Nigeria Matters

Confirmation Hearing 101 for Senator David Mark Co.

I am disappointed that Senate President, David Mark, did not lead a delegation of Nigerian Senators to Washington to observe the recent Senate confirmation hearings for Barack Obama’s cabinet nominees. In fact, had Nigeria’s entire Senate moved to Washington during this process, no Nigerian would have dismissed the trip as an estacode-guzzling proposition. Our polity is in dire need of what our distinguished senators could have learnt from such a classroom experience in the US Capitol. I know a few Nigerians in Washington who, desperate for change at home, would have supplied notepads, jotters, and pens to the apprentice senators as their contribution to national development. If necessary, I would have shipped chalk and wooden black slates to them in Washington to facilitate their classroom experience.

Had Senator David Mark and his fellow lawmakers registered for and attended the Confirmation Hearing 101 course in Washington, they would have learnt crucial lessons that would have reduced their lamentable ignorance of confirmation procedures and saved the Nigerian people the agony of witnessing the periodic circus they call senate confirmation hearings in Abuja. For starters, Senator Mark and co. would have witnessed the rigorous grilling of as important a figure as Hillary Rodham Clinton by her former senate colleagues. They would have been surprised – no, shocked – that the John Kerry-led Foreign Relations Committee didn’t just ask this famous American and former first lady to “take a bow” and be sworn into office three seconds later.

Imagine Hillary Clinton’s Nigerian equivalent, Maryam Babangida, appearing for confirmation before David Mark and his people in Abuja! We would have had a bunch of cackling sycophants over-reaching themselves to play footsie with her ego: “Ah, Madam, welcome to your Senate confirmation hearing ma. Hope Her Excellency had a nice trip to Abuja o? What about our General ma? What, he accompanied you to Abuja ke? He really shouldn’t have bothered, ma. We are his boys. Who are we to invite an elder statesman? Take a bow ma. Winner ooo winner, winner ooo winner, Her Excellency you don win o winner pata pata you go win forever winner. Bye-bye ma”

Back in Washington, our senators would have witnessed the grueling questioning of such power brokers as Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, and Tom Daschle. They would have been dumbfounded that Senator Daschle’s nomination as Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary collapsed under the weight of the sin of tax evasion. In their Abuja universe, it would be unthinkable to have a former Senate President appear for confirmation for a cabinet position and suffer the indignity of even being questioned about his taxes in the first place! The Nigerian equivalents of the Obama nominees whose candidacies fell through are all “big men”, “stakeholders”, and “chieftains” who, by definition, are above the laws of the land and such demeaning processes as confirmation hearings, hence the perfunctory ritual of taking a bow.

The Nigerian people pay a considerable price for this tragic culture of demission on the part of our Senators. Their comical approach to confirmation hearings largely explains how President Yar’Adua has been able to get away with two of the most somnambulistic cabinets in the nation’s history. It also explains the new meaning we have given to multitasking in Nigeria. It is possible for a single individual with a Bachelor’s degree in Islamic and Arabic studies, who has served in every administration since Lord Lugard, to survive three cabinet reshuffles in the life of a single administration, moving from, say, the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Information and, finally, to the Ministry of Science and Technology. Naturally, this individual would face three separate senate confirmation hearings, claiming expertise in all these areas and taking the perfunctory bow each time.

There is one important last lesson our senators could have learnt in Washington: the proper way to use legislative aides and personal assistants. They would have noticed that each confirmation hearing committee member was in session with his or her aides seated behind him or her. They would have noticed the endless passing of scribbled notes between each senator and his/her aides. These are the aides who would have spent thousands of hours poring over documents, verifying the resume of the Cabinet nominee, checking and cross-checking every detail, and preparing the interventions of their principals. In Abuja, the counterparts of these congressional aides loiter in the corridors of the national assembly, flashing important-looking business cards at every opportunity. Yet, all they really do is carry the briefcases and the cell phones of their principals, buy recharge cards, kolanuts, suya, and newspapers, and make themselves generally useful as part of the big man’s “protocol”.

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