(Text of an address delivered by Professor M J Balogun at #OccupyNASS Event, Abuja, 26 April 2016)
Let me begin by thanking God Almighty for giving each and every one of us here present an opportunity to be part of history in the making. Were it not for the Almighty’s unparalleled wisdom and loving kindness, we would not have been inspired to leave whatever we were doing or planning to do to come here and participate in the struggle for our country’s emancipation.
I must also express my profound gratitude to the organizers of the OccupyNass event for considering me worthy of addressing this august gathering. I commend you, my esteemed brothers and sisters, for turning up in large numbers at what will go down in history as a turning point in our country’s history and in the reconstruction of the Nigerian state. That is how it should be. When the future of our country hangs in the balance, everything else must wait until that future–the willed future—is fully secured.
I too was supposed to be in Dar es Salaam, Republic of Tanzania, not here in Abuja. A Facebook post on plans to organize peaceful rallies at the National Assembly compelled me to modify my travel plan. I had to put my Tanzanian trip on hold so I could stand and be counted with those who voted for change in 2015 but had to regroup to ensure that political adventurists do not hijack and nullify the will of the People.
Reclaiming the change mandate of course requires renegotiating the terms of our independence. For too long, the instruments of independence which the British colonial authorities transferred to our forefathers on 1st October 1960 have, except on a few occasions, been confiscated by coteries of cynical, parasitic, and myopic wheeler-dealers masquerading as leaders. Where they are supposed to conduct themselves humbly as our servants, these so-called leaders haughtily parade themselves as our masters. Instead of making choices befitting their status as our agents and representatives, they have consistently swept us, the People, aside, as if we do not matter in the decision making process.
This is not how it was or is supposed to be. We won’t have had any ground to complain had we still been under the tribal chieftains’ primeval and patrimonial rule. After all, and certainly before the advent of the British, territories captured by warlords remained the strong men’s “possessions”. This accorded with the finders-keeper doctrine. None was shocked or surprised that victors in inter-tribal wars constituted themselves into virtual owners of captured territories. None questioned the local colonizers’ prerogative to run their territories as they pleased—without answering to anybody. As estate owners, the conquerors were free to extract the soil’s resources, to collect fees on tenements and farmlands, to impose tributes on the masses, and to commandeer labour for their own and their households’ benefit. As individuals without citizenship rights, the masses themselves came to terms with their fate as subjects, if not as serfs or slaves. The pre-colonial rulers might not be in the same absolute-ruler category as Louis XIV, but nothing stopped any of them from loudly proclaiming l’etat c’est moi. The average traditional ruler’s “proprietary rights” did not cease on his death, as the rights automatically reverted to, and remained in perpetuity with, his lineage and/or descendants.
When the British colonial power annexed the traditional kingdoms and took over the governorship of what we now know as Nigeria, the “ownership” of the amalgamated territory changed hands. From then on, the British Crown replaced the earlier traditional potentates as the new lord and master. Acting through colonial officials, the British promulgated ordinances, edicts and decrees over our heads. It kept us and our representatives far away from the seat and the corridors of power. The only thing the British did not do was authorize an official’s son or daughter to “inherit” the official’s post on separation. Otherwise, the British Crown deemed itself competent to rule its “overseas possessions” the way it liked. It justified its authoritarianism by citing our “backwardness”, “primitiveness”, “savagery”, “political immaturity”, and utter inability to govern ourselves. Even when we knew deep down that we had been colonized under false pretences, we endured the indignity of external subjugation until we were able to reclaim our God-given rights and freedoms.
Then came October 1, 1960. On this historic date, our leaders, having successfully led the struggle for our independence, took over the reins of power from the British. When our green-white-green flag was hoisted and the Union Jack was lowered, we thought that we, the People, were finally in charge of our destiny. We assumed that under our Constitution—the one promulgated for and on our behalf, and specifically, in our name–sovereignty would thenceforth reside with us, the People, and not with a powerful tribal chief that was born or divinely anointed to rule. We thought we had seen the back of the British colonial “master”, whose legitimacy rested not on popular mandate, but on superior military strength and mastery of “modern” technology.
With independence, we, the People, had expected those holding the reins of our government to act as our servants and not as our masters, or if that proved too much, to serve as our representatives and not as our principals. Apparently, we, the People, have been naïve all along. Those we call servants have taken over the public household and constituted themselves into our masters. When they should be representing us, they are actively representing themselves. Where we expect them to serve us, they make us serve them and their households. To hang on to power, a few of our “servants” exchange their gubernatorial for senatorial offices. Yet a few others entertain the hope of dynastic succession, that is, of their off-springs or trusted minions “inheriting” their intimidating powers and far-flung influence.
