These are not the best of times to be an ordinary Nigerian citizen. Hardly a week passes these days without some half-witted douchebag in the rulership upbraiding us for expressing dissatisfaction with the way they are running and ruining our lives. We can ignore the habitual heehawing of ribalds like Doyin Okupe, Labaran Maku, and Reuben Abati and concentrate on some of the more interesting characters in the circles of rulership. There is the archi-corrupt Diezani Allison Madueke, who asked us to shove it with regard to our complaints about fuel subsidy before promptly jetting off to London on a medical safari at our expense. Then came the tragedy of Okoroba and insufferable presidential aides began to crawl out of the woodworks to upbraid Nigerians for asking questions. After tears, after mourning, after regrets, Nigerians began to ask those hard questions required of them by the civic imperative. Nigeria would be truly hopeless if no dissenting and dissentient voices were heard after a brazen, irresponsible privatization of the resources of the Nigerian state by a presidential aide led to the loss of the precious lives of a naval pilot, aides, and two members of the ruling class.
Okoroba has now morphed into its own afterlife of arrogant recrimination of Nigerians by woolly-headed Presidential aides and hangers-on, mostly truculent sidekicks of Oronto Douglas, the principal jamboreelizer and misuser of state resources and the current metaphor of everything that is wrong with the Nigerian presidency. Because of the continuous wetness of the geography behind his ears, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant for Facebook and Twitter, was the first to rush to town, sending his tongue on careless errands of recrimination. This young fellow, who lived in America and was exposed to the best traditions of civic questioning, has naturally forgotten that experience.
After reprimanding Nigerians for asking questions too soon, he was quick to remind us that the cavalcade of helicopters and other expensive modes of transportation to Okoroba were funded by the mourner and his family. If, down the road, Omokri ever manages to achieve the feat of getting dry behind the ears, he will have sufficient time to rue the silliness of inviting questions that are even more pertinent. With his $400,000 annual salary, President Obama is not in the league of those who could visit Nigeria and charter too many helicopters for his local commute. Nigeria is too damn expensive, way beyond Obama’s level. If he visits Nigeria and charters a harem of helicopters for a private jamboree (funeral, wedding, etc), he will face the dire prospect of returning to America to beg Senator Boehner and other obdurate Senate Republicans to approve an emergency salary increase for him. So, how much is Oronto Douglas’s annual salary that he is able to afford the orisirisi chartered air transportation scenario proposed by Omokri in his irresponsible social media outburst? Not to be outdone, one listserv twat, who claims to run “The Jonathan Project”, one of the numerous food-for-the-boys stunts of the Jonathan Presidency, is amok on Nigerian internet listservs, hounding patriotic citizens like Mr. Ibukunolu Alao Babajide and Dr. Valentine Ojo, while justifying the jejune and rationalizing the risible.
I do not mind the lies of these arrogant presidential aides. I mind the fact that outraged Nigerians in our community of conscience have plugged so deeply into their distraction that we are fast losing another occasion to reflect on the broader dimensions of Okoroba in terms of the tragedy’s implication for the struggle for meaning that is the Nigerian Presidency. The disgrace of Okoroba is the Jonathan Presidency – no, make that the Nigerian Presidency – writ large. Precisely because the Nigerian Presidency defines us all, we cannot abandon her meaning, the content of her character, and the stuff she’s made of to the latest group of buccaneers to hold her hostage under the chairmanship of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. I emphasize the latest crop of buccaneers to underscore the fact that the current crop of irresponsible characters emptying the Nigerian Presidency of philosophical content in Aso Rock are merely the latest arrivistes in town. They are no originators of a culture of Presidential irresponsibility that has calcified throughout our postcolonial existence into the singular identity of the Nigerian Presidency.
I am saying in essence that irresponsibility is not just about the habitual demission of individual Presidency actors from the common good and the consequent privatization and diversion of the state and her resources to service their bacchanalian proclivities in any given presidential term in the life of the Nigerian state. I am saying that this has been the only building block of the Nigerian Presidency since her inception. I am saying that what every President and his team do is to strengthen the foundation before adding their own block to the edifice of Presidential irresponsibility. I am saying that irresponsibility is the singular framework from which the quotidian practices of the Nigerian state devolve. To the extent that the Presidency is the apex body of that state, irresponsibility is statecraft in the context of Nigeria’s political agency.
