Monday, June 15, 2009

Defrauding the public

NOT necessarily because they hate other nations but principally because of their own perennial inadequacies, pseudo-democrats of the African continent tend to enjoy it when some calamity is befalling democracy in one of its celebrated domains. When, in the year 2000, disputed elections in the State of Florida badly smeared the American presidential election there were not just a few "outsiders" who gleefully mocked the process. Mr. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe laughed loud about it and would have even been laughing much louder now that a scandal of historic proportion is rocking the British Parliament, his erstwhile nemesis, over the expenses of its members. "These things do happen everywhere" has become a trademark commiseration for our collective failings as a people.
Of course things do happen everywhere but the question remains as to who is actually learning from its mistakes and who seems to be perpetuating theirs. The Florida episode of 2000 became the global story that it was because what we saw fell short of what we had come to expect of the United States of America as a leading democratic nation. However, the almost hitch-free subsequent elections (2004 and 2008) more or less highlight Florida 2000 as an exception rather than the rule. Compare and contrast this with the democratic history of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for instance. Is there any electoral issue, election rigging for instance, which brought down its previous republics in 1966 and 1983 that can be said today to have been a mere historical event?
The honest answer to this rather rhetorical question would be "none", not least because election rigging is as celebrated in Nigeria today as it was in the 1960s when politicians boasted openly that the people's votes meant nothing to them. However, this is not an open invitation for the over-ambitious soldier to start planning a speech! Maybe we would have learnt some lessons, painful but beneficial, if coupists had not taken advantage of the situations we found ourselves in, in the past. Their coups might have been popular at the times they took place but they would now appear to have added little or no value to our Nigerian society. The coupists spoke voluminously about corruption in society but their speeches are today mere metaphors in irony.
Nigeria's corrupt politicians of today would have attempted to play down their own greed with events in Britain where many members of parliament have been indicted of falsifying their expenses. The bad news for them, however, is that those British "fraudsters" cannot get away with it as they do in Nigeria. Some of them have been sacked from their privileged positions and most if not all know that they are spending their last days as representatives of the British people as they would be deselected from future elections. The Speaker of the House, Mr. Michael Martin, has been forced to tender his resignation; he is the first Speaker of the House to face such ignominy since 1695. The police, of course, have been busy with investigations that could lead to criminal prosecution of "dishonourable" men and women and the jails could soon be welcoming them. The privilege of "self regulation" which goes with the sovereignty of parliament
could be ceded to an independent statutory body which would determine the expenses of the law-makers.
In contrast to the culture of impunity that pervades our leadership, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to every British household "I know that people are angry about MPs' expenses, I apologise - on behalf of all parties - that the political system has let you and the public down. Whatever party they belong to, MPs should never have spent taxpayers' money on clearing their moats or swimming pools, or paying phantom mortgages - and it's even worse at a time when ordinary families are worried about the impact of the recession..."
The British people are indeed angry at the misdemeanour of their electoral representatives and there should be no mistake about this. Many donors have withdrawn their financial support to the ruling Labour Party and the pendulum of power could be swinging elsewhere come general elections. The British economy is tax-based; the British people genuinely feel aggrieved that it is their money that some privileged individuals have been stealing. Maybe we in Nigeria do not always feel their type of anger, not least because of the assumption that money stolen by our own politicians is some kind of "windfall" from oil. Maybe we should start paying taxes as a way of fortifying our authority over our collective wealth and making sure that those we put in charge of our nation's tills are accountable.
The democratic journey is indeed an eternal one, a journey that continues for as long as the nation itself lives. The more enlightened a people are the better for democracy and the good things that come along with it. Is it not true that those of us whose lives have been made awkward by the corruption of politicians are the very ones who encourage the triumph of this monster in our society? The political office holder is perceived as the lucky one, the one who must make full use of the opportunity before him or her. If the political office holder has not demonstrated wealth within a short period of time, his or her people would assume that an opportunity is being mis-used. Nigerians could be political, not least because they are most vociferous about elections.
There are many among them who could put their own lives on the line because of the ambition of a politician; however, once the politician is elected or selected into office, they cannot be bothered about how the enormous powers at his or her disposal are exercised. Members of the various constituencies hardly make any impact on the decisions that govern their own lives and neither do they get any feedback from their elected representatives who claim so much salary and expenses for constituency representation. Our lots will not improve if we fold our arms and await miracle to happen. We should, as urged by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem of blessed memory, "organise, not agonise".
We must organise, not just against corruption and electoral malpractices, against politicians taking advantage of us in other respects. Frivolous trips to overseas countries, simply because they provide opportunities for some smart money to be made, defraud the common purse. The proposed course at Harvard, assumed to train our already elected governors on how to govern, is both laughable and disgraceful. The Guardian competently advised against this ridiculous proposal in its editorial of June 11, 2009, and all one is urging here is for their various constituencies to prevail against it.