Pot of Soup Democracy

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The Ondo State gubernatorial election has come and gone and by most objective accounts, the votes were properly cast, they were counted and they count–at least to the extent that majority carried the day. So for that reason, we must commend the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for finally getting it right; the outgoing Governor Olusegun Mimiko for his maturity in congratulating the winner and all the contenders for displaying sportsmanship. Of course, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has promised to go to court, which it has a right to do, but if the party leaders are honest with themselves, they will accept responsibility for their woes and begin to put their house in order.

I have read several reports about the election but the most detailed is by CLEEN Foundation, a respected civil society organization that seeks to promote public safety, security and accessible justice through empirical research and legislative advocacy. Their report reveals that INEC has improved in the management of logistics, the transparency of its processes, including the timeliness of casting ballots as well as in the collation and announcement of results.

Notwithstanding, there was something about the Ondo gubernatorial election that should worry us, and this has been highlighted also in many reports, including that of CLEEN Foundation: the transparent buying and selling of votes by agents of the parties, with the main culprits being the PDP that currently controls the state and the All Progressives Congress (APC) that is in power at the centre. According to reports, at most of the polling units, agents of the APC and PDP engaged one another in what my brother, Ferdinand Agu, once described as a game of “financial shootout” in which victory is almost always to the highest bidder.

It is interesting that the apostle of “stomach infrastructure”, Mr. Ayo Fayose has alleged that the Ondo election was fought on the basis of “Dibo ko se ‘be” (a vote guarantees you a pot of soup). Given his rich experience in such matters, the irrepressible Ekiti State Governor should know! But even when vote buying may not be a new phenomenon in the history of electioneering in Nigeria, most reports indicate that it was taken to a new level last weekend in Ondo State, perhaps because of the poverty which has reduced many our citizens to an intolerable level of deprivation.

Therefore, it should worry the authorities that the pot of soup is fast becoming the defining metaphor for this season. Yet, when examined critically, there is only one conclusion to draw from the unfortunate Ondo spectacle: those who were buying the votes as well as the ballot sellers were united by the quest for a pot of soup. While the voters were desperate to satiate their immediate hunger, those who were buying the votes were thinking more of a lifetime of feeding frenzy, at public expense.

That precisely is the meaning of the reintroduction by the Lagos House of Assembly of a bill seeking an amendment to the state’s Pension Law so it could accommodate both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. Against the background that the existing law only provides pensions for former governors and deputy governors, the new bill, to be cited as the Public Office Holder (Payment of Pension) (Amendment) Law 2016, will include all former Speakers and Deputy Speakers of the Lagos State House of Assembly in the jumbo pension scheme.

With that, the speaker and his deputy will be assured, after office, of a residential house at any location of their choice in Lagos State; jumbo furniture allowance – payable every five years en bloc; vehicles, including a pilot car; 10 per cent of their annual basic salary as car maintenance allowance and another 10 per cent as entertainment allowance. The speaker and his deputy will also be entitled to domestic staff like cook, steward, gardener, driver etc. who themselves will be pensionable. The law also provides that the speaker and deputy speaker will be entitled to free medical treatment abroad for themselves and members of their family just as they are entitled to police orderlies–all for life!
Since the idea of scandalous pension scheme for former governors started in Lagos in 2007 before other states started to “photocopy” the law, I will not be surprised if the lawmakers in other states also begin the amendment to their laws to accommodate their speakers and deputy speakers, knowing that very soon, it will extend to all of them. In any case, just a few months ago in June, Senators and speakers of some state Houses of Assembly proposed that presiding officers of the legislature should be entitled to life pension after their tenure in office. I am sure local government chairmen and councilors must also be bracing up for enacting such laws that will give them pension for life.

It is such a big irony that under a dispensation of “Change” public service is increasingly being tailored to serve private ends. In many states today where salaries of workers are owed for as many as eight months, some of the former governors, including those who are currently drawing salaries and all forms of emoluments in Abuja, are being paid “pension” in sums that exceed the amount payable to all the retired workers in their states. And paying these fat cats is a first-line charge from their states treasuries. It must be noted though that Peter Obi remains an exception to the rule by rejecting the idea of enacting such law when leaving office as Anambra State Governor in 2014.

While pension for public office holders now drains huge resources, what worries is that it is a perfect scam since it has legislative cover with the passage of the laws by the respective states houses of assembly. Therefore, as things stand, most of the people elected into public offices at various levels are not thinking about the welfare of the people, they are only concerned about their own “pots of soup”. And because of that, they bait voters with stolen money that could only satiate hunger for a day while plotting for themselves a lifetime of opulence. That is the real essence of “Dibo ko se ‘be”.

In addressing the poser, “why do politicians buy votes?”, Razvan Vlaicu, a senior research economist at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Research Department, argues that it happens in countries where political parties fail to build brands capable of convincing voters that their electoral promises can be trusted. “Citizens, especially the poorest and most marginalized, can come to see the disbursement of cash before elections as the one and only thing they get from an ineffectual government. They can come to depend on it. As a result a vicious circle emerges. Those who suffer most from corruption become paradoxically those least likely to oppose it and demand reform”, wrote Vlaicu.

However, by helping unscrupulous politicians to subvert popular will, those who accept gratifications for their votes are only putting their future and that of their children in jeopardy. But what options do these unfortunate Nigerians have in a milieu where most of those elected into executive and legislative positions as well as those seeking to replace them cannot behave responsibly?
The idea of the social contract theory, on which government is founded, according to Jean Jacques Rousseau, “may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will”. But what happens in Nigeria today is a situation where those elected into public service believe they are in no way accountable to the people who they openly exploit. Yet, the consequences for such behaviour can be seen in the tragedies of Syria, Iraq, Libya etc.

That ultimately is what happens in societies where leaders believe they reserve the right to appropriate only to themselves and their immediate families the collective pot of soup. I hope some people are paying attention.

Caverton and the Nigerian Dream
If any proof was ever needed that Caverton Helicopters Limited has become a dominant player in the offshore support (oil and gas) industry, it is in the fact that the company now faces claims of preferential treatment between local and expatriate staff. By the time I first profiled Mr. Remi Makanjuola on this page in 2005, in a series I was doing on game-changing entrepreneurs in our country, I could count the number of staff of the then three-year old company. But by dint of hard work and resourcefulness, Caverton has become not only a big employer of labour but has also helped to change the aviation landscape in Nigeria.

Established in September 2002 as a charter, shuttle and maintenance company, Caverton Helicopters Limited came in with the aim of providing logistics support to the major players in the industry. Now with operational bases in Port Harcourt, Warri and Cameroon, the company has been able to provide a wide array of services to the offshore oil and gas industry as well as other business sectors, such as marine and coastal surveillance; emergency medical evacuation, search and rescue.

In May 2014, I witnessed in Lagos the listing on the Nigerian Stock Exchange of the Caverton Offshore Support Group (COSG). On that occasion, Mr. Oscar Onyema, the NSE Director General, spoke about durable wealth that passes across generations. Last week, I was in Lagos to see first-hand the Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) aircraft hangar being built by COSG which would be the first in the country and the West African sub-region.

With an engineering partnership with major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the overall objective of Caverton is to fill the significant gap that the absence of such a critical infrastructure has created in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. When completed next year December, the hanger would save our country of the huge foreign exchange that goes into fixing airplanes abroad. The project will also generate jobs for thousands of Nigerian aviation professionals while helping in the training and retraining locally of aircraft engineers and pilots.
By helping to make Nigeria a hub in West Africa with the MRO hangar when completed, Caverton is helping to create the opportunity for both domestic and international airlines to maintain their aircrafts and keep domestic airline operators in business. The investment in the MRO hanger will also boost local capacity development while directing capital flow into the country as opposed to the current capital flight.

Once completed, according to Rotimi Makanjuola who conducted me round the structure under construction, the Caverton hanger will provide maintenance, repair and overhaul services for rotary wings with the capacity to also provide certain fixed wings services. Meanwhile, in my chat with Rotimi, he also dismissed the notion that the company discriminates between the local and expatriate staff.

To the extent that the present economic realities and escalating foreign exchange rates are making it increasingly challenging for Nigerian airline operators to carry out proper maintenance on their aircrafts, the Caverton MRO project has come at a most fortuitous moment for the nation. With the average cost of a C or D check running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are already serious concerns for flight safety since airlines could, counting cost, begin to cut corners.

The biting economic situation has already led to some airlines either being grounded or taking their services out of the country. That is why the Caverton MRO project deserves all the support as I look forward to its completion.