The 19th century German philosopher Friedrick Hegel is credited with the insightful observation about human behavior that “the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn anything from history.” I can’t speak of other races, but Hegel is spot on when it comes to us Africans.
This time last year, Nigeria was in the throes of an induced paralysis that was a direct consequence of machinations by a small group of self-appointed surrogates of its dying president who was himself imposed on the country (as oppose to being elected by the people,) to begin with. This notorious cabal, under the direct control, and supervision of the late president’s wife Turai, was so brazen and resolute in their determination to protect the illegitimate perks of office that was flowing to them as illegal Lobbyists and “Consultants,” that they held a comatose man hostage just to prop up the lie that he was alive and recovering from his terminal illness. God being what it is, yanked the curtains away from them, and brought the silly Picaboo, I Fool-Ya! game they had going to an unceremonious, but much needed halt.
Of course, we Africans are a wonderful lot, with our many unstated unique rules. Among these many peculiar unwritten rules is the stipulation that one cannot tell the bitter truth about a dead person. President Yar’Adua, who openly sided with Nigeria’s most celebrated former executive crooks in defiance of popular opinion during his short anticlimactic rule (he admitted publicly without any sense of shame or irony that the men were his “friends” for which reason, he would not hold them accountable for their misdeeds as Governors,) immediately became a saint upon his death. The recent and ongoing legal travails of former mis-Governor James Ibori, a Yar’Adua bosom buddy and his acolytes are very instructive. No such comeuppance would have been possible had Yar’Adua being alive. So please forgive my indiscretion in breaking one of our peculiar rules.
Yar’Adua’s infamous widow, who in more sane political climes, would most probably by now be under investigation or being prosecuted for her flagrant multi-dimensional violations of her country’s laws, was recently – if news papers have it right, guaranteed lifetime pension at public expense. As if she hasn’t stocked up enough on illicit wealth already. For what are Nigerians paying this woman whose contribution to Nigerian politics and public administration is to have made herself an exemplar of impunity? Since when is that something to be rewarded? But then, when one remembers that Mrs. Yar’Adua owes her generous pension to the benevolence of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient legislature where a prior record of disrepute in the public service arena only enhances one’s trustworthiness as a “Settlement” or Shake-down partner, there’s really no news here. It’s a case of members of the Cosa Nostra looking out for family!
For the record, Mrs. Yar’Adua personified greed and excess: she saw her husband’s accidental and lackluster presidency as an opportunity to engage in a primitive acquisition of wealth by any means necessary; she saw the same job as an opportunity to build a dynasty by marrying her daughters off as junior wives to corrupt, but well-connected politicos old enough to be their fathers –ostensibly for material purposes; she also saw her husband’s job as an opportunity to compensate for her lack of exposure due to her hitherto sheltered life by engaging in needless globe-trotting at public expense; and she mastered a well-rehearsed lexicon used by all African despots and corrupt mis-rulers who assign labels like “patriotic” and “unpatriotic” to citizens base on their attitude towards the ruling family. Those who demur to them or “know their place” are “patriotic.” Those who dare question them on behalf of the public are call “unpatriotic” or portrayed as lackeys of some foreign power. It was this warped mindset that enabled Turai Yar’Adua to justify cavorting with a common thief like James Ibori while shunning stellar citizens of international repute.
The question that is begging to be answered is: What is to deter spouses of current and future chief executives -be at State or Federal level, from copying Mrs. Yar’Adua’s ugly example given the Golden Handshake she is handed as oppose to being held accountable for her misbehavior? While I feel sorry for her for losing her husband prematurely, that fact is not exculpatory either in the eyes of the law, or national interest. Which brings me to the main idea behind this write-up.
Why aren’t Nigerian civil society organizations demanding a Turai Yar’Adua Amendment to the constitution?
Turai’s case exemplifies the “Twofer” paradox inherent in all African elections: (where votes count at all,) people vote thinking they’re getting one president but end up with two! As her husband’s Diminishing Marginal Usefulness became apparent, contrary to the provisions in the current constitution, Turai took over as substantive president making policy decisions, appointing officials to important national institutions, awarding contracts, deciding who gets to see, talk to, or know the truth about her husband’s condition; even leading government delegations to international conferences. I was horrified to watch the woman on NTA one night last year being shown around a scientific conference in Switzerland. I still can’t get that image out of my mind – not because of what I saw, but what I imagine her hosts must be saying in private about an unlettered First Lady crashing a meeting convened to discuss serious global scientific issues! And we wonder why other people are so dismissive of us Africans.
