A Priest’s thoughts on the Nigerian Political Class and the Electorate

by Victor Akongwale

Nigeria is at the cross-roads at this time, and every Nigerian ought to be apprehensive. The reasons for this collective apprehension are not difficult to identify; even a new-born child would easily work out that there is something very amiss with Nigeria. As if we hadn’t enough problems already, we keep adding fresh ones, regardless of the cumulative damage! Nigeria’s current state is in many ways indicative of how much we have played fast and loose with her future. It is ironic that in toying with Nigeria’s future, we have impacted heavily, and rather negatively, on our individual as well as collective progress and welfare. The prophet Ezekiel, haranguing his country men and women, is noted to have said, inter alia, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). While there is time, tell those who claim to be our leaders [who are more like maximum rulers than leaders] some uncomfortable but honest truths, à la Ezekiel! Our remit or call goes beyond telling them what they may or may not have done properly! We, the led, must also own up to our own collective lackadaisical attitude, which has undoubtedly given them the impetus to carry out such rape and plunder of our country!

Ours is a country where a man goes out to vote and does not complain or assert that he/she has a right to ask why she/he did not vote. It is only in Nigeria that many a police man/woman is open to receiving money from some politician on election day, thus mortgaging the future of his/her own progeny! It is only in Nigeria that a government official is ashamed to be good; he/she does not want to be the ‘goody-goody’ of his department. Closely aligned to the foregoing is the fact that he or she is also too timid to be seen as the one oddball who came back to the village with only his/her legitimate entitlements after 35 years of service. His or her kinsmen would be very disappointed! Ours is a society where a lecturer, in say a medical school, cuts corners in the training of the next generation, regardless of the fact that he could be the victim of the incompetence that he, ironically, engendered! It is a country where a minister, in charge of roads and infrastructures, thinks nothing of the fact that roads and other communal amenities remain unrepaired under his watch. Does anyone remember General Adisa of blessed memory? Want to talk about the airports? Many a Minister of Aviation, or indeed any other ministry, tends to forget that after their stint in power they will have to use the same facilities that were overlooked during their time in office.

What about members of the bench who sell out thanks to alleged pressure from above, or perhaps to vast sums of money too ridiculous to mention? It is, rather ironically, the lawyers who may want to cry out, denounce and shame such judges that are viewed as misfits. They are reminded that the Legal Bar has no room for those who want to rock the boat! Or they get put down by the errant judges via the very rules that were put in place to protect the integrity of the bar and bench. Tell, me why should a minister in the temple of justice be obstructed in the quest for justice by the very persons who are meant to be custodians of the temple and its rites? More often than not, the public, unaware of the background stories, tend to join such corrupt judges and their cronies in the condemnation and mauling of the reputations of the so-called disrespectful [read ‘bold’] and bad-tempered [read ‘passionate’] crusading persons.

In addition, the average Nigerian political office holder, contrary to the popularly held view, is very much aware of the transience of power. Why do I say so? Well, has my reader ever wondered why the Nigerian politician puts his/her party ahead of his community, or why she/he is ready to die for ‘party unity’, forgetting the people he/she is meant to be representing? Power, and/or how to acquire it in the current Nigerian political landscape, depends greatly on the party one belongs to, and the political class work hard to maintain the status quo. The art of maintaining the status quo, where it favours the political class, has been taken to the next level. The political class have come to understand that the loyalty and/or patience of the average Nigerian is no better than that of the average plebeian attending gladiatorial contests in Rome of old. As such they spare no expense when it comes to working out plans or distractions; such is their nimbleness and dexterity that even the manipulated remained blissfully unaware! Religion is, more often than not, a part of the plot they concoct to keep us down. They surreptitiously brainwash us into believing that people of other faiths are enemies; they delude us into thinking that anyone who worships, or eats and dances in a way different to us is against us. The Nigerian political class, thanks to the manipulation of religion, has led us to believe that God is the reason behind the country’s woes and problems. Nigerians have been brought up to routinely implore God in the face of government’s failure to provide basic amenities; the political class must never be blamed or held accountable! An even greater feat has been achieved by the political class: they are secure in their positions and posts thanks to an even nimbler use of religion. They feel secure because they have contrived to convince us that all power comes from God, at least in Nigeria! If the power they hold was not given to them by us, in the first place, how can we hope to get them to be accountable!