Do not get me wrong, fellow Nigerians. I do not wish to be understood as saying that a tiny minority has seized control of the apparatus of government and is hell-bent on lording it over the rest of us. It is indeed gratifying to note that we have men and women of conscience in the three—Executive, Legislative and Judicial–arms of our government. The Executive Branch, as presently constituted, has kept faith with the People, focusing as it does on the war on corruption, the enthronement of accountability, and the interdiction of impunity. If, (and this is a decidedly big ‘if’) the government follows up with diagnostic studies of its ministries’ mandates, the design and roll out of ministerial performance contracts, and the reengineering of service delivery processes, the dividends of change will reach civil society, the private sector, and individual households.
Like the Executive Branch, the Judiciary is becoming increasingly concerned about the havoc which corruption has wrought on the nation’s moral fibre and on our international image. Under the leadership of the Chief Justice of the Federation and the National Judicial Council, crooked judges, including judges caught lying about their ages, have been summarily removed. Unlike in the past when those facing corruption charges found escape routes in compromised judges, legal technicalities, and unconscionable adjournments and interminable delays, the Judiciary has lately identified itself with the People’s aspirations. The Judicial Branch realizes that public trust hinges on the timeliness, transparency, and fairness of judicial decisions.
Our Achilles heel right now is the National Assembly, particularly, the Senate. It is the weak link in the national reformation chain. Some of its members hunt with the anti-corruption hounds in broad daylight but run with the corrupt hares at night. If it is any consolation, this Branch of Government is not lacking in a few good men and women. I refer in particular to the distinguished NASS members who have so far stayed faithful to their electoral promise—the promise of Change. Unlike their colleagues who came to us in 2015, promising to fight our country’s Number One enemy, but who, on getting elected, began in earnest to cuddle corruption, these truly honorable legislators have remained steadfast in their support for the ongoing anti-corruption efforts.
Only last year, Nigerians decided they had had enough of years of drift, mismanagement, corruption and impunity. They backed their decision with votes which resulted in the resounding victory for the APC and its flag-bearer, President Muhammadu Buhari. In deference to popular demand, the President embarked on a bold and imaginative anti-corruption drive. On his watch, trillions of embezzled funds have been recovered, the anti-corruption agencies have been given a free hand to perform their statutory functions, and for the first time in decades, those hitherto considered high and mighty—i.e., untouchable, and above the law–have started answering for their deeds, past and present.
Rather than support the Executive Branch’s anti-corruption efforts, elements in the Senate have regrettably mounted a rear-guard action calculated to halt or undermine the efforts. Rather than work on obligatory anti-corruption laws (like those aimed at fighting money-laundering, protecting whistle-blowers, and fast-tracking corruption trials), the Senate has brazenly pitched its tent with those facing corruption charges. When Nigerians look up to their elected representatives to come up with pro-active anti-crime legislation (as in laws targeted at drug barons and traffickers, “pen robbers”, kidnappers, ritual killers, hired assassins, cultists, vandals and economic saboteurs), our NASS members are busy cooking up “constituency projects” which are neither preceded with technical feasibility studies nor synchronized with the Executive Branch’s medium-term plans and implementation capacity! Instead of standing clear and allowing the judicial process to take its course, the Senate has (through its Ethics Committee) undermined its integrity and credibility by ordering a judge trying one of its own to appear from it! This act of intimidation is a clear abuse of the Senate’s oversight power.
That is not all. As if the abortive attempts to muffle whistle-blowers (through the tabling of Social Media Bill and the one meant to browbeat petition writers) were not telling enough, the Senate entertained two ludicrous Bills, notably, “Senate Bill 248 – A Bill for an Act to Amend the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, Cap. C15, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria and for Other Related Matters”, and “Senate Bill 249 – A Bill for an Act to Amend the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 and for Other Related Matters”. The timing of both Bills could not have been more wrong, or, if I may hit the nail on the head and add, more suspicious, more at variance with the People’s will, and more reprehensible. Even if we, the People, were mere toddlers, we could still draw a connection between these legislative gambits and ongoing corruption trials!
Public outcry against the two obnoxious Bills eventually led to the “suspension” of deliberations on the first, i.e., Senate Bill 248. That of course is cold comfort. The decision to back down changes nothing. This Senate has already shown its hand. The question is what we intend to do about this, i.e., about the wilful, persistent, and systematic contempt for the People’s sovereign will.
In my humble opinion, this is the time to critically interrogate the role and relevance of the Senate. If this body has lost its focus, now is the time to consider the first genuine constitutional amendment—one emanating from the People and clearly demanding that the Senate be scrapped or drastically reformed. Until that happens, we should not lose the OccupyNASS momentum. We need to carry the message to every nook and cranny, meaning, every city, town, village or hamlet. In addition to canvassing popular support for the proposed constitutional amendment at public rallies, we should collect signatures demanding the recall of those legislators who have betrayed their constituents. Each and every legislator that cuddles corruption or otherwise seeks to frustrate the will freely expressed in 2015 does not deserve to return to, or remain in, NASS.
By the way, if our forefathers who practically “brought in independence” did not “own” Nigeria, how can a handful of lawmakers stampede us into signing a dubious “change of ownership” at this material time?