In my view, it’s no longer enough to moot the role of a First Spouse. It should be defined clearly in the constitution as the unelected, collateral, and powerless advisory role it really is. The limitations of the First Spouse should also be stated in black and white: what a First Spouse can or cannot do especially under national emergency situations. And the sanction for violating such law should be stated as well.
This is necessary for several reasons. First, in all fairness to Mrs. Yar’Adua, she is more the rule than the exception. I’ve been following Nigerian politics for long, and from my readings, I would bet anything that things could be much worse for a Nigeria with many other women in Turai’s shoes. My guts tell me that the low profile currently been kept by Turai’s care-taker successor, has little to do with some new-found providence, or epiphany. Rather, my hunch is, it’s a conscious self-imposed “eye-on-the-prize” resolve, meant to assuage hawkeyed citizens until the husband wins his own mandate. Then the real Mrs. Jonathan will cut the leash holding her. My cynicism is informed by the madam’s quick dart to the Mid-East shortly after her husband inherited the presidency to upgrade her Pata-Pata accoutrements. I suppose the ones she had were fine –for a VP’s wife! There’s nothing reassuring about Mrs. Jonathan’s behavior even when one discounts stories about her past colorful foreign currency transactions.
Second, it’s pretty obvious that –as a people, we’re not good at picking up subtle messages. Though I haven’t read a copy, I’m certain the fine print of the current Nigerian constitution addresses the order of executive authority under emergencies. Yet that dictate somehow got lost in translation in Yar’Adua’s case. Since some people cannot read between the lines, all subtlety in the constitution should be dispensed with, and replaced by clear Dos and Don’ts by First Spouses.
Third, the same amendment need to state citizens’ inalienable right to know the health status of all candidates for, and holders of political office. The physicians of such public employees should be mandated to report the results of their health assessments to the public as is done elsewhere in the world. After all, it’s the public that funds such public official’s health care.
Now, I’m so a naïve as to think this amendment would stop another power hungry First Spouse to abuse his or her privilege. But it will give the public recourse to hold such person to account.
The importance of Nigeria finally growing up and assuming its rightful place in Africa cannot be over-emphasized. I come from a country that used to be called Gambia. But for years now, it has been informally called more appropriate names by us native Gambians. However, if our maximum ruler Yaya Jammeh feels comfortable enough that the real Big Boys in world politics would let him, our country will soon be known as the world’s latest kingdom. Some of my countrymen are currently up in arms over this. Yet, ironically, Jammeh crowning himself king would actually put an end to the farce that is the classification of Gambia as a Democracy. Jammeh’s coronation would formalize what has in fact been the case in substance –for years. You see, for years now, when Yaya Jammeh wants something -be that real estate, a business, someone’s car, other property, or even woman, he simply takes. And he has long since stopped pretending that there’s a difference between his personal money and the country’s. No kidding! Never has the concept of Imminent Domain been more abused as it currently is in Gambia. Yet, in him, Gambia has a strong Nigeria connection.
Unknown to most Nigerians, Jammeh owes his good fortune to Sani Abacha who propped and funded him when Bill Clinton was tightening the noose around him in 1995. It was not an accident that Jammeh was the only leader who sided with Abacha at the 1995 Common Wealth Conference after the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and his friends. Neither was it an accident that while Nigerians were jubilating Abacha’s welcome demise, an openly distraught Capt. Yaya Jammeh, cut short a foreign trip he was on, and rushed to Kano to commiserate with the Abachas. The father-son relationship between the two tyrants was so strong that, it was in Sani Abacha’s waiting room that Jammeh first met his Moroccan wife according to some former close associates of his. For his loyalty to Abacha, Jammeh received five hundred million dollars worth of crude oil, the proceeds of which no Gambian outside of his mafia gang knows anything about. In the mid-80s, Nigerians were speculating about Babangida’s drug dealing. Gambians are now saved from such speculation because two billion dollars worth of cocaine was discovered in a warehouse belonging to one of Jammeh’s closest Lebanese sidekicks only months ago. Despite the puerile show the Jammeh government put on after this accidental discovery by British agents, any Gambian with the brain of a fish can tell you who is the mastermind behind the drug trade in our country.
Anyhow, with the right kind of leadership in Abuja, so-called leaders like the barely-literate Jammeh who are nothing but over-rated common criminals, will not dare misbehave the way they are in West Africa. But Nigeria has to start by getting its act together. A Turai Yar’Adua Amendment to check impunity will be valuable in that task.