Puny Men, Vendors of Impunity

Oladimeji Bankole’s official title is speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives. He should be versed in the refined art of lawmaking.

Unofficially, however, Bankole appears to be an expert in matters of pugilism. Last June, he presided over a session of the House that degenerated into an all-out brawl. That shoving, clawing, knuckle-throwing and clothe-tearing spectacle has since become a top draw on youtube.

Bankole seems set to move from the sidelines – as a manager of legislator-brawlers – to covet the very title of Nigeria’s lightweight boxing champion. Last week, Bankole reportedly forced his way into a bus carrying Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State, and – as Americans would say – tried to mix it up with the governor.

From all indications, speaker/boxer Bankole was miffed that the governor had schemed him out of a ceremony to commission an “overhead bridge” in Ota, Ogun State. Various newspaper accounts suggest that Bankole had worked to appropriate funds to jumpstart the abandoned project and see to its completion.

There’s no point recapitulating the details of that whole unseemly drama – Nigerian newspapers and websites have given fulsome accounts of it, complete with photographs. It’s enough to point out that the near-fisticuffs between Daniel and Bankole merely added to the bulging album illustrating how puny men (and women) posing as Nigerian leaders sow and fertilize impunity in the country.

Gbenga Daniel’s conduct at the so-called commissioning was nothing short of childish. He was reported to have spoken derisively about Bankole. NEXT reported the governor saying, “Tell the Speaker to stop claiming responsibility for the construction…The project was started by the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and we want to thank him.”

It is no secret that there’s no love lost between the speaker and the governor of his home state. Both men appear riven by a sharp dispute over the matter of Daniel’s successor. There’s a speculation that Bankole wants to come down from Abuja, where he’s been a decidedly wretched speaker, to assume the post of gubernatorial lord in Abeokuta. Daniel, a mediocre governor by most accounts, is determined that Bankole must not succeed him.

In the fashion of Nigerian politicians, neither man would leave the matter in the hands of the voters. No, they must battle each other – and bludgeon the indigenes of the state – to a submission.

If proof were needed of both men’s political puniness, we need look no further than at the project whose commissioning provided both occasion and theatre for their feud. Here, I intend to extensively borrow from Pius Adesanmi whose piece, titled “The Grass Beneath Their Feet,” captured the real tragedy of last week’s face-off between Bankole and Daniel. As Adesanmi reminded us, “Some of the funny characters in that bus were recently in South Africa wasting our money on their world cup safari and partying in a Johannesburg mansion bought with money that Lucky Igbinedion stole from us; they all junket regularly in Euro-America; they compete with Arab oil sheikhs and Hollywood royalty for choice property in Dubai and the French Riviera.”
Adesanmi continued: “In all those places, they see postmodern 21st century infrastructure. The infrastructure that people of their ilk have had the vision to put in place in those places is what attracts them in the first place. That is why they all steal so much. Yet, these corrupt and shameless agbayas – everyone inside that bus – all carried their sirens and annoying convoys to Otta to commission an ordinary flyover bridge in the 21st century…It is a sad and sobering sign of our backwardness that while many countries in Africa are on the train to join the rest of the world in the 21st century, it still takes members of the Federal Executive, the Federal legislature, and the Governor and several commissioners in one state to commission just one average flyover bridge in Nigeria.”

Then Adesanmi rung in this keynote: “That is an entire day of work wasted by Gbenga Daniel on a needless commissioning jamboree.”

That Bankole would insist on taking his turn on the podium to celebrate a non-starter of a project speaks volumes about the quality of his vision. He’s of a kind with most Nigerian politicians who seek, as Adesanmi indicated, to bask in comforts and luxuries produced by other people but are themselves bereft of sound, creative ideas.

Bankole’s desultory credentials strike me as particularly sad because of the circumstances in which he emerged as speaker. His ascendancy came in October of 2007 after former Speaker Patricia Etteh was forced to step down. Etteh had devoted more than six hundred million naira to spruce up two official residences and buy cars. On November 5, 2007, I wrote: “Considering the depth of social misery in Nigeria, Etteh ought to have recoiled in horror the moment she peeked at the renovation’s price tag. She should not have squandered such an Olympian amount on her comfort. Not in a country that is, for most practical purposes, roadless, hospitalless, waterless, electricityless.”

I accused Etteh of compounding “the error of financial recklessness with political arrogance,” and stated that her “obstinacy grounded the business of the house, and on two occasions triggered free-for-all fisticuffs that might have served as excellent advertisement for the World Wrestling Entertainment.”

To my shame, I waxed optimistically about Bankole’s tenure as speaker. I wrote: “Etteh’s intransigence, while ill advised, has produced a collateral dividend. When the members sat down to the business of electing Etteh’s successor, they resoundingly rejected the candidate who bore the ruling party’s imprimatur. Instead, they settled for Oladimeji Bankole, a highly educated member, the kind of man in whose company Etteh’s chief sponsor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, takes little delight. In demurring from the party line, the members served notice, one hopes, of a house awakening to a new sense of its independence.”

As I went back and read my words of advice to Bankole I wondered: Was it naïve to expect a lettered Bankole to prove a significantly better speaker than Etteh, an intellectual rustic? In November 2007, I had written: “Speaker Bankole would do well to avoid the pitfalls that an insouciant Etteh fell into. Nigerians deserve a speaker who owes his elevation not to chumminess to Obasanjo but to the possession of sound legislative acumen. They deserve a speaker who is seized by a vision of how to deploy law-making to solve real problems. Though presiding over an undistinguished chamber, most of whose members have questionable mandate, Mr. Bankole must set clear legislative agenda.
“If the new speaker must approve any contracts, he had better ensure that the letter and spirit of due process are met. In fact, the speaker ought to champion the full establishment and empowerment of the Bureau for Public Procurement. This bureau, when fully functional, should assume the role of overseeing all aspects of government contracts. Acting as a clearing house, the bureau would ensure that all public sector contracts are properly advertised, that the bidding process is transparent, that contracts are not unduly inflated but stay within justifiable limits, and that bids are evaluated with professionally sound criteria.”

Rather than toe the lines I suggested, Bankole was content to fall in with the grubbing culture that reigns in Abuja. He has distinguished himself by insisting on every perk and plum of his office, but without a corresponding interest in advancing the well being of Nigerians. He has given ammunition to those who insist that, wh

en it comes to greed and self-aggrandizement, there’s no difference between an “educated” Nigerian politician and an unlettered one.

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