The Nigerian political class has just graduated from an over paid sitting circus to a reality television comedy ensemble in perpetual session. From its rather impressive but still amateurish recent outings, the National Assembly has good business prospects as a travelling circus. The conclave could end its unproductive existence by travelling round the country to perform to live audiences and charge market driven ticketing fees.
Its choice of a preview series on public sector corruption could provide sustaining entertainment round the country before being taken on a road show abroad. After all, there are only 36 states and the FCT while there are just about that number of ministries. Each ministry, I am sure, has more scandals to offer where the current sample came from. Important parastatals and agencies could be added with their own series later to drive a more robust and hopefully lucrative entertainment outfit. Now we are just dealing with minor players like the EFCC, NSITF and NDDC. Imagine what great entertainment await us when the series on NNPC, CBN and even the National Assembly open for public viewing!
Sometimes in the story of a nation, comedy serves the end of conveying the tragedy of imminent unraveling. We seem to have arrived at that place where comedy stands alone as the remaining low cost anodyne in a season of anguish and ever present troubles. For the last couple of days, the National Assembly has regaled Nigerians and the world with daily shades of different antics by sundry overseers and facilitators of corruption in some departments of government. It depends on your interest and comic taste.
If you want a ping pong game of name calling and free exchange of lowly story book accusations, you have an abundance of it in the adolescent exchanges between Mr. Akpabio, Minister of the Niger Delta and Ms. Nunieh, former Interim Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission over the NDDC’s bad book keeping habits. The comedy has come from both sides. Ms. Nunieh has accused Mr. Akpabio of laying his ministerial hands on her and how she, in retaliation, delivered an uncommon slap to the honourable face of the Minister. Mr. Akpabio has in turn reciprocated by accusing the learned lady of being rather generous in her selection of marital partners. All this has been peppered with a rather free tossing of millions of dollars and billions of Naira in all conceivable directions and for purposes as diverse as funding phantom training sessions, condolence visits and Covid-19 palliatives to even the police. In all this, Mr. Akpabio is reported to have issued orders to the NDDC management in his accustomed imperial manner of he who must be obeyed in matters relating to the free flow of easy money. Under pressure, Mr. Akpabio resorted to scorched earth comedy by accusing the entire National Assembly as co-defendants in the NDDC loot. He quickly defused this high drama by reversing course, being an ‘old boy’ of the Assembly. Quite entertaining!
If your preference is for choreographed somersaults and rehearsed swoons, you can tune in to the fainting episode on Mr. Pondei, yet another NDDC Interim Managing Director. In what may turn out a well rehearsed antic, the beleaguered Managing Director knew exactly when to press the fainting button in the course of interrogation. Gossip has it that someone highly placed slipped him a note at the moment of the most difficult question. ‘Why did you expend money from a non -existent budget?’ He read the note, which simply said ‘Time to faint!”, and slipped it under his files. Once the question descended like a hammer blow, the action kicked in. In these matters, precise timing is everything! The National Assembly shifted into a first aid mode. Empathy for he who is about to die takes precedence over minor matters of book keeping and earthly money mongering! End of interrogation. Public attention shifted from the billions expended on fake entries and dubious contracts. End of session. Curtains!!
If your comic choice is ‘big men’ acting like street urchins and motor park touts in Area Boy language, you may switch channels and listen in to the episode on Mr. Ngige, Labour Minister, as he ‘returned’ in sickening nostalgia to Lagos. In a very cheap tactic to put the House Labour Committee chairman, Mr. Faleke, on the defensive, Mr. Ngige turned to the blackmail of age and status. He took a cheap side shot at Senator Bola Tinubu for no reason other than to put his interlocutor on the defensive. In the process, he proceeded to place himself at a higher social pedestal than Mr. Faleke who he described as a ‘Mushin Boy’ as against himself who he described as a ‘VI Boy’, a term that does not exist in Lagos street parlance. Ministerial decorum was thrown overboard.
In this comedy stretch, we have a ready cast in place. Politicians, especially the Nigerian variant, are born actors. From weeping on television to dancing foolishly to entertain the public, we have seen politicians who invent bombastic words or commission bank ATM machines in the name of community projects. Drama, especially comedy, is like politics, the art of the possible in palatable words. Politicians are adept at empty words addressed to an audience of captives. The lines they parrot are rehearsed lies and dubious half truths. The mobile podium is their natural habitat. The platform of public expectation is a place to mouth obscenities in the name of promises, to dress false dreams in attractive metaphor and to tell the people to go to hell in words that make them look forward to the journey.
There is every reason why our politicians should buy into this option of transforming into a national travelling comic enterprise. In times of mass desperation, the most effective instruments in the hands of the creative politician are distraction and diversion. There are enough reasons today for the people to chase away our political leaders. The schools are closed and the children are all at home. Money is scarce and hunger is everywhere.
Word has gone round that some people have signed off some money to alleviate covid-19 without much to show for it. In one state, there is not as much as one first aid kit let alone a functioning hospital. The governor told the people that there is zero covid-19 infection until he himself tested positive and had to disappear into isolation and treatment very far from his state. The Central Bank tells our illiterate mob that the economy is doing just fine even if one dollar is now selling for nearly N500.
There used to be 5 women roasting corn at the road junction by the gate of my estate. Only one of them is left there now. People are hungry, and some are getting quite angry too. Government is running out of believable lies. So the best thing is to diversify into comedy at the highest level. Trust Nigerian politicians. They can smell a survival kit from thousands of miles away. To divert the attention of people from present hardship and hopelessness, our politicians have come up with these comic antics. I daresay, the current wave of national comedy over corruption cases is sponsored by the political industry.
