Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Democracy in a Glass House

The moral imperative that confronted President Goodluck Jonathan at the inception of his administration was clear. At the time, public debate revolved around the outsized remunerations of members of the National Assembly. President Jonathan was expected to challenge the culture of unbridled acquisition and unhinged entitlement that is ballooning the cost of government. Had he done so, he would almost certainly have ignited a civil war within the Peoples’ Democratic Party since he would be endangering the party’s sacred cult of patronage. But Jonathan could then have rallied the people behind him and served as their knight in the battle to deepen accountability and probity in governance.

Instead, Jonathan took the opposite course of action. His decision early this year to abolish subsidies on fuel amounted to raising taxes of poor and middle class Nigerians in order to fund a broke government – a government that is being bankrupted by the uninhibited appetites of avaricious politicians. Rather than cutting the waste and extravagance of his co-travelers, Jonathan elected to increase the burden of the people. That decision provoked a weeklong strike action and nationwide protests that assumed the shape of a public inquisition into the character of governance.

Sensing the potential for a broader anti-government backlash, federal legislators, have since then, undertaken a series of high-profile investigations of the executive branch. These probes have had public support because they assuage a popular desire to see a cleansing of the Augean stables of the state. They have also enabled the federal legislators to outflank the president, deploy populist rhetoric and deflect attention from their own misdemeanours. Theatrics aside however, the House of Representatives investigation of fuel subsidy payments uncovered a festering edifice of fraud. The representatives’ report indicted senior administration officials and placed the onus on the president to cleanse his government of compromised figures. In some other climes, the scale of fraud uncovered would have led to mass resignations, the prosecution of indicted officials and would certainly have ended the administration.

It is a measure of how much grief the representatives caused that the chair of the investigatory committee, Honourable Farouk Lawan became the target of a sting operation involving the oil baron Femi Otedola and the State Security Service. Honourable Lawan now stands accused of soliciting and receiving a bribe from Otedola. In recent weeks, news of his alleged corruption has displaced the urgency of implementing his panel’s recommendations from the news cycle. The probe report brimming with scandalous disclosures of how government officials and their business cronies defrauded the country to the tune of billions of naira may not be completely discredited but it risks being forgotten even as we are titillated by the salacious renderings of Lawan’s alleged escapades.      

Lawan’s travails, now dubbed “faroukgate,” correspond with a culture of political intrigue that can only be described as the doctrine of mutual incrimination. The most pungent dramatization of this principle came in 2006. President Olusegun Obasanjo accused Vice President Atiku Abubakar of corruption, tried to evict him from the presidency and ultimately disqualify him from contesting the presidential elections in 2007. Atiku’s response was not to exonerate himself, but rather to discredit Obasanjo by arguing that he was equally complicit in the theft of public funds. The former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye’s riposte to being charged with money laundering was to argue that he had funneled much of the loot into the PDP’s campaign treasury thereby effectively incriminating the top hierarchy of the party including Obasanjo.

In 2008, Honourable Ndudi Elumelu, who chaired the House of Representatives probe of the Obasanjo administration’s power projects was himself subsequently prosecuted for contract fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, along with Senator Nicholas Ugbane, the chair of the Senate Committee on Power. Honourable Herman Hembe who chaired the Representatives’ investigation of the Stock Exchange Commission earlier this year was removed after the commission’s director-general, Arunma Oteh accused him of soliciting a N40 million naira bribe from her.

The logic of mutual incrimination is not only that politicians who live in glass houses should not throw stones; it is that our democratic institutions are glass houses. In an equal opportunity kleptocracy, it is the height of moral arrogance for a politician to presume to invigilate his brethren. As Obasanjo once put it, “There is honour among thieves.” At the time, the then president was explaining why Anambra Governor Chris Ngige should turn over the state’s treasury to his political godfather, Chris Uba, who happened to be Obasanjo’s aide. By this understanding, the political consensus under which Nigeria is governed is a pirates’ covenant which requires “fair” and “just” distribution of plunder. Those who question the piracy itself are vilified as traitors or spoilers. It is no surprise that government increasingly resembles a criminal consortium.

Democracy rests on the principle of checks and balances yet the executive and the legislature, paralyzed by mutual incrimination, cannot check each other. The net effect is the delegitimization of our institutions. A presidency crippled by its equivocation in fighting corruption has shrunk; while the National Assembly is seen as a citadel of sleaze. This has resulted in a widespread public loss of faith in civil institutions that makes our young democracy extremely vulnerable to extra-constitutional shocks.

The senate’s deliberation on the recently uncovered multi-billion naira pension fraud was revealing. The senators cursed the perpetrators and their descendants and committed them to eternal damnation in the hottest part of hell. Not one senator raised his voice in favour of prosecuting the perpetrators of the fraud right here on earth. The pseudo-spiritual histrionics disclosed the bankruptcy of a political class so morally paralyzed by its own indiscretions that it cannot summon the will to address crimes against the Nigerian people.

It is often the case that when political elites cannot regulate themselves and lose legitimacy, new agencies of political sovereignty emerge to do the job. We are in a familiar and treacherous historical environment. Three decades ago, public faith in the Shehu Shagari administration plummeted as the entire government became synonymous with unfettered graft. The military struck terminating that democratic experiment. While there is currently no potential for similar military intervention today, there are other threats. Consider the deepening hold of cynicism on the national psyche. Young Nigerians are observing the shenanigans of politicians and internalizing a nihilistic view of life and politics as a Machiavellian domain where high values and ideals do not apply. This is not the sort of outlook that will raise the quality of governance or prolong democracy. The rise of non-state violence and anti-state militancy in recent years is an index of public nihilism and loss of faith in government.

Politicians who are customarily preoccupied with their own ends should care enough about the institutions they presently inhabit to realize that they cannot survive popular apathy. Should President Jonathan find the courage to vigorously and unequivocally challenge the strongholds of graft, he would be saving not only his presidency from opprobrium but preserving Nigerian democracy as a whole. But can he? 

All images sourced from Google Images

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