Madam Speaker Plays Her Level

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

The first time I heard her name was a couple of weeks or so before the inauguration of the present National Assembly. At that time, rumours had begun to make the rounds in media circles that former President Olusegun Obasanjo, intent on still holding the nation to ransom from his multi-billion naira farm in Ota, Ogun State, was bent on imposing a certain Mrs. Patricia Foluke Etteh on the nation as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Although there were widespread concerns about her obvious intellectual and political limitations, and in fact, hushed disapprovals even within the PDP’s unwholesome “family” and among her would-be colleagues at that time, nobody could stand on the way of the Emperor and Conqueror of Modern Nigeria. And so, at the end of the day, a conquered nation watched dumbfounded as Foluke Etteh, propelled only by the fearsome determination of the Emperor and Life Leader of the PDP behind her, timidly emerged from one dark hole to become the Speaker of Nigeria’s Lower Legislative House, while, another Obasanjo unabashed loyalist and comrade-in-arms, David Mark, was pronounced Senate President.

Well, if there is any consolation in the whole monstrous set-up, it may be detected in the growing optimism that Etteh, and all other vestigial remains of the Obasanjo nightmare, are today in several strategic positions solely to continue reminding us of the primitive state of our politics. By their predictable failure of character and leadership, they would, hopefully, succeed in awakening in us the capacity to feel deeply mortified that even in Africa today, Nigeria appears to be the only nation still left behind in what is clearly the slimy pit of jungle politics. So, as Etteh and Co. play their level in our politics and governance, they can only help to continually shock us into the harsh realization of the extent of our country’s backwardness, and our folly in resigning ourselves to the insidious dictations of a few men of tunnel vision and unwholesome intentions, who, having conquered the nation by force of arms, have imposed on us our fourth eleven as leaders, for the simple reason that they can always be trusted to place their narrow interests over and above those of the nation. No, wonder Nigeria has become a perpetual embarrassment to Africa and the entire Black world.

I am not surprised at Etteh’s strange understanding of the essence of public office. She is only playing her level. To expect her to ascribe to some higher ideals in leadership and politics would amount to stretching her modest intellectual and moral properties beyond their malleable limits. For her, public office is just one more prized opportunity to play the “big lady” and wallow in profligacy at public expense, nothing more, nothing less. Although, only a marginal few may have had any high expectations of Etteh, when the foul news, however, hit the nation last week that she had awarded a contract of N628 million for the renovation of her official mansion and that of her Deputy, Babangida Nguroje, most people were shocked beyond words; she had done worse than anyone had thought her capable of. Now, how can someone, with any trace of humanity in her, indulge in this kind of vulgar and offensive squander-mania at a time Nigerians are groaning under the crushing burden of unspeakable hardship? What kind of brazen advertisement of insufferable callousness is the Speaker of the House of Representatives enacting in a country, in which seventy percent of the citizenry live below poverty level? How can someone betray that kind of insensitivity and light-mindedness in a country whose larger population have remained under the torment and trauma of abject poverty, caused by massive corruption and leadership failure? Does this not amount to undisguised provocation? How can anyone who claims to be a mother flaunt that kind of cruelty and heartlessness? I am sure that the women who rejoiced last June that strategic responsibilities in governance had, with Etteh’s Speakership, begun to enter the female territory have been soaked with untold embarrassment since last week.

As the nation tried to recover from the shock of that devastating disclosure, a clarification emerged from the House of Representatives. No, it was not N628 million that was spent on the renovation of the Speaker’s mansion, it was a mere N238 million! Now, I do not know which one I find more offensive, the initial report of the contract scandal or the disgusting clarification from the House of Representatives? Somebody out there should, please, help me. If the mere renovation of a house gulped the intimidating sum of N238 million (assuming we accept the annoying version of the House), how much was actually spent in building the house in the first place? What is the justification for re-renovating a house that was recently renovated, in 2003? Are we witnessing a case of clear diversion of public fund under the cover of spurious house renovation, or is this merely another manifestation of delusion of grandeur propelling someone to flaunt her new status as House Speaker and gratify some base craving to spend public money with characteristic wantonness? May I ask, of what use has Etteh been able to prove she is to the nation to make her muster the effrontery to indulge in such brazen squander-mania? From where do these creatures usually crawl out? What new ideas has Madam Speaker enriched legislative process with since she began to encumber the ground as House leader? Are we paying all this money for the benumbing dullness, frustrating drabness, and unpardonable perfunctoriness that have naturally accompanied her to the business of legislation, which have turned that arm of government into a very huge boring spectacle?

