“Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt,” an old African proverb cautions.
It is to this wisdom that I return after a meal these days when I reflect on the chaos in Nigeria’s National Assembly.
Almost overnight, Senator Bukola Saraki has changed several political dynamics by seizing control of the Senate, Nigeria’s upper legislative chamber. His party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) was working on a plan for the distribution of such key posts, and Saraki knew it did not include him as the nation’s third most powerful political figure.
Saraki knew that, but politically, he was trained in the dark arts of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), from which he had defected in 2014 along with some other Senators.
From that school of rattlesnakes, Saraki knew also what the APC had yet to establish: when you haggle over ground pepper with money in your hands, you do not close your eyes.
He knew-from 15 years during which the Senate was little more than an office of the executive branch-not just about cops and robbers, but about robbers and other robbers. He knew that APC, as an institution, was only an amateur: people did not even know how to sharpen long butcher knives, let alone how to use them to hunt deer at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Saraki calculated: anyone who wants to speak to the man who is sitting down is the one who bends down to his ear.
And so, he went out on the morning of June 9 and acquired the office of President of the Senate. In his account of the events, Saraki describes it as having been fair; that he had merely campaigned among his colleagues. His narrative is that he was elected unopposed by an alliance of APC and PDP senators.
The former governor does not say most of his party members present were at a scheduled event somewhere else. It was an uncanny manoeuvre, but he had the “support” of his friends of the Peoples Democratic Party.
He offers the convoluted account of having been alerted he would be abducted so as not to be available for the election, and how he then smuggled himself into the NASS premises four hours before the inauguration of the National Assembly and hid in a car until the election.
““Before I knew it, my election had come and gone,” he stated, adding, “That is the truth.”
The truth is that even a market women election is never so simplistic. But let me back up a little bit. Bukola Saraki owes his ascendancy to his father, Olusola Saraki, who was a key figure in the National Party of Nigeria in the Second Republic.
When his father emerged Senate leader in 1979, Bukola was a teenager studying in England, being raised on a diet of privilege and entitlement. Returning from England in the late 1980s as a medical doctor, he was made a Director of the infamous Societe Generale Bank of Nigeria (SGBN), where his father owned a controlling stake.
The SGBN drama is well-known to Nigerians as the story of greed and graft, principally on behalf of the Sarakis. No year in the past two decades has been without new or repeated allegations of fraud relating to SGBN, featuring this powerful family, and it is mostly responsible for the negative public perception of Bukola today.
Nonetheless, with his father’s influence and the long reach of the PDP, Bukola served two terms as governor of Kwara State, beginning in 2003. He then became Senator in 2011, setting up the Senate drama of 2015.
I do not contest Bukola’s ambition to be Senate President, or even the fact that he out-manoeuvred his own party. Politics is not a church or a mosque, and he did what it is he had to do to be able to put up his current sign, “Senate President and Chairman of the 8th National Assembly”.
The problem is that he appends to those titles the following claim, “Committed to Transparency and Accountability”.
To begin with, had that claim been true, he would not have needed the opposition for himself on June 9. There is nothing transparent or accountable about the tactics he deployed in league with the PDP
Transparency and accountability?
I would support Saraki if by this slogan he is asserting he will clean up his image once and for all. A casual research of Bukola Saraki in the past 16 years offends the senses with unflattering reports of fraud allegations and police investigations.
The argument is easy to make that despite the assorted allegations he continues to face, he has not been convicted, and that a man is innocent until convicted. The argument is also valid that not only is justice slow in Nigeria, it is easy to purchase and to frustrate. Nigeria is a society where a former governor is, in practice, almost beyond legal reach; it is when they go abroad that they may be embarrassed in court or jailed. One of them had to escape another country dressed as a woman; he was subsequently granted state pardon for his corruption conviction by another former governor who himself had been indicted on corruption charges while in that office…and yet went on to become president, somehow.
What this means is that in Nigeria, the innocent and the guilty are often lumped together. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Senate: a representative institution featuring an unrepresentative army of vicious former governors, pedophiles, certificate-forgers and money-doublers. Only within that Upper House might things appear normal to members; outside it, Nigerians are not deceived.
By the same thinking, the Senate is the perfect place for Bukola Saraki to demonstrate his commitment not to a slogan, but to the true quality of his character as a man. By anointing himself Senate president, he has issued an open challenge to the country.
But this is far less about Bukola Saraki than it is about the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In a responsible democracy, people of questionable integrity work hard to avoid attention; they are discouraged from sensitive offices because of the close scrutiny they attract.
Not Nigeria, where we would rather send people who have no respect for law to make law. Perhaps there ought to be no surprise, therefore, that our senators hold the principle of character or integrity in contempt. Perhaps it is no surprise they have no concern for the very distinct possibility of their institution being brought to ridicule and embarrassment should the Senate President be convicted by a court.
For now, Saraki continues to hang on his door, “transparency and accountability,” but that is a slogan that is now more about the Senate than its president. But every physician knows that slogans do not an ailment treat; a perfume may mask decay but does not eliminate it.
Nigeria: Be careful when you accept a shirt from a naked man.