The first few paragraphs of Mr. Peterside’s admittedly well-written piece are a remarkable exercise in the business of contradiction. In seeking to openly undermine Nigeria’s democratic institutions, Mr. Peterside cannot avoid making a case for democracy itself, albeit the one he favours (or which favours him).
The most charitable reading of the piece is that Mr. Peterside misunderstands how democracy is supposed to work. It is also possible that he deliberately seeks to misinform opinion to push his own agenda. Neither is permissible.
There are 2 big things he gets wrong. READ!! Atedo Peterside: This National Conference Must Succeed
First, he levels several charges against the legislature, all of them true. He then pretty much condemns them in a bid to lower their status while simultaneously raising the status of the national conference he is going to be a part of.
We can use the American example to counter this misunderstanding. Since records began in 1974, the approval ratings for the United States Congress have consistently been below 40%. In 2013, it reached a record low of 12%, in other words 88% of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing. Nevertheless, year after year, Congress persists with a full complement of legislators. No matter how much Americans insult them and express frustration at their behavior, they never seem to change.
Why is this the case? The simple answer is that ‘Congress’ does not exist on the ballot paper. Americans may continue to disapprove of ‘Congress’ in record numbers but there is no way to punish them on the ballot paper in the same way they can exact punishment on the President at the polls. Thus, it is easy to see how legislators in a democracy can have a unique perspective in terms of how incentives work. It is possible for a lawmaker to be utterly useless in ‘Congress’ yet be a darling to his people who will keep re-electing him. It opens a delightful gap to be exploited, if you are a duplicitous politician, in the democratic set-up, which allows a lawmaker to be all things to all men – say one thing in Washington and say a completely different thing in Harlan County, Kentucky.
These points apply to Nigeria as well – all sorts of characters who irritate Nigerians generally but manage to keep getting re-elected populate our NASS, including criminals. As if to rub salt into our open wounds, they pay themselves an obscene amount of money to do minimal work. Their approval rating among Nigerians must be around zero, or less.
Alas, the system was designed to work this way because those who drew it up were not aiming for perfection but for the least bad option. No matter how bad it is, a legislature is compulsory in a democracy because without one, we will have an even bigger problem to contend with i.e. a rampant executive.
The second thing Mr. Peterside gets wrong is a misunderstanding of what it takes to get big things done in a democracy. There is a scene in the 2013 movie ‘Lincoln’ that is instructive. As President Abraham Lincoln battles to get the 13th Amendment through Congress in the final months of the American Civil War, he has a meeting with his cabinet which ends in his frustration and in anger declaring ‘I am President of the United States, clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes!’ And procure is exactly what his team did – the Nigerian equivalent of distributing ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ to lawmakers to induce them to pass a law. All that ‘immense power’ could only be realised through dubious means in the end.
Looking back today, we might be tempted to wonder how anyone could possibly vote against freeing slaves, but in those days, the facts often didn’t speak for themselves. Lincoln had the superior moral argument and wanted to push through the amendment, not just for the slaves at the time (who didn’t even have a voice) but ‘to settle the matter for the millions not yet born’. Looking at it this way, inducing lawmakers to do the right, and now obvious thing, was a very small price to pay indeed or the freedom of millions of people.
Those who love eating sausages are often warned against visiting factories where they are produced because the process of arriving at sausages is a very disgusting one indeed. More recently, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed by President Lyndon B Johnson was pushed through Congress using all manner of tactics. Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, had a broadcasting empire made up mainly of radio stations and she and her husband used advertising slots on their stations to induce lawmakers to push their legislation through Congress. It wasn’t pretty.
These 2 points reveal Mr. Peterside’s article for what it is – an excuse for poor leadership in Nigeria. There is no evidence that our current leadership, possessed by a moral argument to make the future better for those not yet born, is doing whatever it takes to push through reforms of our laws and our ways. All we see is people unable to rise above the selfishness that so easily besets them meaning that only the things that personally favour them get them out of bed at all.
Except when death intervenes (Yar’Adua) or they run out of time (Abdulsalami), Nigerian leaders can always be trusted to convene some kind of national conference to allow Nigerians, a naturally talkative people, to ‘talk’. And the more conferences we have, the stronger the law of diminishing returns takes a hold of them – no reasonable person can call the last one in 2005 by President Obasanjo a success. They are increasingly condemned to frivolity and maybe in the near future, if we persist with them, we might convene a conference, which achieves nothing more than changing a few lines in the national anthem.
Saying ‘88% of Nigerians support the conference’ is also a very funny exercise in statistical legerdemain. I imagine an even greater percentage of Nigerians support keeping petrol subsidies which Mr. Peterside campaigned vigorously to have removed a couple of years ago. One important point of democracy is that it must always help to curb our worst excesses as a people and not legitimize mob behaviour. Personally I am always wary of anything where Nigerians seem to overwhelmingly agree with each other. It is not always bad (an example being football) but it must always be scrunitised.
The argument being pushed by Mr. Peterside to legitimize the coming national conference is by no means a benign one. It is in fact dangerous. Achieving legitimacy by openly undermining existing democratic institutions is a slippery slope. That this conference is coming almost immediately after the NASS went on a tour of Nigeria to gather points on amending the constitution is a further slap in the face of democracy. In this regard, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu is right to defend the work of the NASS, as limited as it was. But the sheer venality of our lawmakers guarantees that no one will listen to him. It is this gap that the current administration and Mr. Peterside are exploiting to advance their own conference agenda. But let us be clear about this – this will not in any way strengthen our democracy and we will be dealing with the problems long after Mr. Peterside and company have departed from the stage.
I happen to use an iPhone and was amazed to read an article recently by a tech expert who broke down all the major components of an iPhone today and then tried to work out how much such a phone would have cost in 1991. He came up with an astonishing figure of US$3.58m for a phone that costs less than US$1,000 now. Furthermore, another expert looked at a 1991 advertisement for Radio Shack, a technology store, and concluded that every single item you could buy from the store back then has now been rendered obsolete by a single device – the iPhone. Little by little, refinement by refinement, marginal revolution by marginal revolution, the cost of a 32GB flash memory has been forced down from US$1.4m in 1991 to US$18 today making it possible to put it inside a phone within the reach of millions of people.
This is how we will need to beat our democracy into shape – relentlessly hammering it, especially the NASS, until it does our bidding and reflects our will as a people. Throwing a constitutional conference tantrum every few years will get us nowhere.
Because our democracy and leadership has continually failed to do big things, we are forced to abide these small solutions of national conferences. If Abraham Lincoln’s only reason for the 13th Amendment was to free the slaves at the time, he might well have been defeated by an unreasonable but not irrational Congress. It was by seeing beyond the present and elevating the argument to a fight for those who had not yet even been born that he managed to prevail. Leadership matters and you always have to play the hand you are dealt not try to change the rules or complain about the cards. It is also why the US Congress now and again manages to do important landmark things that change the country – Obamacare being a recent example – even if Americans continue to hold them in contempt. Voters often have to hold their noses and make choices they don’t agree with in a democracy.
So to Mr. Peterside and the ‘lucky’ delegates this time, I say – good for you. Some of you are newly favoured while others are being favoured for the first time. I can only hope that you will be the last such set.
But in the language of my generation now proliferated on the 24/7/365 national conference that is social media in Nigeria, I say ‘Yimu’ to all of you.
Feyi is an accountant in London with several unreconciled balances to deal with on any given Tuesday. He takes his job of commenting on any policy issue in Nigeria from the safety of faraway London very seriously. Everything he knows about economics, he learnt from reading reviews of textbooks on Amazon. Follow him on twitter: @DoubleEph
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