Funke Aboyade: Are we really ready for democracy?

 

Frankly, we are only proving true the axiom that Nigerians have short memories. How else can one explain our reckless and irresponsible actions as a nation since 1999,

The unfolding scandal of the past week and a half is yet another in a long series of corruption scandals involving key government actors, particularly at the legislative tier. For those who preferred to give Representative Farouk Lawan the benefit of the doubt given the initial claims, counter-claims and denials between him and Businessman, Femi Otedola, a report which subsequently emerged (as reported exclusively by THISDAY June 15) about Hon. Lawan stuffing Dollar bills, at 5.00am at Otedola’s residence, into his flowing babbanriga and even under his cap surely gave them a quick reality check. It would have been hilarious (and truth be told I did permit myself several good hearty laughs) had it not been tragic.  The demystification of Farouk Lawan was complete.

The National Assembly, particularly the House of Representatives, has since the advent of the 4th Republic been prone to the sort of corruption and sleaze story now playing out. Add this to the fact that they have hardly been outstanding in terms of the number of bills passed or time taken to pass them. Add also the fact that, as CBN Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi disclosed to a shocked nation in 2010, they constitute an unjustifiable drain (25% of recurrent federal expenditure) on the nation’s lean resources, one is compelled to now give serious consideration to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s dismissal of them (May 22, 2012) as veritable rogues and armed robbers.

The public hearing of the House Ad-Hoc Committee Monitoring the Fuel Subsidy revealed the systemic rot and corruption in the fuel subsidy scheme. Previous public hearings on other sectors of the economy by various House Committees have also revealed similar corruption in government, made worse by the fact that those Committees themselves have almost always ended up being consumed by the very corrupt practices they set out to unearth. The Lawan/Otedola bribery scandal is therefore really just another day in the life of a Nigerian legislator. In the 14th year of our current democracy there has been no single successful prosecution of a crime committed (yet there have been many) by a legislator whilst in office. Once more, the lower house has fiercely upheld its reputation for sleaze and blackmail. The real surprise though is the outpouring of shock and outrage from ordinary Nigerians. Hon. Farouk Lawan’s emergence as a champion of integrity during the Patricia Etteh saga should not have fooled anyone who understands the true nature of the farce that often passes for governance in these parts – pardon my cynical view, but essentially a contest among groups vying to capture the commonwealth for their personal benefit.

The sums involved in all these scandals have been outrageous. $3m in the current one, out of which $620,000 cash had been paid. Bribery figures now run into the millions, not of Naira but of Dollars. In Naira terms we now hear of trillions being looted, scammed or skimmed off the Nigerian people – the fuel subsidy scam for instance.

Given that this democracy is extraordinarily expensive (a few thousand federal public servants in 263 MDAs consume 72% of our national commonwealth annually; 469 legislators and their aides consume 25% of the federal government’s recurrent expenditure annually, in a burgeoning population of 160 million) and compounded with the fact that wholesale looting, arbitrary wasteful spending, bribery and corruption is going on mostly unchecked in government, one is then forced to ask: are we really ready for democracy?

Before self-appointed democrats, do-gooders and others go up in arms in self-righteous indignation, before the security agencies begin to swoop in, let me explain. The question is asked with every sense of responsibility and seriousness. Are we ready for democracy? Certainly, the pointers and indices indicate that not only are we not, but that the ingredients of a revolution (of whatever form) are already in place.

Frankly, we are only proving true the axiom that Nigerians have short memories. How else can one explain our reckless and irresponsible actions as a nation since 1999, not caring about the hard-fought battle to send the military packing and return to democratic rule after 16 long years?

Every revolution is borne out of a desire for fundamental change. The short-lived OccupyNigeria (which at least shocked government out of its complacency and subsequently became the impetus for the House probe on fuel subsidy payments) is an example.

The danger now is the current House scandal may likely obscure the bigger issue – the fuel subsidy scam itself, as well as issues thrown up by the OccupyNigeria protests. Consider just three. The revelation about stolen trillions of Naira (N2.6trn by some accounts) in a country whose citizens are mostly poor, per the Human Poverty Index. The money has so far not been recovered. Whilst the nation awaits the prosecution of those indicted by the House probe all there is so far are the various committees thrown at the problem in the aftermath of the fuel subsidy protests. Secondly, the disturbing allegations that a healthy chunk of the subsidy scam proceeds were channelled into funding last year’s election campaigns (extra-budgetary approval and payment by a whopping 900% of the sum budgeted for subsidy payments in 2011, an election year), an allegation that itself warrants a full-scale probe into electoral financing – if we are serious about preserving our hard-won democracy. Thirdly, we must not forget that this probe only relates to PMS and that this may be basis for the suspicion by many that a scam of a somewhat similar magnitude exists in the importation of household and aviation kerosene.

I end with a word for those who say, glibly, that these are normal teething problems in a fledgling democracy. They are not. The indices or markers are not promising. Civil institutions are remarkably weak, the electorate is too easily compromised due to poverty and illiteracy, and for many public office holders service is usually the last thing on their minds. Thirteen years is half a generation and we haven’t moved forward an inch as a nation – if anything we have regressed and are arguably worse off than we were in 1999.

So where lies the hope if we are really serious about being a democratic country? For starters, ordinary Nigerians must participate more actively in building a cost effective, credible and stable democracy. Beyond voting, each of us must now begin to think how we can participate more actively in the process. We clearly cannot leave it to the likes of Farouk Lawan. We must also begin to hold, indeed insist on holding, our leaders and civil institutions to account – every day, all the time.

Until we do this, the answer to the question, are we ready for democracy? will have to be in the negative.

 

Funke Aboyade, a columnist for Thisday, first published this piece in the Friday June 19 edition of the paper

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