The political establishment appears to be working against the interests and aspirations of the majority of Nigerian people. Especially since the previous economic recession started, almost every policy of government has had the counter-effect of aggravating the burden of the people – from the deregulation of the naira, to paying a ransom for the release of the young ladies kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Last week, Senator Shehu Sani supposedly “burst the bubble” by raising alarm over the humongous remuneration that he and his colleagues received in the National Assembly. Expectedly, there were fireworks of condemnation on social media, and the print media dedicated editorials to pillorying the insensitive and irresponsible behaviour of our parliamentarians. The editorial article of Punch newspaper of 16 March, 2018 speaks magisterially on the issue, and its reputable editorial board noted: “that a major democratic institution like the National Assembly is so opaque in its operations is a contradiction in terms...”. In a democracy, it is indeed a contradiction for the representatives of the people not to reflect the views, or even the “modest” lifestyle of the people they claim to represent.
The Punch editorial board wondered why the revelations of Senator Shehu Sani have not “triggered mass action against the degenerate and selfish parliamentarians...”. Perhaps it is because Nigerians are tired of lamenting the same problems, without as much effort put into devising concrete solutions to them.
Instead of being guided by public interest, why is the political establishment (not only the National Assembly) guided by selfish, sectional interest? Perhaps answering this question correctly might empower us to treat the disease and not its symptoms; and give the Nigerian people, for once, something tangible (and not frustratingly disappointing) as a solution to our national crisis. The outrageous allowances of political office holders, the endemic corruption ravaging the Nigerian state, merely indicate that the political elites have a different agenda that contradicts the aspiration and interests of the Nigerian people.
In his interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he explained the motive behind his revelation, Senator Sani believed that “if the expenses payment system was ended then parliament would only be attractive to people who contribute ideas.” Let us assume with Senator Sani that the wages of political office holders are drastically cut, would it erase the legion of contradictions that are already embedded in the system? Would it end official corruption for example? Would such a new wage system prevent the National Assembly from making laws in the interest of the highest bidder from the private sector, even when such interest conflicts with the common good – happiness of the vast majority?
Equally, the Punch editorial, while excoriating the “degenerate and selfish parliamentarians”, drew a contrast between emoluments of the Nigerian parliamentarians and their counterparts in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). This type of comparative analysis is dangerous, because it leaves the reader with the suggestion that copying either the American or the British model of wages is enough to turn things around for us in Nigeria. Speaking of contradictions in politics or democracy; it is in the United States where a candidate who lost the popular vote by millions of votes emerged as the overall winner because of a sentimental attachment to an electoral college system that was formulated when slavery was still morally right in the eyes of the founding fathers.
Whether in the US or in the UK, instances abound where the interests of the political establishment conflicted with the common good, and the interest of the former reigned supreme. “Gun control” agitation in the US would serve our purpose here as an example. The recent shooting of high school students in Florida has again put the national agitation for gun control on the front burner in the US. Despite the overwhelming view of average Americans for gun control, the US Congress feebly avoided legislating tougher measures on gun control mechanism. It sounds like common sense that acquiring firearms should not be as easy as buying a burger – but the National Rifle Association (NRA) disagrees. The NRA wields so much influence on the US Congress that it does not matter what majority of Americans want; the wish of the NRA is law.
Pondering the enormous influence wielded by the NRA, Cable News Network put forth the question “So why does the group hold such sway?” And in turn answered thus: “partly because more than half of congressional incumbents have gotten money and organisational help from the group, with many members having long standing financial relationships with the NRA that date back years.” (edition.cnn.com, 23 February 2018)
Alas! It is not only in Nigeria that a section of society could comfortably hold the vast majority to ransom through the instrumentality of the state. But some argue that the social institutions in the West are stronger still, despite the instances of flaws. Truly, Tom Price, erstwhile Secretary of Health and Human Services under Donald Trump, resigned from his post because he spent too much tax payers’ dollars on chartered private jets, where he could have spent lesser – he also refunded the difference before tendering his resignation. (Chicago Times of 29 September 2017). However, our preoccupation should not be about the relative level of corruption or contradictory democracy in societies; but why they exist at all, and why the powerful few override the majority at will.
Unfortunately, democracy as practiced in the world is not built on people, but on wealth – and this has made the possessors of wealth the possessors of the state. The UK-based newspaper, The Guardian revealed that, “In 2017, the NRA spent at least US $4.1 million on lobbying...while the dairy industry spent US $4.4 million in the same period”, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics. The National Realtors, one of the biggest spenders, has paid out US $32.2 million lobbying on housing issues. “The US Chambers of Commerce, the largest spender of all, has spent US $104 million [on lobbying]. (The Guardian, 15 February 2018)
Looking for a country that has been hijacked by corporate interests, look up the US. These lobbying groups spend millions of dollars to corrupt and/or confuse the minds of voters through sometimes false propaganda, while demonising candidates with noble intentions; but no small amount of dollars is wasted on candidates that are loyal to their cause.
Nigeria might not have reached this stage of arrogant hijacking of the electoral/democratic system, but with the current level of monetisation of our electoral/democratic system, we could someday outdo the US.
Based on the role we play as suppliers of raw materials to the industrialised economies of the world, we cannot afford to monetise politics without deepening poverty. Instead of the ruling elites focusing on establishing industries that could, at least, process utility goods for sub Saharan Africa; they are entangled in the game of cutting larger chunks from the national cake. But the chances of African individual elites competing with the titans of multinational corporations and emerging profitable are low – because of the enormous resources and technical capacities at the disposal of these corporations.
Aside assembling vehicles, bagging flour and cement, politics becomes the next lucrative job for our elites that enable them to frolic with the global plutocrats. Walter Rodney noted correctly in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that, “Africa participated during colonialism in an unfair, uneven global market of slavery and colonialism that decimated the continent demographically and materially”. But we still continue to participate in that same system unequally, with massive consequences for the future than we are already experiencing in the present.
The current global politics is tied to a system of enrichment of the few at the expense of the vast majority; of enrichment of the developed countries at the expense of the underdeveloped countries. It is this system that we must first seek to end, and its attendant symptoms of corruption and profligacy would be easily cleansed. By demanding that the state process and appropriate Nigeria’s resources for the purpose of improving the material and spiritual condition of the people – we would be enthroning a systematic plan, over the current chaos of blind global market forces.
But this would be an ideological demand, emerging from ideological debates, and which we are refusing to hold due to our sentimental attachment to a flawed system of global capitalism. There is however a common ground with the editorial board of Punch newspaper; and it is on the fact that the people should rise and “shake off this stranglehold.” But the intelligentsia must first open up to a robust debate, learning and unlearning, before seeking to lead the people to change.
* Wole Olubanji studied Philosophy at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He writes from Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.