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LAGOS, NIGERIA.     Thursday, August 28 2003





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Nigerian leaders as parasites
By Okey Ndibe

IF Nigerian leaders know anything about the depths of misery in their country, they are in no hurry to show it. As poverty continues to infest millions of Nigerians, the small clan of "prominent" Nigerians become ever more obsessed with living in vulgar, criminal opulence. These leaders insist on stepping out in garish style, with all the accoutrements of misplaced splendour and majesty.

Public office, as far as Nigerian officials are concerned, opens a door to primitive accumulation and its concomitant effects of profligate spending and gaudy showiness. This fascination with glitz and glitter, to the exclusion of the duties and responsibilities of office, is a central bane of Nigerian public life. If a person unfamiliar with Nigeria's festering destitution were to encounter Nigerian leaders, he or she would easily run away with the impression that the country was endowed with inexhaustible wealth.

Nigerians now recall, with a mixture of shame and despair, Yakubu Gowon's statement in the 1970s to the effect that the country had no financial problems, only a shortage of ideas about what to do with its wealth. Of course, that Gowonian hubris has entered the country's museum of infamous statements, there to haunt Nigerians as some kind of nightmare and ghastly joke. However, for that tiny sector of the Nigerian society often flattered by insouciant journalists as "political chieftains," Gowon's vision of a nation awash in money remains a thriving reality. Nigeria has become dramatically wretched since Gowon let his mouth speak faster than his head could think. Even so, Nigerian leaders behave as if they have yet to hear the news. They carry on with their swaggering fiesta of conspicuous consumption and showmanship.

The evidence is everywhere. It is glaring in the lavish benefits politicians routinely award to themselves. It is present in the mindlessness with which they use stolen public funds to buy choice property in Europe and the United States. It is there in the arrogance of a Lam Adesina who bought jeeps for his children, obviously from pilfered state funds. It is in the fleet of presidential jets purchased at great expense so that the president and his vice as well as their wives (and perhaps girl friends) can arrive at weddings, naming ceremonies and sundry frivolities in grand style. It is in the things the ruling elite wear, the cars they drive, what they eat and drink. It is in the fatty sheen of their faces, their paunchy, neckless bodies and flatulent mien.

In a more concrete sense, elite arrogance can be glimpsed from a recent report in The Guardian concerning public assets still in the possession of former top officers of the House of Representatives. The Guardian report, written by Martin Oloja, revealed that a panel of the House recommended that "Former Speaker...Ghali Umar Na'Abba and other principal officers of his regime" be given a week to return "about 90 high-grade vehicles they took away." The details shocked me. Na'Abba, according to the report, "will be asked to return 31 vehicles including a Lexus Jeep (bullet proof) and one BMW Jeep still in his possession." The panel found that, apart from two cars returned by former House leader, Mohammed Wakil, "no other principal officer...returned the official vehicles in their possession."

Now, pause and think about this outrage for a moment. If this picture doesn't reek of deranged and malignant insensitivity, pray, let somebody enlighten me on what else it might mean. In a country where the president and his aides are still huffing about further increasing the price of gasoline products, ostensibly because the cost of subsidising them is prohibitive, how do they explain this crime and scandal? In a country where pensioners are owed months of their paltry pension, where workers receive their salaries infrequently, where university lecturers are accused of greed for demanding reasonable funding of education, where hospitals have become death wards, where public amenities are antiquated or worse, how does anybody justify buying one car, much less 31, for a speaker? Especially, in this case, a speaker whose tenure was as wanting in achievement and vision as the Presidency is beset by moral vacuity and hollow posturing?

Think about it. Despite his popularity in some quarters as a speaker who refused to be pocketed by Aso Rock, Na'Abba was, everything considered, an inept legislator. That he and Obasanjo fell out, and in such public fashion, was an anomaly of the political scene. Both men, shorn of their inflated egos, are cut from the same unimpressive moral and political cloth. Like most Nigerian politicians, Na'Abba never could impress anybody with his vision of a great Nigeria. He has none. If his life depended on it, the man would be quite incapable of offering an enduring solution to the myriad crises plaguing his country.

There is little evidence, in short, that the former speaker was a breed apart from most men and women who answer to the name of politician. As his haul of official cars proves, he was a parasite masquerading as a legislative guru. It is no surprise that, under his leadership, the House came out flat-footed. Nobody can fairly accuse him of leading his legislative body in the direction of enacting laws that grappled with Nigeria's serious political, economic and social problems. If he took on Obasanjo, it was often less out of sound principle than opportunistic posturing. He showed his true colours by championing the cause of Mohammed Abacha, a young man who exploited his late father's position to enrich himself. At any rate, Na'Abba's contribution to Nigeria's development, as a legislator or citizen, is, to put it kindly, questionable.

Of course, Na'Abba is not the problem, only the latest example of a deep-seated malaise. In fact, I suspect that he is being "outed," vilified and humiliated, like Anyim Pius Anyim, his Senate counterpart, because he dared have an adversarial relationship with the unforgiving deity in Aso Rock. Other officials in the government, and the current legislative officers, are wallowing in the same kind of legendary entitlements. The larger crisis lies, I think, in the notion that "Nigerian leaders" are entitled to privileges that take no account of the sorry state of the nation's purse. It proceeds from the idea that ordinary Nigerians must make all the sacrifices, while their so-called leaders busily invent new tricks of avarice and graft.

Even though the United States is the wealthiest nation today, American taxpayers would not for one second permit any public official, whether president of the Senate or speaker of the House of Representatives, to gorge at the trough as greedily as Nigerian leaders. But leave America alone for now. How about Singapore, Malaysia, Ghana, Uganda and Cote D'Ivoire? In none of these countries would a single elected official be allowed to hijack such an inordinate, senseless, and indefensible chunk of national wealth. It is only in Nigeria, the world's giant in greed and foolishness, that abominable conduct is made the ethos of public governance. Otherwise, give me an alternative explanation for the 31-car blight. What manner of warped values informed it? In a country that now ranks among the poorest nations in social indices, what does any public official need 31 cars for? And why must public officials be ferried around in jeeps and other cars that cost the country tons of money it can ill afford?

Nigerian citizens, especially the educated elements and workers, must lead the campaign to chasten the parasitic and rapacious minority. For unless the politicians' thieving, grasping impulse is reined in, a nation devastated by misery could accelerate its march into anarchy. In a country where more and more people scavenge refuse bins for their meals, it is a violation to see behold a few unproductive men and women strutting about the stage like medieval titans in gilded palaces, making hay out of the misfortunes of their fellows.


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