Getting It Right in 2011

by Okey Ndibe

I suspect that most Nigerians are almost exclusively riveted by the unfolding drama of who’s going to emerge president, by hook or crook, in next year’s election. I’d like to suggest that such narrow focus is ultimately dangerous. And the central risk we run in so obsessively cleaving to the presidential race – to the exclusion of other electoral contests – is to persist in the myth that one person, the president, is capable of wielding the magic wand and solving all our problems.

That kind of outlook fosters the excessive cult of power around the office of the presidency, and tempts the occupant of the office to imagine himself something of a deity, able to make or mar at will.

In the case of a man as morally depraved as former President Olusegun Obasanjo, such emphasis on the exceptional nature of the presidency led to grave abuses. On a state visit to Anambra State, for example, Mr. Obasanjo committed an egregious assault on the graciousness and generosity of his host, Governor Peter Obi. At an official banquet in his honor, Obasanjo told the governor to perish the thought of being re-elected as governor. The president served notice that he had already chosen somebody else for the governor’s job.

If this was a case of impolitic speech, Obasanjo’s role as the shielder-in-chief of rogue elements who arranged the abduction of then Governor Chris Ngige and who openly boasted of masterminding the wholesale burning of government property in 2004 implicated the imperial presidency in serious crimes. And such presidential collusion in high political crime was far from limited to Anambra. Mr. Obasanjo looked the other way as his friend, Lamidi Adedibu, mobilized police officers to chase then Governor Rasheed Ladoja from his office.

Nigerians have no foolproof way of ensuring that morally reckless persons in the mold of Obasanjo never assume the presidency. But they can significantly mitigate the harm such men do to the polity by, above all, ensuring the election of principled, competent and sound legislators who take seriously their constitutional mandate to hold the president to account on behalf of the people.

If the National Assembly had boasted such members during Obasanjo’s tenancy in Aso Rock, they would have been able to scrutinize why the president declared an obvious crime – the abduction of Ngige – as an internal party matter, or why not a single person was ever prosecuted for the mayhem of November 2004 – even though TV cameras captured police officers hailing and escorting the hoodlums who set fire to public property.

If the Obasanjo-era legislature had the spine to do its job, perhaps the man would have been impeached for failing so woefully at the most fundamental task of any government – ensuring the safety of lives and property and guaranteeing the rule of law.

Obasanjo’s impunities in office were replicated, to one degree or another, at the state levels. Since 1999, numerous governors have treated their states as their personal estates. They operate as if the constitution makes them answerable to no one but themselves. Sadly, too many state assemblies appear deeply confused about the nature and scope of their responsibilities. They proceed as if their sole reason for being was to rubberstamp the governor’s every whim, however odious.

The lesson we must learn, I believe, is the absolute importance of encouraging people of mettle, spine, learning and principle to contest elections into the legislatures, at the federal and state levels. If the 2011 elections result in the sending of a sizeable number of astute lawmakers to Abuja as well as state capitals, then Nigeria would have made a significant democratic leap. We would have legislators who realize that the carting away of bags of cash is not the essence of lawmaking. Governors, and whoever emerges as the president, would be forced to reckon with the fact that the days of getting away with impunity are over.

Rascals and a veritable confederacy of moral and ethical dunces have for too long dominated Nigerian politics. These poseurs thrive at their sordid game: they gauge their success as public officials in terms of the size of their loot. They constantly reduce the country’s aspirations and dreams to the size of their small mental vision.

The 2011 elections provide a great opportunity for a coalition of workers, students, and the professional classes to field or champion highly competent and morally proven candidates for elections into local government councils and chairmanships, governorships, and the legislatures.

In my home state of Anambra, which has been awfully unlucky in the quality of its legislators in Abuja, there’s already a positive sign. A few enlightened and professionally successful candidates are lining up to contest for legislative seats.

Even so, the political parties appear determined to skew the field in favor of wealthy candidates, or the unscrupulous stooges who are often sponsored by the high-on-money-low-on-sense “godfathers.” Each political party has set its nomination fees at inexcusably exorbitant rates. For example, the PDP has put a price tag of N2.2 million for a senatorial nomination form. That’s close to $15,000 for the chance to audition to be the party’s candidate. APGA’s rate for the same senatorial seat, at N3.5 million – or more than $23,000 – is even worse.

How many people who have earned their income honestly would gamble with $15,000 to $23,000 in order to try out for a seat in the Nigerian Senate? By their actions, are these parties not excluding most Nigerian professionals, civil servants, pensioners, teachers and other educated Nigerians who are not engaged in a money-minting criminal enterprise? Are they not letting on that the senatorial race is akin to a lottery, and that to the winner falls – not the duty of using the legislative instrument to better the lives of their fellows – but the luck of sweeping up cash in Abuja?

Unreasonably high nomination fees may have as bad an effect on the polity as rigged elections. In fact, they are a way of rigging out perhaps the best pool of candidates at the front end. They secure political contests mostly for candidates with stupendous wealth or a well-heeled sponsor. A country in the dire situation of Nigeria can hardly afford this wide disenfranchisement of its political and leadership prospects.

A concerned friend recently struck at the heart of the problem. “An essential ingredient of fair election,” he stated in an e-mail to me, “is the unfettered access of all qualified citizens to primaries of political parties of their choice. The nomination fees being charged by the parties is so unreasonable that it constricts the political space and therefore keeps away a majority of decent and qualified candidates who we desperately need to retire the decadent and vicious political cabal that have seized the soul of Nigeria and left her politically and economically comatose.”

The choice is clear enough. It behooves Nigerians who are sick and tired of the plague of decadent and vicious politicians to insist that their political parties do the right thing, or risk electoral rejection.

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