Last Thursday, Vanguard published a breakdown of the expenditures the Speaker and her small gaggle of squander-maniacs were alleged to have made these past few days. This is how the paper stated it: “Money spent on the projects —N628 million; Money approved for the renovation of the Speaker’s residence — N232 million; Money spent on the renovation of the Deputy Speaker’s residence — N238.852 million; Money spent on the purchase of 10 Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles — N172.6 million.”

By my rough calculation, the whole money involved here is nearly N700 million. What are Etteh and her people doing with Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles? Have these people totally wiped off the notion of service from public office? Is public office in Nigeria merely an all expense-paid very costly, luxury holiday resort, where you merely enjoy yourself at someone else’s expense, and contribute nothing in return? How can any nation make progress with these clearly light-minded characters in-charge of its affairs? Now, as if the nation has not bled enough from Madam Speaker’s excesses and splurge, her pursuit of wild fancies and vanity drove her mind to the United States where she planned to mark in grand style her 54th birthday. Unfortunately, before the great party could take place, a keen-eyed news organ broke the story, and as condemnations of her excessive craving for vanity rang out from across the country, her aides changed the story, and began to tell those who cared to listen that she was in the United States for a “medical check-up”. Although, she still went ahead to have her now scaled down party in Bowie, Maryland, the explanation we are now being inundated with is that what took place was an impromptu party, put in place for her by a relation. Now if the party was an impromptu affair, how come as much as ten federal lawmakers, the Ogun State House Speaker, Mrs. Titi Oseni, and several other public officers, were sighted at the venue? There were also reports that, due to the great condemnations that had greeted the party at home, some of the lawmakers who had come to wine, dine and dance away had stayed put in their hotels. Were all these people also in the United States at that time for their own medical check-ups? Who is underwriting the bill for all this revelling and gratification of vanity? By the way, if Madam Speaker is going for medical check-up in the US, should she be accompanied by a battery of aides? And at whose expense?

In its editorial of Monday, Daily Independent was deeply pained that “shocking developments like these can only confront Nigerians with the rude, painful reality that they are yet to achieve a clean break from the nation’s decadent past, when such ennobling notions like accountability, responsible and prudent management of public resources were totally alien to public officers.” It is reassuring that the Presidency is reportedly, already probing the scandalous expenditures. The probe must be thorough and should retain the capacity to ask deep and searching questions. If in less than three months in office, the nation is witnessing this magnitude of obscene financial recklessness, wouldn’t the entire treasury become empty if this set of vain fellows is allowed to remain in-charge for a few more months? Incidentally, in his attempt to defend Etteh, a principal officer of the House had implicated President Yar’Adua by alleging that the president was aware of the scandalous contract awards. So, the current probe is important to the president as it is to the nation. It will give the Presidency the opportunity to clarify the situation. In any case, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) cannot point to any immunity clause as a hindrance now. It was also alleged that the house of the Senate President, David Mark was renovated with about N450 million. Although, the Senate leadership has denied this, only a thorough probe can tell the nation the truth about the actual situation.

It is true that only very few Nigerians have faith in the noise being presently made by Etteh’s colleagues in the House. No one is taking their threats of “getting to the root of the matter” or impeachment seriously. The impression out there is that once they are settled now, the whole noise would die down. It has happened several times before. But President Yar’Adua, on his part, must be wary of validating the fears that himself, Ribadu and the Speaker owe their offices to one godfather, and that after a little period of mesmerizing the nation with spurious probes and threats of probes, the whole thing would simply be “amicably” settled as a “family affair” at some cozy spot at a multi-billion-naira farm in Ogun State. If that happens, it can only underline the fears that nothing has changed, no matter what anyone continues to tell Nigerians. And that would be very sad indeed.

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