Friday, November 25, 2016

Of Parliament, Poverty Of Debates And Corruption

By Dan Amor
In mid 2007, at the emergence of the Mrs. Patricia Olubunmi Etteh as first female Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, a very close friend of mine who was then covering the Lower Chamber of the National Assembly for a top flight national newspaper called me on phone. His message: "Dan, Nigeria has elected a Speaker who cannot speak." My friend, a honed history scholar-turned journalist, is a thorough-bred professional most interested in written and spoken words and their applications. And his message was loud and clear. He spoke against the backdrop of Etteh's alleged legendary grammatical inadequacies.
*Speaker Dogara and Senate President Saraki

As beneficiary of the old Nsukka tradition of history and intellectual erudition, my friend had lamented the complete absence of a culture of informed debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, and even the Senate.  Poor him! He had thought that our politicians would cultivate the habit of formal debate which is the hallmark of the parliament anywhere in the world and which is as old as education itself. It dates back at least in the invention of dialectics and more specifically to Protagoras of Abdera, who introduced this method of learning to his students nearly 2,500 years ago.
In fact, the rudiments of dialectics emerged from the misty past, when grunts grew into language and men discovered that language could facilitate both the making of decisions and changing them. Debate as a medium for policy-making came into being in the first crude democracy when words as well as force became tools of government. In its maturity, it prevailed over the city-state of Greece and the republic of Rome, where skillful debaters such as Demosthenes and Cicero moved empires with words. Aristotle himself considered rhetoric to be the first and most important art. The highest purpose of debate is to develop, as Emerson described it, "man's thinking in the total milieu of society and the world around him." Ultimately, debate attempts to improve a man by laying a foundation for a better understanding of himself and those around him, to inculcate habits of mind, breath of interests, and enlargement of spirit. The process of debate, therefore, becomes as important as the issues contained within it. Lest we deviate, it was this process of intellectual confrontation that my friend said was lacking in Etteh's House.

Then, after the fall of Etteh following her alleged N628m house renovation scandal, the lawmakers were soon to be applauded for electing as Speaker the suave, urbane and intellectually sound, London-trained and well-prepared Dimeji Bankole. In his acceptance speech, Bankole boasted: "I believe that from this hallowed chamber, shall flow robust debates, exciting motions, timely bills and quality legislation that will significantly impact on the standards and quality of lives of our people." Immediately after the first plenary session of the Honourable House, presided over by the young, energetic and intellectually skillful Bankole, my friend who witnessed live what transpired on the floor of the House, made another call to me in Lagos: "Dan, now Nigerians have elected a Speaker who can speak." Observing Bankole's seeming favourable portents after a few months, I wrote a perceptive column titled, "Bankole As Generational Proof", to commend him for providing sound intellectual leadership and profound managerial direction to the House. To my mind then, my generation would deliver!
Unfortunately, shortly after my complimentary piece on him, Bankole began to shudder us. In May 2008, exactly on the first anniversary of the late Umaru Musa Yar'Adua as President, Bankole made an illogical and intemperate comment that legislators who did not support Yar'Adua's Seven Point Agenda, were, by that very fact, opposed to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This was before the Ekiti election reruns in 2009 when Bankole boasted that the Peoples Democratic Party-controlled Federal Government then would draft the Nigerian Army to Ekiti to ensure that its candidate, Mr. Segun Oni (currently APC National Vice Chairman, South West) won.
Yar'Adua, despite his frail physical constitution, moved Abuja the seat of power to Ekiti to campaign for Oni; the military were drafted there and certainly, Oni "won". But Justice came from the judiciary and Kayode Fayemi the ultimate choice of the people of Ekiti was eventually enthroned as the authentic governor of the state. The tragedy was that Bankole who was supposed to be the second most important personality in the National Assembly, after the Senate President, turned himself to be the official spokesman of the Yar'Adua administration. As the time-honoured principle of Separation of Powers became dead and buried, the Speaker who could speak so well became the mouthpiece of the Executive arm of Government.
The principal constitutional assignment of the legislature, which is its oversight function, its supervising role over the Executive, was observed only in its breach, and caution was thrown to the wind. The falcon could no longer hear the falconer and corruption was let loose at the National Assembly. The best Speaker unarguably became the best contractor and Chief Purchasing Officer. At first, there was a series of expensive foreign trips by Speaker Bankole and the House leadership. Then there was the N2.7bn bullet-proof cars scandal, and then the N10bn bank loan for official allowances saga. In all of this, Bankole, the well-educated and handsome eloquent Speaker was in the middle of the storm. Since then, Speakers who could speak well have always been branded looters. But the nation remains the ultimate victim of this carnival of scandals.
Mr. Yakubu Dogara is another fine gentleman and an eloquent speaker such as Bankole. Many applauded his emergence as Speaker much against the backdrop of his party's plan to impose its lackey on the House. When the lid was blown open from the House 2016 Appropriation Bill controversy over budget padding, I wrote a complimentary column titled: "Dogara, Reps And A Rash Of Media Trials". Now, with the recent revelation of the purchase of 360 Peugeot 508 salon cars at N10bn each totaling N3.6bn for the 360 members of the Lower House in this biting recession, what do you think? We have elected pleasure seekers who know little about lawmaking, debate and argumentation but more about high life in a season of hunger.
*Dan Amor, a public affairs analyst writes from Abuja

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