As If There Is No Change In The Air By Ropo Sekoni

To match Interview NIGERIA-BUHARI/

The recent expression of worries of members of the National Peace Committee (now re-named the National Peace Council) at the end of a meeting with President Buhari provides a subtle demonstration of the desire to tolerate the culture of impunity

The more things change, the more they remain the same? This question cannot be more apt than it appears to be in today’s Nigeria. Many pundits are already describing the durability of old habits in the country as a manifestation of the Nigeria Factor, a psycho-social condition that  gives Nigerians across the social spectrum oversize energy to make the wrong thing look right without blinking; to do the wrong thing and expect the right result; etc. How else does one explain the behaviour of some members of the Peace Committee or of the Senate that is still not totally out of the woods from the crisis some of its members foisted on the body of the country’s upper legislative chamber a few weeks ago?

Immunity or the flair to soar above the rule of law has been a part of the Nigerian condition for a very long time. It did not come with the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan nor with the first post-military civilian regime midwifed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Immunity in political, social, and economic matters was present during most of the decades of military rule. Military dictators fired tenured civil servants with enthusiasm and without any reference to the law of the land.  There were also military governors who flogged civil servants; shaved the heads of journalists; and ordered some public servants to do frog jumping. What got worse over time and especially during the post-military civilian regime since 1999 is the desire of elected political office holders or appointed ones to do whatever appealed to their fancy, without worrying about how such behaviour advances the cause of accountable, ethical, and elegant civic life.

The recent expression of worries of members of the National Peace Committee (now re-named the National Peace Council) at the end of a meeting with President Buhari provides a subtle demonstration of the desire to tolerate the culture of impunity. Some of the statements of Bishop Kukah in particular should worry lovers of democratic governance. In his assurance to citizens about the objective of the meeting the National Peace Committee held with President Buhari, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto said: “I think what we are concerned about is the process. It is no longer a military regime and under our existing laws, everybody is innocent until proven guilty. . . .Again, our own commitment is not to intimidate or fight anybody. The former president’s commitment and what he did still remains spectacular and I think that President Buhari himself appreciates that. So, our effort really is to make sure that the right thing is done.”

As much as the Bishop tried to assure citizens that the NPC is not worried about the federal government’s decision to put on trial those under investigation for looting the nation’s treasury, there are still questions that are not answered by his clarifications on the purpose of the special meeting with President Buhari. What has the president done since his assumption of office to suggest that he is likely to act in contravention of the principle of rule of law or to ignore ‘doing the right thing’? Have any citizens approached the National Peace Committee that their rights have been violated? Since when did the NPC, a group cobbled together before the 2015 presidential election, become a group for promotion of human rights in place of the constitution and the judiciary? Are there any suggestions that those being prepared for arraignment in a matter of weeks may be unable to protect their rights, should President Buhari’s government put them on trial without just cause? Perhaps, the NPC needs to give citizens more information about details of the negotiations that made the result of the presidential election acceptable to former President Jonathan, if only to assure citizens that the Committee/Council is not to become a non-elected and informal layer in the governing process.

Now that President Buhari has given the National Peace Committee a new name, is this an indication that the body has been given a new lease of life? In what specific areas is the National Peace Council to look for peace? What exactly has broken that the NPC is now being charged or re-charged to fix? The nation and the entire world had amply congratulated former President Jonathan for accepting the results of the 2015 presidential election. What other matters are yet to be resolved after the graceful departure of Dr. Jonathan at the end of the inauguration of President Buhari? What is the cause of democratic governance going to gain from NPC becoming a permanent feature of the political culture? Is the extension of the tenure of the Peace Council an indication that the war in Nigeria is not just the one with Boko Haram but others within the polity that are yet to be named?

Furthermore, is the re-naming of the Peace Committee an attempt to turn the ad hoc group into a standing body to settle issues outside the judicial framework? Shouldn’t members of the committee give the new president the benefit of the doubt that he ought to know what is right to do before accusing or arraigning any citizen on charges of corruption? Is it too much to expect that President Buhari can understand without being prodded that the government he now heads is not a military regime, months after he had contested and won a national election? Once a new government is in power, such pre-election groups set up to advise outgoing and incoming administrations should be allowed to move off the political and media radar, particularly once they had fulfilled the objective for which they were created. Shouldn’t members of the Peace Committee/Council have been thanked for a job well done and given the time to face their regular responsibilities in the various sectors of the society from which they were recruited?

There is also a report that the Senate has decided abruptly to end public hearing on review of its members’ salaries and allowances. The Senate has chosen to refer matters of salary review to its own committees while some of its members are noting that the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission is the sole authority to determine how much lawmakers earn. It is reassuring that the Senate is now preoccupied with the matter of process. Other senators seem to have concluded that having pruned down the budget of the national assembly from 150 billion to 120 billion naira, there should be no need for any review of the salaries and perquisites of lawmakers. In the tradition of maximising the use of power entrusted to individuals and groups in an ethos characterised by immunity, the Senate is acting as if it wants to avoid being monitored by citizens who initially showed concerns about the oversize pay and benefit package of lawmakers.

Is the Senate leader’s decision to move debate over salary/allowance review from public gaze an attempt to sweep the matter of legislative finance under the mat? The culture of the last national assembly was similar in many ways to that of the executive of the time. During the Jonathan era, it was not unusual for lawmakers to summon members of the executive for fact-finding and for such office holders to refuse to heed such calls with impunity. For four years, the lawmakers kept with impunity the details of their salaries and allowances away from the public. It is therefore not unlikely that the decision to halt public hearing on salary and allowance is being made with the belief that there is nothing citizens can do to make senators change their mind on how much they want to be paid.

What senators should not be allowed to forget is that the game has changed. The voters that brought the lawmakers to office are starkly different from those that were claimed to have voted for many of them four years ago. In 2015, majority of voters got fed up with the ethic and style of governance and lawmaking in the last six or more years and thus voted for a new governance ethic. The mandate given to majority of the lawmakers last April, just like the one given to President Buhari, is one that requires transparency and accountability. If there are lawmakers who believe that they can muscle their way into any level of salary and allowance they feel can carry “increasing obligations to their constituencies,” they will need to remember that the constituents they now have will like to be consulted fully on all matters including how much their representatives take home as salaries and allowances. Should the nation’s revenue profile require any form of rationalisation that may affect any kind of allowance for lawmakers personally or for their constituencies, legislators and the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission need to be made aware of the principle that ultimate sovereignty lies with the citizens, not their representatives in the lower or upper House.