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Country first: Where is Nigeria’s John McCain in the Senate?

John McCain, a United States senator and former presidential candidate who passed away recently, represents, according to The Atlantic and many other newspapers and magazines who eulogised him, “something larger than partisanship and mercantilism and cynicism and the advancement of narrow self-interest”.


As I read and watched the bipartisan show of appreciation and support which surrounded the news of Senator McCain’s passing, I was left wondering how many of our own politicians in Nigeria could be said to pursue issues bigger than themselves. Or to go beyond petty partisanship for the greater good, beyond giving out money to silence their critics or to buy their supporters’ short-term love?

McCain gave his constituents more than sewing machines, bags of rice and tricycles: governance at its best, particularly in developed societies, goes beyond buying people’s loyalty by acting as a means of livelihood. It is about enabling people to live their lives without constantly having to go to anyone for sustenance. There is no footage of McCain handing out recharge cards to a dancing crowd or of anyone kneeling at the foot of his SUV.

He was a Senator, not a god or a king: and no matter a politician’s personal beliefs on either progressivism or conservatism, that is, their chosen means of achieving results for the people’s benefit, what unites public representatives is both the need and the desire to show a record of competent service delivery.

What would John McCain, or his counterparts in the US Senate, an institution the Nigerian Senate was modelled after, have to say about our senators? His book: Character is Destiny provides an indication: “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy, Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you”.

“Country first,” he often said. The US, of course, isn’t perfect. In many ways the opposition Republican Senators sabotaged President Barack Obama’s tenure in office by blocking many bills he wanted to pass. That is politics, and unfortunately not everyone privileged to sit in the Senate has “country first” as their mantra. What is instructive however, is that sabotage in this case was done by another party.

How is it that an APC dominated Senate constantly delayed the nation’s budget and acted like an opposition party? What does this say about its leadership? Your character is your calling card; like your record it’s the only thing you leave behind. It outlives money and any material possession. I wonder if Nigeria’s senators are ever left reflecting over their own mortality and what will be said about them when they are gone.

Interestingly, Senator McCain was a maverick: he was known for defying his party. On the Senate floor he sometimes voted against Republicans, siding with Democrats based on the issues at hand. It was his “no” vote which saved the Affordable Health Care Act, President Obama’s landmark legislation from being repelled by his successor President Donald Trump (America being the only G7 country without universal coverage and healthcare for all). McCain therefore preserved Obama’s legacy, the man who beat him when they both ran for President, because he put country first. Ask yourself now what Obasanjo, IBB, Atiku or some of your favourites would have done in his place, with the future of Nigeria hanging in the balance.

How many times have they put Nigeria first? For the sake of the American people, McCain wasn’t afraid to vote against his party. The Nigerian Senate is not fighting the executive on Nigeria’s behalf. If it were, there would be legislation or some conclusion which benefits Nigerians to show for it. Where is the legislation on jobs, healthcare, or to stimulate the economy? Instead, all we’ve read are press releases about how senators defected because they weren’t “carried along” or provided enough respect, which is nothing to do with you or I, the real reason they are supposed to be in the Senate.

Challenging your party isn’t an issue if it produces positive results for Nigerians. There is nothing wrong with having a different opinion but there is everything wrong with using this as an excuse to sabotage your own party and therefore the government and ultimately Nigerians. Senator McCain despite occasionally siding with Democrats on certain issues on the Senate floor remained a Republican all his life. Politics in functional societies is about personal convictions, not just party symbols. What I found most interesting about McCain was the fact that he resisted all forms of racism, nativism or ethnic nationalism, especially when it would have been easy for him to score cheap political points. When at a campaign event a woman claimed Obama was “an Arab”, “a Muslim”, “Not a Christian” “Not an American” and therefore untrustworthy, McCain defended Obama by saying: “No Ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

How many politicians in Nigeria have ever resisted using religion, ethnicity or all the divisive tools in their arsenal to instead affirm our common humanity? Reportedly, McCain asked that Presidents Bush and Obama who both defeated him eulogise him at his funeral. His aide, Mark Salter said: “One of things McCain says, and something he would like the country to appreciate better, is that we have so much more in common than we have that divides us; George Bush and Barack Obama defeated him. He knows this. But he knows that they are fellow Americans with the same values and interests that he shares. He may disagree with how they served those values and interests, but he knows that we are all Americans.”

Nigerians kill themselves defending corrupt, divisive individuals whose actions have hardly ever shown a willingness to put their country first or to foster unity amongst us.

McCain was famous for putting together bipartisan coalitions and meetings. His politics didn’t serve to offend or divide Americans nor did he protect those accused of stealing or provide surety to people branded “terrorists” (he would probably turn over in his grave at the idea) or do anything to subvert the state or government he served. His honour wouldn’t allow it. One of the many articles eulogising him mentioned the “Anne Frank test”, named after the famous Holocaust victim who lives on through the publication of her diary. The Anne Frank test asks of society: How many of us would hide (and therefore) save a Jewish friend at the risk of our lives if the Nazis were to return? McCain in answer to this question reportedly said: “I like to think that in the toughest moments I’d do the right thing, but you never know until you’re tested.”

So many of us in this country have been tested and failed. Public officials and ordinary citizens have connived to rob society and each other of the fundamental decencies that enable peaceful coexistence and overall progress.

Senator McCain as the media said after his death, wasn’t perfect, but he “perfectly loved his country” (quote by his former campaign adviser, Steve Schmidt). Rare are those in Nigerian politics who could be said to represent such ideals and this is the beginning of all our problems.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo

Anyone interested in the role of media and active citizenship must go online and watch Chris Cuomo, an award winning CNN journalist’s interview with Kellyann Conway, one of US President Donald Trump’s advisors.

It was epic and showed how journalists hold public officials accountable through relentless questioning when they earn a living wage guarantying their independence. Cuomo was tough and uncompromising.

Not because he dislikes Ms. Conway nor to please any paymaster but in service of the truth.

“Your boss tells lies,” he said. No journalist in our climes could ever! The fear of stating facts, of challenging powerful people even when armed with knowledge, no matter how unpleasant, our culture of deference even in the face of wrong doing, have cost us so much.


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