Wednesday, 16 April 2014
Our Not-so-distinguished Senators By Chido Onumah
Distinguished Senator David Alechenu Bonaventure Mark is a very lucky man. Indeed, he is one of the luckiest Nigerians dead or alive. In the last three decades, he has featured prominently on the national stage as minister of communications, Governor of Niger State, four-term senator and two-term Senate President.
Other things being equal, Senator Mark may yet end his long and illustrious career by emerging as President of the Federal Republic, an ambition I am sure he doesn’t take lightly, the constant denials by aides notwithstanding. Senator Mark has had occasion to take shots at the Jonathan government on the problem of insecurity, poor infrastructure and the government’s fiscal policies. It is the mark of a military strategist. In all, though, he is a loyal party man; and a patient one at that.
Every now and again, aides of the Senate President alert us of mischief makers “bent on causing disaffection between President Goodluck Jonathan and the President of the Senate”. The reference is to the cacophony of voices championing the 2015 presidential ambition of Senator Mark. The Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, to Senator Mark, Kola Ologbondiyan, had this to say recently in response to one of the ubiquitous “Mark for President 2015” groups: “It is imperative to state and emphatically too, that Senator Mark and President Jonathan are on the same page in the onerous task of providing democratic dividends for Nigerians. It is therefore irresponsible, mischievous and misplaced for any set of Nigerians to embark on overheating the polity at this time of our national history. The Senate President is faced with providing qualitative legislative leadership for our nation and (has) urged mischief makers not to distract him”.
I had the fortune of encountering Senator Mark in all his power and splendor earlier in the year. It was during a casual visit to a friend, a former legislator, at the Apo Legislative Quarters in Abuja. After my visit, my friend decided to drive me home. A few metres down the road, as we drove out of my friend’s house, we were halted by a detachment of policemen. While I wondered impatiently what was going on, my friend who obviously was used to the scenario just rested both hands on the steering wheel and waited as a convoy of more than ten vehicles, including three black limousines, a bomb disposal van, an ambulance, numerous police escort jeeps with heavily armed policemen, crawled into an imposing edifice a few metres ahead of us.
After about five minutes, we were given permission to continue our journey. My friend commented off-handedly, “That is the Senate President”. My immediate reaction was amazement and then revulsion when I realised that the Senate President was coming from his office a few kilometres away. My mind wondered furiously about what democracy was costing the mass of our people; the cost of maintaining the Senate President’s fleet of vehicles and aides; of the imposing house we just drove past and the fact that the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Senator Bala Mohammed, was building a new official residence for the Senate President and the three other presiding officers of the National Assembly, the Deputy Senate President as well as the Speaker and his deputy, for more than N1bn each.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when Senator Mark spoke recently during his condolence visit to the family of the late Senate Leader in the Second Republic, Dr. Olusola Saraki, in Ilorin, Kwara State. While praising Saraki, the Senate President noted: “Baba is not dead. He lives on because a man who lived as he did does not die. In everything, he was always himself. He did not pretend. He was a natural man doing what he loved best. He did all he did from the bottom of his heart. Unfortunately there are many actors and pretenders on the political scene in Nigeria today. Politics should be played with honesty, with honour and a lot of integrity”.
It seems Senator Mark never misses an opportunity to say the right things. But doing the right things is a different kettle of fish. Someone once asked: “What manner of ‘god’ is the office of Nigeria’s Senate President that the occupant should earn six times more than what President Barack Obama of the United States takes home and three times more than what the British Prime Minister earns, in a country where over 65 per cent of the citizens wallow below the $1 benchmark?” That is the tragedy of the Nigerian situation.
This piece is as much about David Mark as it is about the “hallowed chamber” he leads. It was prompted by an event earlier in the month involving the chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission (FCSC), Deaconess Joan Ayo. During its 2012 budget performance before the Senate Committee on Establishment and Public Service Matters, Deaconess Ayo was confronted by the vice chairman of the committee, Senator Babafemi Ojudu, who alleged that there was rumour making the rounds that “some staff of the commission were compelling young job seekers to part with N500,000 ($3,000) to get jobs”.
Senator Ojudu noted that “such a rumour is not good for the image of this committee, it is not good for the image of your commission and the image of the country.” The FCSC chairman responded by saying the commission had zero tolerance for corruption and corrupt practices and that she was hearing the rumour for the first time from Senator Ojudu. She challenged the senator to show proof of the alleged money-for-job scandal.
Of course, Deaconess Ayo was being economical with the truth. I don’t know if Senator Ojudu was able to provide proof as requested by Deaconess Ayo, but the exchange threw up an issue that is equally troubling. Talking about rumours, we have heard allegations that senators collect bribe before approving budgets. But this pales in comparison to the fact that many government agencies now insist that job seekers must get letters from senators before they are considered for employment. And this is no rumour because I have been involved with two federal agencies where this issue came up. It seems the only reason our senators enjoy this privilege is that they have control over the budget of these agencies. It is understandable if senators use their influence to help their “constituents”, but it is criminal for them to legalize it.
Dr. Sam Amadi, Chairman/CEO of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), put this phenomenon in perspective during the 7th Ralph Opara Memorial Lecture organised by the National Association of Seadogs (NAS), on Friday, November 2, 2012. In a speech titled, “Terrorism, Insecurity and Irredentist Movements: the Challenges for Nation-Building in Nigeria”, Dr. Amadi noted, “Today, Nigerian leaders have added to their sin of the exclusion of Nigerian citizens from the wealth of the nation, the sin of excluding them from employment opportunities. Every employment in private and public sector in Nigeria today is based on a letter of sponsorship from one Senator or Governor or Minister.
“Poor Nigerian working family that spent life savings to educate their children have little hope of them getting a good job because the people in power distort the recruitment process from merit to privilege. This is the new aristocracy in a republic. Recruiters in the public service will not ask for aptitude. They ask for a letter from a Senator, Governor or Minister. What will the much deprived graduate without such reference letter do if he is never considered for employment many years after leaving school than to seriously consider resort to violence and criminal enterprise?”
This is what the average job seeker in Nigeria has to contend with. Senators Mark and Ojudu can’t say they are not aware of this phenomenon. And if they are not aware, I am using this medium to bring it to their attention. They should denounce the agencies that are bringing the Senate into disrepute.
For the amount of money the country spends maintaining the Senate, the last thing we need is for our so-called lawmakers to become a menace to society by shamelessly acting out the despicable role of thoughtless enablers and overseers of an extremely dysfunctional polity.