The TV footage showed the two leaders of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara exited Aso Rock. They were resplendent in their light-colored agbadas. The trappings and pomp of their powers and offices were incandescently evident. Their dignified reserve and almost regal deportment were unmistakable. As they talked to the press, Bukola Saraki, a scion of a Kwara State political dynasty looked every inch cultured and cultivated, and with a weak smile that somewhat revealed his ivory-white gap teeth, Yakubu Dogara cut the image of a quintessential gentleman: urbane and dignified. Educated, if not erudite, they, with their elitist English, lucidly articulated national issues of the time. The scène was picturesque.
But then, like most things Nigerian, it is all about looks and image. Nigerians are obsessed with looks that it, sometimes, becomes more important than substance. The Nigerian constitution was written to look like the American constitution. But, although we take pride in our American-styled constitution, we reject the patriotism and obedience to the law that are the bedrocks of the American society, and our political class disregard the probity, decency, discipline and commitment to duty of American politicians and public servants. Abuja, I learnt, was planned to look like Washington, DC. In line with the same obsession with looks, Governor Ambode of Lagos State is desperately trying to cast a Parisian or Washingtonian façade over the lawlessness, indiscipline and confusion of Lagos.
Similarly, Nigerian democracy is a façade, a veneer covering the essence of despotism that lurks beneath. So, while Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara are ostensibly guardians of a democratic constitutions and sentinels of the legitimate aspirations of the people, they preside over a profligate, rapacious and financially dishonest National Assembly. Extreme wastefulness, grasping avarice and official corruption are the hallmarks of not only the National Assembly but all arms of the Nigerian government. Supposedly, Nigerian public servants are the representatives and servants of the people. But, in reality, sheltered in their cocoon of unbridled privileges and boundless perks, and consumed by cupidity, they are scornfully indifferent to the unbearable hardship that pervades the lives of the generality of Nigerians. And in their arrogance of absolutism, they behavior as though ordinary Nigerians have no right worthy of protection by the law.
Nigerian democracy has all the trappings of democracy but lacks its essentials: rule of law, equitable distribution of the national wealth, respect for fundamental individual rights, protection of citizens from abuse by government officials and agents. It is a democracy where the generality of the people do not shares in the general prosperity of the country. For a band of kleptomaniacs, masquerading as politicians, unrivaled in their thievery and profligacy, subverted a principled distribution of the national wealth, and thus, consigned a disproportionate percentage of the citizens of this wealthy country to hopeless, gateless poverty. Fittingly, a onetime United States of American Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, referred to Nigeria as, “the poorest oil-rich nation in the world”. What an oxymoron – oil-rich poverty? Her oil-rich poverty is obvious in that despite her oil wealth, Nigeria ranks with the poorest and war-torn countries of the world in life expectancy, child mortality, and other social indexes. And life is a cruel grind for countless Nigerians; so many are consumed by the drudgery for daily existence, and can only subsist in raw-dirt poverty.
The power elite, with the arrogance of power only becoming of colonial masters and medieval feudal lords, run people off the street with their siren-blaring motorcades. And those that could not scamper off the street fast enough get beaten up by their security details. Their motorcades ran people over and caused fatal accidents, and in their arrogance, they neither admit their offenses nor apologize. In their systematic degradation of the masses, Nigerian governors order the demolition of homes without due process, throwing families with children, babies and pregnant women out in the rain and cold. A man’s home is his castle; and it is sacrosanct. And its inviolability must be respected even when the home is an illegally built tumbled-down shack. A democratic government must inescapably be sensitive to the wellbeing and sensibilities of the people, even those that inhabit shanty-towns and illegal structures. Therefore, their eviction from their homes still demands painstaking adherence to due process and the rule of law.
The Nigerian society is repressive and intimidating; it reduces many Nigerians to a life of fear and timidity. They cringe in fear government officials, landlords, pastors and agents of the government, like police and soldiers. As though it is beholden to a colonial power, the Nigerian Police Force is brutal. It is globally notorious for its trigger-happiness and extra-judicial killings; it tortures and murders the innocent without a twinge of the conscience. Although confirmed to barracks, Nigeria soldiers still foray into civil centers to maim and kill civilians for the flimsiest reasons. Lamentably, most of the times, they go unpunished. In addition to the extempore abuses and murders of civilians by soldiers, the military hierarchy has, on occasions, ordered the mass murder of harmless civilians.
For example, on November 19, 1999 soldiers acting on the orders of the government of Olusegun Obasanjo, in revenge for the earlier killing of 12 policemen by Ijaw militants, invaded the village of Odi. They shot and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians and burnt down every building in the village except the bank, Anglican Church and health center. On December 12, 2015, in Zaria, the Nigerian military, acting on the orders of their commanders, killed more than 400 (by some estimates 1000) Shiite Moslems, including women and children, and burnt down their homes. To dissemble the enormity of their butchery, they hurriedly buried hundreds of the dead in secret mass graves. The only crime of the Shiites was that they blocked the army chief, Tukur Buratai, and his entourage (en-route to the palace of the Emir of Zaria), entrance into the Shiite part of town. Lamentably, thus far, no one has been held accountable or punished for these murderous overkills. It is high time some Nigerian political and military leaders started being arraigned for crimes against humanity.
It has been written that “the root of bondage is poverty and the root of poverty is ignorance”. The object of the deliberate impoverishment of Nigerians by the power elite must be to keep them in bondage. The gratuitous brutality of Nigerian police reeks of the suppression of recalcitrant slaves by slave masters. And the Odi and Zaria slaughters were repulsively redolent of Nazi reprisal killings in Axis-occupied Europe. Instructively, bondage, slavery and Nazi-styled butchery are not attributes of democracy. They are the crux of tyranny. Evidently, Nigeria is a tyranny in the cloak of democracy.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria