The paradox of representation in Nigeria

Members of the Nigerian senate at a plenary

I have observed that election transforms politicians into representatives in any democracy. Every elected representative is the product of aggregate votes by the electorate including the president, members of the Congress/National Assembly, governors, state Assembly members and local officials. The reps are voted to pass laws and ensure the concerns of the masses remains the priority of the government beyond mere populism. Thus all elected are primarily responsible for conveying and defending the yearnings of their constituents. I wonder if many Nigerians are aware of the weight of their ballot and the consequence of their choice of candidates. Do Nigerians believe Abraham Lincoln’s coinage, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet,” as does the cerebral Winston Churchill? Perhaps there is an urgent need for the electorates to be politically socialised to attain the requisite consciousness. This is because a viable representative democracy is determined by the degree of genuine leadership selection process, press freedom and voters’ freedom to choose their representatives.

From my watch post, I see that election seasons are the busiest on the diary of politicians and political parties. During campaigns, aspirants and political parties are at their wooing best to completely capture state power, or at least an influential chunk of it, so as to wield legitimate authority, or position as an inevitable bloc in the political traffic of bargaining, concessioning, cross-carpeting, horse-trading, lobbying and the clamour for relevance throughout the life span of such democratic government.

Since the earliest recorded working democracy, established in the Greek city-state of Athens by Cleisthenes around 508 B.C., global democracy is continually evolving and shaped around municipal peculiarities. However, every democracy possesses basic catholic elements. These include equality, individual liberty, citizen control of the agenda, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Democracy is like weather. Its seasons incorporate political parties, campaigns, elections, coalitions/mergers and “spoils sharing” after electoral victory. All these are intense, whether presidential or parliamentary.

For instance, the United States – reputed as the oldest and most stable representative democracy in the world – is agog with a flurry of activities mostly during the presidential race. There is a deluge of engagements in the media space majorly for providers of interpreting services in broadcast companies. They frenetically chase political rallies, debates, press conferences etc, and report on all platforms to penetrate constituencies and woo support. Basically, Americans abhor “undemocratic” as a strong slur. Nigeria shares congruent and incongruent rituals with the American political culture. Both countries, with diverse culture and vast resource base experience a buzz during campaigns. However, while every American contestant at all levels must participate in a public debate on national and international issues, the same cannot be said of Nigeria. Some candidates shun public debates and still emerge landslide winners!

In Nigeria, seasonal jobs are created as money begin to flow for ‘The Boys’ – a euphemism for thugs who are usually among the political harvesters. It seems an accepted anomaly for the incumbents to shift focus from the economy to politics during mid-term, either to pursue second term agenda or solidify the political dykes around hand-picked successors, depriving the electorates to freely choose their representatives.

Again, the policy milestones of most American presidents outlive them; their achievements have become synonymous with their memories. For example, President J.F. Kennedy (1961-63) is famous for presiding over the Cuban missile crises, and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69) for passing of Civil Rights Legislature, Richard Nixon (1969-74) ended the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan (1980-89) won a substantial tax cut for the American people. George H.W. Bush (1989-93) ended the cold war and led the international coalition to victory in the Gulf War. Barak Obama (2009-16) famously passed the Universal Health Care Act.

Is such trajectory mirrored in Nigeria? I see mainly recycled persons in government. For instance, General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd) was Head of State in 1976-79. Twenty years later, Obasanjo returned as an elected president and served two terms. Ditto General Muhammad Buhari – military Head of State (1983-85). Thirty years later Buhari is now an elected incumbent. Audu Ogbeh who served as President Shehu Shagari’s minister (1979 – 83), is a serving minister today! Others like Prof. Jerry Gana, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, Paul Unongo, Iorcha Ayu, the late Adamu Ciroma are among a leading caste of perennial residents of the corridors of power. Since 1999, the circulation of same set of politicians continues. Names like Atiku Abubakar, Barnabas Gemade, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, Orji Uzor Kalu, Rabiu Kwankwaso, George Akume etc. are living ancestors to incumbent politicians. Some of these persons – retired generals Olusegun Obasanjo, Theophilus Danjuma, Muhammad Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida – belong to the “Class of 1966” soldiers who “won” the Biafra war. Senators David Mark (Benue), Tunde Ogbeha (Kogi), Jonah Jang (Plateau), were “coupists” in 1983 as well as military governors. Most of them were in government before French President, Emmanuel Macron was born!

Our political terrain is fraught with bundles of bewilderments and hangovers. Are the representatives representing the core interests of their constituents? When I traveled to Umuahia last year, I saw “military blockades and garrisons” everywhere. People told me this was only the epilogue of the “Operation Crocodile Smile” waged against supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as unarmed Igbo youths were dehumanised in the muds, in the forests, on the streets, and many lives were lost. Although I followed the news, what I met confirmed the cliche, “seeing is believing.” Come to think of it, I never heard any of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) Abia senators; Theodore Orji (Abia Central), Enyinnaya Abaribe (Abia South), Mao Ohuabunwa (Abia North), or Abia members of the House of Representatives openly rebuke the assaults or its excesses. Not even their Governor, Okezie Ipkeazu. So I asked myself, who are these representatives representing?

Similarly, Benue State is reportedly the Nigerian capital for human slaughter by the Fulani herdsmen who also reportedly wrecked havoc in Adamawa, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Kaduna, Kogi, Kwara, Plateau, Taraba as well as Zamfara states. Sadly, it has been majorly non-elected voices of the Catholic Church, Human Rights activists, Femi Falana, and Dr. Oby Ezekwesili who strongly condemned the pogrom-like scourge. Although, I thought this was a lifeline for the Benue Senators David Mark and Barnabas Gemade (South and North-East), to demonstrate that they are both opposition stalwarts and dependable representatives.

Like their Abia PDP counterparts, both goofed the “opportunity” to floor the All Progressives Congress (APC) for its gaffes. Also, the deafening silence from George Akume (APC Senator – Benue North-West) raised questions about the paradox of democratic representation in Nigeria.

The spasms of brinksmanship and disrespect for the electorate is brazenly on display to the whole world even as you read this. While “saving our democracy,” politicians exit, and return to parties repeatedly, then provide media justifications for their political nomadism. Party renegades simply dump party where their aspirations sit on precarious safety. Political parties are re-christened or a faction of such party metamorphoses into a quasi-political party with the addition of a single letter such as “nPDP” or “rAPC.” Is this a case of political arrogance by the reps? Do reps consult with their constituents before swapping party labels? What is the relevance of the electorates or the sustaining force behind the political currency of the reps? Are the electorates shortchanged at the wrong end of democratic dividends by their own leviathan reps? All of these political criss-crossing underpins the mundane motives of the reps, the low ideological base of our political parties and a flagrant affront on the general will of the people. Are the most expensively assembled lawmakers in the world serving their country’s interests or themselves? While the harsh economy continues to seethe, the reps all live on islands of opulence surrounded by the mass electorates in oceans of poverty. It seems the priority of the reps is dialectic to those of the masses. Yet the electorates seemed contented to look on without demur.

Summarily, the APC is blamed for salary arrears despite tranches of bailouts and the masses feel the suspected killer Fulani herdsmen are thriving on the passivity of the APC-led government and docile security chiefs. The Naira impotence to the Dollar, internal party wranglings, Executive versus Legislature frictions, and the allusions to “sacred cows” untouched by the anti-corruption hurricane as well as the ominous succession games in the build-up to the 2019 general elections are among the indicators of a long “season of decampees.” I cannot stop wondering if in Nigeria, elected representation is a fact or a farce.

• Adulugba is a political scientist.

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