In a country long used to military dictatorship, it is inevitable that democracy will often expose the worst in men and women who represent us in parliament. Ever since the return of democracy in May 1999, there have been staggering allegations of financial impropriety and fraudulent conduct involving high profile leaders of the National Assembly, in particular the senate leadership and the hierarchy of the House of Representatives. Most recently on Tuesday, 22 June 2010, undistinguished members of the House of Representatives demonstrated the elasticity of their biceps when they engaged in a brawl over whether or not to investigate allegations of financial misconduct levelled by their peers against Speaker Dimeji Bankole.
That disgraceful behaviour, certainly not the first in the short history of parliamentary democracy in Nigeria, destroyed images of what the public has come to understand as civilised procedure for lawmaking. All this is not to suggest, though, that the act of using kickboxing skills to settle legislative quarrels is restricted to Nigerian parliaments. In 1995, Ghanaian leader Jerry Rawlings openly rough-handled his elderly deputy at a meeting of the cabinet in Accra.
Three years ago, members of the House of Representatives traded insults and punches on the floor of the House following damning allegations (later confirmed by a House panel) that the Speaker at the time -- Patricia Olubunmi Etteh – had endorsed outrageous contracts worth N628 million for the renovation of her official residence and that of her deputy, Babangida Nguroye. Additionally, Etteh was accused of approving the purchase of 12 cars. Following weeks and months of public clamour for a judicial inquiry into the scandal and Etteh's contemptible silence over the matter, violence erupted in the House during which a member collapsed and later died.
In late October 2007, Etteh was forced to quit as Speaker of the House after five months of political grandstanding. Etteh's short tenure as leader of the House was noteworthy for the inappropriate way she handled the crisis. In both instances involving Etteh and Bankole, raucous debate and the use of authoritarian methods to restrict freedom of expression by other members of the House showed that Etteh and Bankole failed outright to command the respect of House members.
The way in which Etteh, who resigned in late 2007, and Bankole, who succeeded her, handled allegations of financial misconduct directed at them at various times demonstrated that they lacked effective management skills and good judgment. Although Bankole is still battling to repair the damage done by Etteh's awkward leadership, his conduct in the past one year shows he has already failed to learn from his predecessor's experiences. The Speaker of parliament is expected to serve as a unifier of the House, not a politician who rules by creating divisions within the House.
If Bankole is a statesman by any means, he should have set up mechanisms to recall the suspended members of the House and to reconcile both camps. The fact that he has not done so shows that bitterness and vengeance remain the defining elements of our political system. Of course, it is likely that the legal action taken by the suspended House members may have constrained the onset of peace initiatives. Yet, this is not a sufficient and valid reason to justify the prolonged division within the House.
Whatever happens, public outrage over the dishonourable conduct of federal legislators is justified. By the parliamentary positions of power they hold, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and indeed the entire leadership are viewed as symbols of moral authority. By their conduct, they set examples that are likely to be emulated by the rest of society.
The history of the House of Representatives since 1999 has been a chronicle of legislative disasters, including pathetic stories that range from the ludicrous to the downright mischievous. Before Patricia Etteh and Dimeji Bankole, there was the scandal that sullied the image of another Speaker – Salisu Buhari. On 22 July 1999, Salisu Buhari was convicted by Chief Magistrate Bulama in Abuja for forgery and perjury but he was later granted official pardon by Olusegun Obasanjo. The state pardon granted to Salisu Buhari effectively deleted from the court records his criminal conviction. Nevertheless, the guilty verdict showed that he knowingly committed an odious crime in order to realise his pet dream of attaining high office. By his conduct, he brought the office of Speaker to national and international disrepute. He denigrated the image of the National Assembly and lowered further the already dwindling esteem accorded to federal legislators.
As I argued in a previous essay, if Nigeria wants to rebuild its international image, it must start by punishing high profile politicians who engage in international and domestic fraud. Salisu Buhari was saved by Obasanjo, the man who appropriates the right to determine right and wrong behaviour. No wonder the press repeatedly mocked Obasanjo's anti-corruption campaign which floundered while corruption spread widely even in the front yard of his Aso Rock residence between 1999 and 2007.
If the House of Representatives turned itself into a house of villains and scandals, the Senate leadership has also had its share of negative publicity. Within two years, the Senate lost two presidents under circumstances that were less than dignifying. Remember former Senate presidents Evan Enwerem and Chuda Okadigbo (now deceased). The Senate presidency of the two men was marked by contrasting controversies and allegations. Evan Enwerem, who preceded Okadigbo, had a tumultuous time. During the five months he served as Senate president, Enwerem was hounded by serious questions about his character and academic credentials.
Following his impeachment as Senate president and his resumption as an ordinary senator, Enwerem insisted that he had done nothing wrong even as allegations of perjury and certificate forgery swirled around the floor of the Senate. He told a press conference on Tuesday, 23 November 1999, that his removal was an act of conspiracy: "Because my election was not accepted by some powerful elements, every possible machinery was put in place to jeopardise my tenure and give me no breathing space… All the sponsored false allegations against me which were carefully orchestrated and recycled from day-to-day for all of the five months have now achieved the desired effect of hounding me out of office as senate president."
Okadigbo's short term as Senate president saw him gravitate from one crisis to another, ending with the bizarre drama over the missing mace. Even after the Idris Kuta panel released its report on contract awards in the Senate and indicted some Senate leaders, Okadigbo refused to go. Soon after the report of the panel was released, Okadigbo came out with his guns blazing, declaring his innocence and at the same time mocking the contents of the report. That was his major hanging offence.
Amid stacks of allegations of improper conduct, Okadigbo refused to walk out honourably. In Nigeria, people hardly resign from office. They wait till they have been bundled out by a superior authority. In Okadigbo's case, his hands were forced by the resounding but adverse ballot of 81 to 14 votes cast by his peers in the Senate. But Okadigbo's deputy (Haruna Abubakar), and the parliamentary majority leader (Samaila Mamman) jumped rather than allow the Senate to push them. Why Okadigbo refused to resign remained a mystery.
In democratic societies, legislators who occupy positions of authority are expected to show a high level of good behaviour and discretion in the way they handle financial and non-financial matters. Nigerians also expect the same level of responsibility from other politicians, especially the principal officers of the National Assembly. What the country has experienced in the past 11 years has been nothing short of recklessness in the allocation and misuse of national resources, as well as thoughtlessness in the way the National Assembly leadership has tried to justify their actions.
As elected representatives of the people, federal parliamentarians are often perceived (though not by a majority) as the conscience of the nation. Advocates of democracy often say that a bad democracy is better than a good military government. I am not persuaded that Nigeria deserves a bad democracy or even a good military government. It is indeed an oxymoron to talk about a "good" military government. By their nature, military governments are never good for any society. They rule by the force of military decrees. They are not accountable to anyone. The judiciary is neither recognised nor respected. Human rights are abused. Ordinary citizens are arrested and imprisoned arbitrarily. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are constrained. So much for a "good" military government!