Speaking Out

June 11, 2009

What happened to the banana peel?

By Morenike Taire
FOR the legislative arm of our civil rule, the beginning was nothing less than troubled. It was a time when the first speaker, Ibrahim Salisu Buhari, also known as Imam, was found to have lied about his educational qualification in order to get into the House in the first place.

That House had denounced the impostor (who is said now to have mended his ways and finally got a degree), and promptly replaced him. But its troubles had only just begun, it seemed.

In August of 2000, BBC News reported: Nigeria’s Senate President, Chuba Okadigbo, has been impeached following a damning inquiry into corruption and mismanagement in the Upper House. He had been accused, amongst other things, of having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on  furniture, and of having 32 cars.

“Does this mean”, BBC had asked, “that nothing has changed since the introduction of civilian rule in Nigeria? Or is the Senate inquiry and its after-effects a sign that corruption will be tolerated no longer?”

It was the sad end of the scandal that had been dubbed the “Furniture Allowance” scandal, which was to become recurrent. Though many heads had rolled on account of that scandal in that Senate and other senators had resigned, including Okadigbo’s deputy, another scandal of the same nature, though larger in scale, was to rear its ugly head years later.

In the Patricia Etteh years, Nigerian legislative troubles were to take a female face when the lady at the helm of the lower house had been found to have voted more than half a billion naira for the redecoration of her quarters, and had lost her seat-and reputation-for it.

But that is jumping the gun.  Before Etteh, the new legislature had seen many faces come and go in its leadership positions.  There had been brawls and rumours of brawls, with members having once thrown seats and other pieces of furniture at one another.

There had been terrible bribery scandals and rumours of the same, particularly pertaining to the third term wahala at the tail end of the Obasanjo administration.

Before the late Chuba had been the late Evan(s) Enwerem in the Senate’s presidential chair, who became the first Senate president in June 1999, and whose first name has still not been confirmed to the public till date.

Though Enwerem set the tone, it was Okadigbo who fought with all he had (he once was said to have carried the mace to his home town) to keep his seat. When he lost it, the banana peel syndrome was said to have been responsible.

In the same spirit, also to resist the banana peel was the next presidents of the upper house,  Adophus Wagbara and Anyim Pius Anyim, who exited the scene with so much dignity that he was actually convincing.

It is no wonder, then, that questions are being asked of how incumbent Senate President David Mark seems to have escaped the banana peel, particularly considering how naturally scandal-prone he appears to have been all his public life.

While serving under Babangida as Minister of Communications, he was rumoured to have been so wealthy that he had bought a whole golf course in Western Europe.  He is also credited with the famous statement: “Telephone is not for the poor”, though he has denied the context in which this has been bandied.  He is also rumoured to be an advocate of military dictatorship.

Senator Mark, who was once military governor of Niger State, has had an almost trouble-free reign of the upper house which has made people wonder whether he has truly been reborn, or just acting a script.

Yet, stability in the legislative chambers is not left to the Senate president alone. While Senator Mark has put into use incredible diplomatic skills (where on earth did he get them from?), it is becoming increasingly clear that the Senate upon which he presides is a much calmer one. Watchers ascribe this calmness to three factors.

The first is the fact of the President himself being from a minority group, who appear to be more supportive of their own in Abuja than the majority ethnic groups have proved to be.

The second is that fact that the Nigerian people have become more demanding of their representatives in Abuja, owing mainly to the constant monitoring by the media, both print and broadcast.

The third has to do with the party, which is said to have become more cohesive in recent years partly owing to fear of competition and partly owing to the reduced influence of former President Obasanjo, whose influence within the party is said to be reduced.