Notice that I called the Presidency the apex “body” of our state. If I were talking about other responsible presidencies, say in America, France, South Africa or Ghana, I would have used the word “institution”. The culture of irresponsibility has never allowed the Nigerian presidency to develop into an institution in the real sense of that word. When, for instance, we speak of the Kennedy White House, the Carter White House, the Bush White House, the Clinton White House, the Obama White House, we know that beyond party affiliation and deep-seated political differences, all of these ‘White Houses’ are connected by their subscription to certain transcendental attributes of American self-fashioning, reducible to the philosophical core of buzzwords like “freedom”, “promise”, “values”, “enterprise”, “can-do”, and the sacrosanct “American dream”. In over two hundred years of existence, the American Presidency has evolved as the first institution of state which immediately embodies these immutable attributes of the American being. The state evolves and behaves in such a way as to project and protect these transcendental values of American-ness. And the American Presidency is an institution because these values are greater and grander than any incumbent President and his team – cabinet and aides.
Contrary to these normative attributes of responsible presidencies, the Nigerian Presidency is a transient, ephemeral embodiment of the egomaniacal idiosyncrasies of the incumbent, his cabinet, his aides, and the political jobbers and hangers-on who constitute the President’s bubble. No philosophical core, no transcendental attribute of Nigerian self-fashioning links the Obasanjo Aso Rock, the Yar’Adua Aso Rock, and the Jonathan Aso Rock in the sense in which I have sketched out what connects successive American White Houses. In the absence of an enduring deontology of responsibility, every Nigerian President and his team approaches Aso Rock not from the perspective of being custodians of the sacred, great, and grand values of the Nigerian people but as guarantors of the immediate prebendal moment of their ilk and political benefactors – even if such benefactors are convicted criminals.
Once they invest the Presidency with this narrow vision, this baser instinct, the President and his aides become greater and grander than the collective will, vision, and aspirations of the Nigerian people. From here, it is open sesame to irresponsibility as statecraft and to crass personalization of the state and her resources. From here, it’s only a matter of time before we get to Okoroba. This is not just pure theoretical talk. When a Presidency is a genuine institution, she recognizes the power and value of symbolism. Presidential symbolism devolves mainly from the personal example of the incumbent. His style, his preferments, his priorities, when collectively adopted and projected by his team, become symbolic expressions of the character of the state. What sort of symbolism have President Jonathan and his team been sending out to the Nigerian people?
The answer is simple. It is the symbolism of galling irresponsibility. You wonder in whose brain the idea of a new Presidential banquet hall – with the attendant metaphors or gorging and bacchanals amidst and impoverished populace – germinated and how a President could have approved such an irresponsible project at this material time; you wonder in whose brain the idea of a brand new N16 billion mansion for the Vice President germinated and how a President could have approved such an irresponsible project at this material time; you wonder how a president comfortably lives with the idea of his weekly Federal Executive Council meetings being a “contract bazaar” (apologies to Sonala Olumhense) where mind-boggling contracts are irresponsibly parceled out to cronies week after week; you wonder what message, what symbolism the Vice President imagines he is putting out there when he marries off two daughters and allows flat screen television sets and laptops to be distributed as souvenirs to wedding guests.
Only yesterday, jamboree weddings of President Yar’Adua’s daughters were the talk of the town. Where are they today? Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. Is Vice President Namadi Sambo aware of the transience of these things? Is he aware of the message of crass and repugnant materialism he is sending to our youth? Does he know that his wedding guests are the same people who were all groveling before Turai Yar’Adua at her daughters’ weddings but will not even greet the same Turai today? Does he know that these same wedding guests will consign those TV sets and laptops to the dustbin whenever they rush to the embrace of the next President and his Vice President? Does he remember that Ojo Maduekwe, an avowed Yar’Adua loyalist who, one could have sworn, would plead to be buried with his principal as the king’s horseman, was screaming and describing himself as a “little Jonathan” even before Yar’Adua’s bones had cooled down sufficiently in the grave? Does Vice President Sambo understand these things? Does he think?
