By Rotimi Fadsan
DURING his talk at the first Akintola Williams Annual Lecture, former President Olusegun Obasanjo x-rayed certain aspects of governance in Nigeria. He beamed his searchlight on the state of the economy, the judiciary, the legislature and the fight against corruption.
He came down hard on the legislature, specifically the National Assembly which he described as a den of unarmed robbers. On the economy, he urged Muhammadu Buhari to take concrete steps to fix it. As others have observed before now, Obasanjo does not see how the fight against corruption should hobble effort to fix the economy. In other words, he does not believe the two activities are mutually exclusive, zero sum game. Indeed, he rightly observes that failure to get the economy on an even keel could ultimately hurt whatever gains are made in the fight against corruption.
Not unexpectedly Obasanjo’s remarks have elicited very passionate reactions from Nigerians. People have responded in the typical way they have always done to such periodic interventions on the state of the nation by the former president.
They focused almost exclusively on the messenger, turning their nose at the message. Giving his own role in many aspects of the governance of this country, it would be hard for Obasanjo not to be put under the spotlight whenever he makes remarks critical of the country’s leaders as he has just done. People often feel obliged to criticise Obasanjo’s own record in government. While this is justified in certain instances, it cannot and should not be seen as appropriate answer to the fundamental questions of governance his lecture raised. There was too much passion in the reaction to the critical issues of the lecture than could be useful for any reasoned analysis. It was in the end a wasteful investment in emotion on the part of many of his critics especially members of the House of Representatives.
The House, nettled by the lecture and no doubt smarting from the sting, was quick to respond even when its spokespersons claimed it would rather not want to join issues with Obasanjo. It nevertheless called the former president the grandfather of corruption. The response from the House is not only lame but is neither here nor there. It fails to address the question of probity raised by Obasanjo. What does the House have to say about Obasanjo’s claim that each member goes home with a princely sum of N10 Million every month while their counterparts in the Senate each goes home with N15 Million? Nothing! For many years now, the issue of what members of the National Assembly earn has been shrouded in mystery. While it is possible to say in clear terms what the president and the vice president earn as salary, the same cannot be said of our national legislators. In the name of constituency allowance and all sorts of hidden expenses this largely self-serving body of so-called law makers continues to run this country into debt.
A responsible law making body which the National Assembly pretends to be would not be taking delivery of brand new fancy cars needed for so-called constituency projects at a time the rest of those in whose name they claim to serve are starving and are unsure of where their next meal would come from. The Buhari government talks of the economy being in recession, urging Nigerians to adopt belt-tightening measures and the National Assembly parrots the claim even when it reflects no evidence that it operates in an economy in recession in its grasping ways. The Academic Staff Union of Universities got the ears of the National Assembly when it embarked on a warning strike to press home its demands for improvement in the education sector. The National Assembly intervened to play the peace maker in the disagreement between the Federal Government and ASUU without acknowledging its part in the rot ASUU has taken up arms against. Nor are our legislators ready to give up any of their unearned privileges as a mark of their commitment to improving things.
Other Nigerians who have responded to Obasanjo’s comments at the Akintola Williams lecture have hardly done better than the House of Representatives. Not a few have chosen to view Obasanjo’s remarks as a betrayal of the Mu hammadu Buhari administration. This note of betrayal could be heard in some of the responses to Obasanjo’s lecture from the House of Representatives. For Nigerians in this category, Obasanjo as a frequent guest of Buhari and supporter of his government has no business criticising the president or his administration’s policies in the open. Remarks such as these confuse support for a government or an individual with suspension of critical but constructive comments. This is a major flaw in the manner Nigerians tend to interpret an individual’s support for a government. We all, when it is convenient for us, claim to be open to ‘constructive criticism’ but fail to accept it when it is directed at somebody we are supposed to have supported.
It’s in this same vein that some people hurl abuses at persons or groups they perceive as having played a role in installing the Buhari administration or supported the candidacy of the incumbent president. To every statement critical of the Buhari government, they respond with ‘That is the change you voted for’. Case closed. If that was ‘the change’ I voted for and that change seems not to be happening in the manner promised or envisaged, what stops me or any reasonable person from asking questions? Should one simply go on in blind support of a policy, individual or government that is not living up to expectation simply because one had lent them initial support? If your support was based on certain expectations that are not being met what is the crime in changing tack?
And why should any statement by a perceived or confirmed supporter of a political leader- why should any such statement not dripping with sycophancy be read as a betrayal? Are ‘honest’ and ‘criticism’ necessarily antithetical words? Why should some Nigerians find it difficult to understand that one can be critical without being motivated by ill-will or any other base motive? Why should anyone defend an untenable position in order not to be seen as losing face? How often do we hear it said that it’s a child that their parents love that is chastised? Must chastisement mean hatred? At what point does it become an act of betrayal to ask questions?
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was established to fight corruption by Obasanjo. Obasanjo did other thngs besides fighting corruption. And so should Buhari. Nigerians are hungry and are quite justifiably getting angry. A nation that cannot feed itself but claims to be fighting corruption is lost even if it does not know it.