It is only in Nigeria that a minister of, or commissioner for education turns up at a fund-raising event, makes a huge donation, and gets applauded blindly! Those applauding forget or choose to forget that the sums donated may have come from the funds allocated to the education needs of the community. The practice of befriending political office holders, and helping them to ‘baptize’ their ill-gotten wealth, has been refined into an art by a not-too- insignificant number of ministers of religion. A minister of religion does not see why donations should not be sought from a political office-holder, under whose watch teachers or even nurses have not received their salaries! As such, the average Nigerian politician has cottoned up to the fact that, regardless of how much he/she steals, there is always a religious community on hand to celebrate his largesse. When I say “ministers of religion”, my reader is allowed to expand and include as many faiths, denominations, titles and personages as there are! [I must declare at this point that I am a Roman Catholic minister of religion.]

It goes without saying that the history of Nigeria, as in deed the histories of many underdeveloped nations, would include a record of the mis-use of religion. Religion and religious ministers of all hues and shades would be docked and interrogated; a move that could lead many people to find organized religion and religious leaders contemptible. Such an attitude could lead many to question the value of faith, as well as the altruism of the many good works associated with religious groups and systems. There is a precedent in the attitude of many Europeans in the 18th Century. The Enlightenment, despite its many shortcomings (real and imagined) was considered by many to be a blessing in more ways than one. Let us not forget that the Enlightenment with all its rights and wrongs gained traction thanks to the behaviour of religious leaders and their use of religion, amongst many reasons. It is time someone reminded the religious leaders of the day, especially in Nigeria, that we may be ploughing the fields, and laying the foundations of our own ‘Nigerian Enlightenment’! In April of 2000, whilst attending the annual conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria [CATHAN}; an Augustinian priest, Father Mason made a very telling remark. He posited inter alia that “a packed church is the opiate of the average clergyman”. That day in Gwagwalada, his remark with its very obvious Marxist roots, made good sound bite; however, current events in Nigeria go to show its wisdom. Thus far a docile Church and Mosque going populace has lulled religious leaders into thinking things are going to always stay this way. However, any keen observer or student of history knows the error of this mentality. It is time for true prophetic witnessing!

Many a country that does work in today’s world can, and does, look back with loving nostalgia and warmth when asked to pinpoint the leader(s) who put her on the path to greatness. Ours is not the case; until 2010, the 50th year of our independence from Britain, we have yet to get a leader who symbolises, articulates and personalises the goals and aspirations of Naija. Forget what the national anthem says; the line “The labours of our heroes past, shall never be in vain” is vacuous within the context of the Nigerian experience! Personal ambition and/or greed have more often than not come before the interests of the nation in the scheme of things. This more than explains why notable Nigerians, men/women who can sustain and lead a verbal and moral charge, have given our leaders a free pass until now. What do Ojukwu, the late and lamented Gani, Pat Utomi, Olu Falae, Jim Nwobodo, Balarabe Musa, Soyinka and Colonel Dangiwa Umar, to mention but a few, have in common? These are men who would have served us better, in the last twelve years at least, by going on to serve in the National Assembly. If we had had men and women of their calibre as legislators, they would have led the other callow legislators in the charge to set Nigeria on the path of true greatness. The presence of such notables would certainly have dissuaded Obasanjo from turning the legislature into an extension of Aso Rock. They would have become whistle blowers, and would certainly have exposed Obasanjo’s predilection for distributing GMG (Ghana Must Go) bags full of money as bribes, without fear! But rather than serve our national interests, the bulk of the afore-mentioned wanted to be President, even in the face of odds that patently showed they could not win, even in free and fair polls.

Finally, it behoves on every Nigerian to own up to his or her own role in the bastardization of the Nigerian project. For whether we like it or not, the led, the aspiring leaders and, indeed, the leaders in Nigeria share a collective culpability of sorts in the stunted growth of a 50-year- old country that has remained a fledgling nation in many ways.

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