Quiz for lawmakers: Can you spell your name?

By Levi Obijiofor

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Do educational qualifications of National Assembly members accurately reflect their ability to engage in robust and informed debate? In fact, to what extent do academic qualifications of federal legislators serve as an accurate barometer of the quality of debate that takes place in the legislative house, including the nature of bills introduced in the Assembly? Does the possession of academic qualifications shape the moral character of the men and women elected into the National Assembly? Do academic degrees, diplomas and certificates tell us how legislators would approach the business of law-making? These are contentious questions, particularly in this age in which there exist a large number of dodgy institutions that manufacture and award degrees, diplomas and certificates to enthusiastic buyers.

Although the possession of a minimum or basic academic qualification should serve as a prerequisite for anyone to be elected into parliament (whether at federal or state level), I would argue that the debate should also extend to the moral character of the legislators, not just their academic qualifications.

The connection between possession of academic qualifications by National Assembly members and their performance was given priority status last week when Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu mocked his colleagues with the allegation that some of them couldn’t spell or scribble their names correctly. He acknowledged the lack of intellectual and academic sophistication among men and women elected to make laws for the country. He queried their ability to engage in informed debate and their capacity to subject to critical analysis issues of national significance that are brought before the National Assembly for deliberation.

Ekweremadu took a dim view of the educational attributes of members of the National Assembly, with particular reference to those from the southeast. He expressed surprise at the calibre of lawmakers elected to represent the southeast zone of the country. He said he was astounded that despite the educational advancement of the southeast, “we still send to the National Assembly some people who can barely write their names”.

That claim, in anyone’s language, was an open indictment of parliamentarians. It was a backhanded commentary and an adverse character assessment deliberately directed by the Deputy Senate President against his peers in the National Assembly. Ekweremadu spoke as a special guest at the 2012 Zik Lecture series arranged by the Anambra State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.

For many years the question had persisted: do academic qualifications help to mould the personality and ethical conduct of men and women who make laws for the good governance of the nation? The question is relevant because the public tends to hold federal lawmakers in high esteem. By the parliamentary positions of privilege they hold, members of the National Assembly are viewed (even if wrongly) as symbols of ethical behaviour. The society expects them to live as role models whose exemplary lives could easily be copied by everyone.

It is difficult to argue that National Assembly members who made headline news because of their dishonourable conduct or slapstick performances were exclusively those with lower or no academic qualifications. As some people regularly argue, common sense is not determined by academic qualification.

The lack of model political leaders has been one of the fundamental problems that Nigeria has had to contend with over the 52 years of her history. Although academic qualification of National Assembly members should be seen as a matter of national significance, it is also important that the nation should look beyond qualifications and cast an eye on the moral character of the people who make laws for the country.

The cultivated outlook and behaviour of members of the National Assembly, I would argue, is a reflection of the political and social structures through which they emerge. The nation has been so unlucky. Since the nation returned to democracy in 1999, the image of the House of Representatives and the Senate has been tarnished by high levels of corruption among members and by the undistinguished conduct of their leaders. Consider these instances.

In 1999, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alhaji Ibrahim Salisu Buhari, was convicted by an Abuja Chief Magistrate’s Court for certificate forgery and perjury. On the day he vacated his seat in humiliation, Buhari told members of the House of Representatives in teary eyes: “I apologise to you. I apologise to the nation. I apologise to my family and friends for all the distress I have caused them. I was misled in error by zeal to serve the nation. I hope the nation will forgive me and give me the opportunity to serve again.”

Before he dismounted from his high horse, he had vigorously and pretentiously denied that he had done anything wrong. Despite consistent media reports about his dodgy ways, he remained steadfast in his claim that he did not intentionally serve the nation twisted and fanciful stories about his age and his academic qualifications. He even threatened to sue the newspaper that exposed his record of lies. His resignation was sudden but it marked the end of one man’s ambition to achieve through deception what he could not achieve through hard work and persistence.

By his conduct, Ibrahim Salisu Buhari brought the office of Speaker to national and international disgrace. He disparaged the character of members of the House of Representatives and lowered the esteem of National Assembly members in the judgment of the public.

The other day, the disgraced former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, stood at the auditorium of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, to address students on the virtues of good leadership. Bankole showed no shame when he told the audience that lack of good leaders had jeopardised Nigeria’s journey to greatness. Without blinking, this man who is still wearing corruption allegations on his shirt sleeves, said: “In Nigeria, as in most parts of Africa, many leaders, especially at the political level, are preoccupied with succeeding themselves that often, they leave a leadership vacuum or confusion behind them.”

His listeners cheered. But Bankole had not finished his tales by moonlight. He continued: “I need to comment on the modalities for choosing leaders, especially, those that occupy second-in-command positions. Everyone will agree with me that the lack of planned succession is what results in accidental leadership in our national life.”

What a miserable remark by a man whose reputation has been shredded by numerous court cases founded on corruption allegations. Bankole represents human tragedy. He was once the Number 4 citizen of Nigeria. But he has since fallen from that position in a scandalous manner. Bankole is not fit to speak on leadership qualities in Nigeria because he set up and sustained a gross record as Speaker of the House. Additionally, he is currently facing charges of corrupt enrichment and financial transgressions which he allegedly committed when he was the leader of the House.

Against this background, it is inappropriate and disgusting that a university should invite a man whose reputation has been shredded by alleged corrupt practices to give a public address to staff and students on leadership qualities. Bankole did not leave behind him a desirable record as a good leader. He failed the basic test of leadership. He supervised his own spectacular fall from his noble position. He abused and misused the privileges that were accorded to him as the Speaker of the House. He left office in shame.

Bankole the man who was once regarded highly in Abuja is facing numerous charges of financial impropriety, including allegations that he fraudulently raised contract money to the amount of N894 million. All these are separate from another alleged N10 billion loan scandal. Apart from Bankole, it is important to keep in mind that former Speaker Patricia Olubunmi Etteh, who preceded Bankole, was also toppled by corruption allegations. The case of Alhaji Farouk Lawan is most recent.

The Senate has also been infected by official misconduct committed by its leaders. Here is one case. Former senate president Evan Enwerem was derided publicly in 1999 by allegations that cast aspersions on his character and his academic qualifications. Enwerem denied all allegations, even as charges of perjury and certificate forgery against him dominated public discussion on the floor of the Senate. Following his dramatic downfall after five months in office, he told a press conference on Tuesday, 23 November 1999, that his removal was plotted by his unnamed enemies. He said: “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.”

All these parliamentary leaders possessed academic qualifications of some sort. Still they behaved badly. So, it is easy to understand considerable public resentment over the way elected parliamentarians have conducted themselves appallingly. How would academic qualifications have helped to shape the moral behaviour of these parliamentarians? This question is open to debate.


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