This is what you get when the Presidency is no institution. It becomes a hollow bubble of baser instincts, effete materialism, and outsized egos elevated above the common good. Think of it this way: when was the last time you heard the name of any of President Obama’s immediate White House staff in the public domain? Hardly anything in French politics and culture escapes my radar. Yet, I don’t believe that I know the names of President Hollande’s immediate Elys├ęe staff. I am not sure that any of my friends currently living in France - Yommi Oni, Tunde Biade, Dominic Okutue – can name President Holland’s immediate aides at the Elys├ęe. At the White House, at the Elys├ęe, the President’s aides are just regular, self-effacing civil servants toiling quietly for the people of America and France at the behest of the President. It is highly unlikely that any of them would organize a wedding or a funeral for which the American state or the French state would stand still. It is not imaginable that any of them would organize a personal jamboree that would have State Governors, Ministers, Parliamentarians, etc, abandon their duty posts for the roll call at the venue of the jamboree. And it is absolutely impossible that the resources of the American or French military would be irresponsibly diverted for private purposes because a civilian, a mere aide in the Presidency, is throwing a party. Above all, it is not imaginable that presidential aides in France and America can become overnight billionaires dragooning the state into their private affairs.
Why has this happened in Nigeria? Our presidency not being an institution is only half of the explanation. The other half of the explanation is that once the private bubble of egos is consolidated around the president, the incumbent and those within that bubble become the most powerful custodians of the prebendal system we operate. In this sort of system, even an aide in the presidency becomes the custodian and guarantor of access to the ultimate spoils of office, to be courted like a demi-god by political office holders way beyond his level. This crazy system explains why Governors, Senators, and Ministers abandoned the Nigerian state and outpaced Usain Bolt to Okoroba at the behest of a mere aide of the president. It was never about the funeral of the faithful departed. It was all about nurturing their continuous access to the Presidency-as-guarantor of prebends. Before Oronto Douglas, there were Yar’Adua’s Tanimu Yakubu and Obasanjo’s Andy Uba.
So long as we, the people, fail to sustain the struggle for a redefinition of the Presidency and a constitutional redesigning of her role – she is currently too powerful, so absurdly powerful – Aso Rock will continue to throw up irresponsible presidential houseboys with whom Governors, Ministers, and Senators will have to play footsie in order to guarantee strategic access to the cookie jar. But for the fact that it would amount to asking him to entertain Abu with Abu’s money, I would have joined the calls for Oronto Douglas to be made to cough out the cost of replacing the naval helicopter that we lost before being summarily dismissed from office. But we know that he cannot afford this from his honest salary. It will only provide him with another opportunity to send his hands on an errand into the cookie jar.
All stakeholders in Nigeria’s community of conscience have an urgent struggle at hand. I hope Pastor Tunde Bakare and the Odumakins are listening to the need to place this struggle at the forefront of the preoccupations of the SNG; I hope CACOL, Campaign for Democracy and other genuine civil society groups are listening; I hope the collective children of anger are listening and are prepared to sustain the struggle to redefine the Nigerian presidency in their social media spheres; I hope Nigeria’s progressive columnists are listening; I hope Sahara Reporters, Premium Times, the Nigerian Village Square, and Punch are all listening. They must all listen and act because this phenomenon of irresponsibility as statecraft gives us a jamboree state which profoundly insults all of us in our sovereign Nigerian-ness. The time is now to make it clear to these misbehaving boys and girls in the political class that we are no longer going to tolerate the jamboree instinct which collectively holds them hostage like cocaine addiction insofar as they privatize the Nigerian state to service that instinct.
It’s just that they have no capacity for critical thought. Otherwise, they would be able to see the holistic picture of the Nigerian state which emerges from the following scenarios. When they travel abroad – as is always the case with President Jonathan – it’s a jamboree. When one of them returns from a medical safari abroad as was the case with David Mark, they all abandon their duty posts and troop to the airport for a reception jamboree. One week, they are in Uyo for Akpabio’s 50th birthday jamboree. The following week, they mass-migrated to Kaduna for Namadi Sambo’s TV and laptop wedding jamboree. One week later, they are all in Okoroba for Oronto Douglas’s jamboree. Next week, one of them could wake up and decide to “turn the back” of his great grandfather who died just after the second World War and the same set of characters will use the resources of state to charter helicopters and private jets, abandon the work of the Nigerian people, and head out to Ibadan or Abeokuta for yet another jamboree. It is time for us to make it clear that we’ve had enough of the jamboree state that is Abuja.