What manner of representation is this?

by Joel Nwokeoma

“As I look to Nigeria, I see clearly that one of the most virulent features of democracy is our prostrate parliament… filled with clueless parliamentarians who (owe their emergence to dubious elections)… and should have no business with the seriousness associated and expected in lawmaking. Worse still is their gross inability to discharge the two other aspects of their responsibility: representation and oversight.”

The other day, I had a lengthy discussion with a Nigerian medical practitioner who returned to the country after spending many years abroad. He narrated to me an interesting encounter he had with his former landlord while he lived in the United Kingdom: Discovering one day that the lights in his flat were not working, he approached the man to lay complaints and implore him to do something about it.

The man, he told me, looked him in the face and instead asked him to direct his complaints to the Member of Parliament (MP) representing the neighbourhood, where he resided in the congress, who would, in turn, approach the power providers on his behalf. The MP exists, he was told, to serve the citizens when confronted with such and other challenges.

Coming from a background like Nigeria’s where political office holders, especially those at the various legislative houses, are only seen around the people during election periods and hold the electorate in perpetual disdain, he said he did not know how the MP would respond to him, especially as he was not a British citizen. To his surprise and delight, he recounted that he later met the MP in his Constituency office one wintry afternoon, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, the MP took his matter to the power providers who came promptly to fix the problem in his flat. This is not saying anything about the profuse apology the MP offered him for the inconveniences he suffered while all these lasted.

Can any Nigerian among the many who are daily buffeted by sundry poor service providers ever walk into the office of any parliamentarian anywhere in the country and get heard and helped in any way? Do most Nigerians even know the constituency offices of their so-called representatives? In what form then can we continue to lay claim to democratic governance when the interests of the electorate and the people in general cannot be represented in practical terms by their so-called representatives? The above quote by Uche Igwe, a Nigerian scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, USA reflects the Nigerian experience.

One instance might suffice here. Over a year ago, the residents of Eyinogun Street in Oshodi area of Lagos reportedly contributed money to procure a new transformer to replace an old one only for the PHCN to demand that unless the same weary residents paid them, the transformer would not be installed. This is despite claims by the PHCN that it distributes and installs transformers free-of-charge to its consumers.

As I write, the transformer is yet to be installed even though it had been mounted on a platform because the residents are not willing to play ball any more, with attendant consequences. This neighbourhood has a councillor, state and federal legislators, yet none has come to their aid. Perhaps, they are waiting for the forthcoming elections for them to come campaigning and promising. This same scenario plays itself out all across the country.

The world over, representative democracy, as a system of government, is preferred over others because it is premised on the assumption that, like Jeremy Bentham enthused, “The greatest happiness for the greatest number of the people” is the overriding preoccupation of those in government. This explains why the clamour for democratic governance by many is seen as a sure way to engendering national development, prosperity and growth through effective citizen representation.

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s democratic experience since 1999 has not yielded the much spoken “democratic dividends” to the people. This is not so much because Nigeria’s democracy is at its “nascent” stage, as often said, as it is in the failure of the operators of the system, especially the elected representatives in the parliament, to serve the people well. The result has been most disheartening. A 2004 report of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development noted with dismay that, “Our findings show that in the last five years, the poverty level in Nigeria is on the increase. From less than 50 per cent living below the poverty line in 1999, more than 70 per cent are now living in absolute poverty.” Recent reports by other agencies point to the deterioration of development indicators in the country.

It is argued that a combination of theft of public funds by public office holders and unspeakable systemic corruption accentuated by the failure of the lawmakers at all levels to perform oversight functions have conspired to make living in Nigeria a nightmarish adventure for many. With collapsed infrastructure, high inflation and ineptitude at all levels of government tugging at another end, Nigerians appear abandoned to the most wasteful democracy ever known to mankind. This is not helped by a buccaneering bunch of lawmakers that care less about the citizens.

For instance, at a time most people in Lagos State are complaining about the poor state of public institutions and collapse of most roads in the state with medical doctors in public hospitals staying at home for about three months on strike, the members of the State House of Assembly are preoccupied now with purchasing new vehicles for themselves six months to the end of their legislative term.

Recently, media reports said that the Lagos lawmakers unanimously adopted a motion by the Majority Leader, Kolawole Taiwo, approving the sum of N348.8million for the procurement of new vehicles for themselves and their principal officers. To show the importance they attached to their own interests, the motion to procure the vehicles was the only business conducted by the lawmakers for the day after they had bizarrely stepped down a presentation on the Lagos State Coroner’s System to be made by Babatunde Ogala. Selfishness has no better description! Interestingly, each of the lawmakers already has a 2007 Toyota Camry as official car while the Speaker and Deputy Speaker have Sport Utility Vehicles.

If the Lagos lawmakers had similarly promptly attended to the affairs of governance in the state, it is possible resident doctors in Lagos would not have stayed that long in their recent 13-week strike that resulted in the closure of public hospitals and clinics leading to the needless deaths of many residents. And, perhaps, the roads in the state would not have been in such poor condition.

The Lagos lawmakers were probably inspired by their colleagues at the National Assembly who unilaterally raised their allocations in the 2009 budget from the N64.17 billion proposed by the President to N111.3 billion. And, as Prof. Itse Sagay revealed recently, increased their allowances and salaries so that each member of the House Representatives is said to earn N204 million ($1.45 million) per annum while each senator smiles home with N240 million ($1.7 million) per annum, in what he aptly termed “a cruel anomaly in the country’s democratic governance.” A fact corroborated by the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who disclosed that the National Assembly gulps 25 per cent of government’s revenue spending annually.

Sadly, while the lawmakers have been very mindful of their “bellies”, the relevant laws that could have helped in fast-tracking national development, such as the Petroleum Industry Bill, Freedom of Information Bill, National Transport Commission Bill and Anti-terrorism Bill, among others, are still gathering dusts at the shelves. This is not talking about the 319 bills report

edly “abandoned” by the Reps since 2007 while outdated laws like the 1955 Railway Act, the Petroleum Act and the Land Use Act that need to be repealed are overlooked.

A legislature that is not alive to its fundamental responsibilities is every democratic society’s major scourge. Our current sad experience is a function of the atrocious electoral process that put undeserving individuals in critical positions; who represent themselves more than the people. With effective representation, Nigeria’s democracy would not have become a laughing stock and irritant to many Nigerians as it is now.

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