The atmosphere is also right for the comic enterprise to thrive especially on such an industrial scale. The nation is trapped in the throes of Covid-19 with neither science nor superstition to explain our peculiar infection and fatality statistics. Unexplained deaths have however increased. Uncertainty of life and business has become the new normal. Those who venture outdoors do so at their own risk. Only a fraction of the work force can say they still have a job while thousands of small and medium scale enterprises have simply disappeared with no hope of returning to business any time soon.
Before the resumption of the National Assembly from Covid-19 break, majority of Nigerians derived their comic relief from the social media. The drama sketches, the wise cracks, the creative skits, the fictional snippets posted and massively shared at the speed of light or lightning via the social media held us all in check from either suicide or open rebellion. The millions of cheap cell phones in literally every pocket, hand bag or hidden under tired breasts contain the comic distractions and stories that have kept our people sane in a time of mass betrayal by the people we trooped out to vote into power and authority. Calculated as a function of our population and the magnitude of our distress and divided by the number of our disappointment, multiplied by the quantum of monies stolen from the treasury by daily average, our suicide rate is a record low.
In this atmosphere, comic relief can be an effective instrument of social engineering. Laughter can reach where the best medicines cannot or even contemplate. People with uncertain lives and deferred death can derive hope and postpone the thought of death with laughter and religion, a combination that now thrives in Nigeria.
But even the mosques and churches are closed in most of the country in deference to covid-19. Pastors and Imams are shouting desperately to governments to lift this lockdown and let business return. Government should not stand in the way of the people on their way to salvation in heaven! One big church merchant has warned people that covid-19 does not mean they should not pay their tithes. A congregation of just 20 is a joke for a church that used to evacuate weekly offerings by bullion vans. Who will fuel the bishop’s private jet? Or his retinue of armoured cars? Who will fund the countless overseas trips to save more souls for the Lord?
At the other end of the road to paradise, who will pay to import the marabouts from Morocco or Algeria and Mauritania? How will rich and powerful politicians know when a bandit is planning to shoot them or burn their mansions? Our own local Aafas and marabouts cannot quite see far enough into the future. Their visionary and prophetic skills have dimmed by greed, wickedness and homegrown ambition, They want to drive the same big SUVs as their politician clients. Better to import marabouts from more modest and tame places. They do not know our secrets or understand our ways.
For all that they are worth, these comic outings can only amount to a tragic betrayal of national trust from a very cavalier ruling elite. More specifically, the shows of shame are a blatant insult on the integrity of the National Assembly and a gross devaluation of the sanctity of an institution that should represent the collective will of our people. But the legislature was merely entertained while losing sight of the serious issues of public accountability raised in the massive looting of the agencies of government under investigation.
Nevertheless, one aim has been served by these sessions. For those Nigerians who have never understood the main business of our vast political industry, the doubts have been cleared. What we have in Abuja and the various state capitals and 774 local governments is a vast casino of fraud and an endless bazaar of dubious deals and dodgy contracts. Our democracy may end up being the largest heist pulled off on a whole nation by a few crooks and their cohorts.
But comedy has to end somewhere while we confront the tragic essence of this moment in our national life. Difficult questions confront us all. Why would a nation’s public sector become the playground of thieves of all grades? Why would the public treasury become the piggy bank of a succession of gangsters?
It is sad enough that serious issues of public accountability are being reduced to episodes of macabre comedy by an unserious cast of cavalier public officials. Ordinarily, public hearings before committees of the National Assembly should be serious and solemn events. Such legislative committee hearings should be for preliminary interlocution with major officials designed to give the public an insight into whatever matters of public interest the legislature is investigating. Such hearings have codes of conduct for public officials who have to appear. Also, such hearings are by no means a substitute for a thoroughgoing investigation of acts of malfeasance by the police and other security agencies. To stage these choreographed comic outings on the floor of the National Assembly masks the real challenge of according public accountability the seriousness it deserves. Worse still, these comic acts diminish the importance and seriousness of the legislature as a conclave of the representatives of Nigerians whose interests are at stake in these hearings.
When did the National Assembly turn into a court, police interrogation squad or audit investigator? It is even worse. Some of the comic actors in some of the dirty deals have variously fingered the National Assembly as co culprits in the massive haemorrhaging of the treasury. Nigerians have voiced concerns over the sheer size of our legislature. Serious concern has also been expressed about the bloated remunerations of our legislators. Not to talk of the gigantic and serial fraud called oversight. Add to that the annual ritual of budget re-writing in which the various committees of the National Assembly literally re-write the national budget by padding up figures of the ministries and departments under their purview for subsequent dubious expropriation through doubtful contracts. If we add the ongoing revelations about the contract scams in various government departments, then the National Assembly membership becomes easily one of the most lucrative organized crime syndicates in the world.
At no time will recourse to comedy alleviate the gravity of our tragic burden as a nation. The tragedy of this moment is that our political leadership has chosen to reduce serious national issues into episodes of comedy. This theatre is taking place at a time in world history when every nation is grappling with the crippling effects of a global health disaster. The economic implications are even more damning. We have had the unenviable reputation of being the poverty epicenter of the world and a place where the rights of man are abysmally abused by the moment. A bloody fundamentalist terrorist war remains largely unchecked while widespread insecurity has reduced social life to Hobbesian nakedness: brutish, short and miserable. And yet the play goes on.
To consciously convert our biggest problem, corruption, to an object of grand comedy is perhaps the greatest act of betrayal and treachery by an insensitive political leadership.