in mind will find them attractive. Then, service will be the only consideration, at least to a very large extent.
As I once said, the legislature is too vital an institution in a democracy to be trifled with and recruitment into it should be such as throw up only the best and the brightest in the chamber. It should never be a club of the idle or a route to easy wealth for little minds and non-thinkers.
What we have now, with the stench coming out of the House of Representatives, is bad for Nigeria today and for the nation’s future. A warped moral culture rules in which those who appropriate the people’s money unto themselves without shame are the ones who purport to have the responsibility of legislating for the good governance of Nigeria.
With the House daily descending into an institutional billboard for the graft and financial recklessness that have sent Nigeria to the wheelchair and fast at work on the country’s grave, we are fantastically in trouble!