Ike Okonta contends that politicians treat Nigerians with undisguised contempt

Nigeria’s ruling class has succeeded in normalizing the abnormal since the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999. Consider the following scenario: President Muhammadu Buhari is presently in London being looked after by his personal doctors while here in Nigeria the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), the main body of medical doctors in the country, is on strike, abandoning the sick in government hospitals. NARD’s chief complaint is that the Federal Government owes them a backlog of salaries.

Consider another scenario: Babatunde Fashola, the country’s Minister of Works and Housing, went on national television last month and declared that Nigeria did not have a housing crisis, that anyone who insisted that there was indeed a housing crisis was dead wrong. Meanwhile there are millions of impoverished Nigerians who live in hovels without pipe-borne water and adequate ventilation in sweltering slums in such cities as Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and Benin City. Minister Fashola lives in a well-apportioned mansion in an upper class residential area of Abuja. He could look these poor Nigerians in the eyes and declare without a sense of shame that they were not experiencing a housing crisis because as far as he is concerned, it is perfectly fine that they should live in slums.

It needs to be repeated: the bizarre and the abnormal in this country have now donned the garb of normality. As I write cholera is raging in such states as Enugu, Bauchi, Kano, Jigawa and Abuja. Lest we forget, cholera is a disease of poverty. It occurs where there is no pipe-borne water, decent accommodation, and efficient waste disposal facilities. When poor people drink from stagnant pools of water or ill-dug and uncovered wells they come in contact with cholera, begin to experience diarrhea and vomiting, and if not taken to hospital immediately, succumb to the illness. This is the present lot of thousands of unfortunate Nigerians.

It is interesting that not a single politician has made a public statement stating his concern for these Nigerians ravaged by cholera. The two chief concerns of our politicians at the moment are how to prevent electronic transmission of election results and outwit each other in the recently concluded All Progressives Congress’ ward congresses. Politics as far as they are concerned is all about getting votes, getting into office, and using this office to accumulate as much wealth as possible. Neither of the two main political parties in the country – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC)- has seriously asked itself what politics is truly about, why politicians politic, and what should be done about the ever-widening gap between the poor and the rich in Nigeria.

This naturally begs the questions: Why have Nigerian politicians, since the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999, treated ordinary Nigerians with undisguised contempt, not caring whether they have jobs, good healthcare, and decent housing? How come that these politicians are so supremely confident that they can ride roughshod over those that elect them to office and get away with it? How come that these politicians can live in palatial mansions, ride in expensive imported cars, jet away to Britain and the United States for medical care while poverty and penury is the lot of millions of their compatriots and the heavens do not fall?

The answer is to be found in the character of the politics that birthed the Fourth Republic in 1999. Democracy did not return to Nigeria in 1999 like manna descending from heaven. Our thieving Army Generals did not suddenly wake up one fine morning and decided that they had had their fill of governing Nigeria with an iron fist and returned power to politicians. No. May 1999 was the result of a long and bruising struggle between these rogue Generals and the nation’s pro-democracy activists starting from December 1983 when General Muhammadu Buhari and his cohorts staged a coup and ended the troubled life of the Second Republic.

While it is true that the politicians of the Second Republic, particularly those of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) were corrupt and visionless, that was not enough excuse for General Buhari to replace democratic government with iron-fisted dictatorship. It is significant that the first question Nigerian journalists asked Buhari a few days after he took power was how long his military junta would stay in office and when he would conduct democratic elections in the country. It is telling that Buhari replied that democratic election was not on the agenda of his government as far as he was concerned. When the military ruler unfolded a barrage of decrees gaging the press and generally turning the country into a military parade ground Nigerian journalists and human rights workers coalesced into a pro-democracy movement, thus providing the fertile ground for Buhari’s rival, General Ibahim Babangida to strike in August 1985 and ease Buhari out of power.

This pro-democracy movement was what Babangida encountered when he annulled the 1993 elections that Moshood Abiola had won. This same pro-democracy movement also fought Babangida’s successors, Ernest Shonekan and General Sani Abacha to a stand-still. Nobody needed to tell General Abdulsalaam Abubakar who became the Head of State following Abacha’s death in June 1998 that the time had come for the army to quit and return to the barracks where they really belong. It was at this point that Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement made a fatal mistake. Instead of joining forces to form a political party and seek power to govern the country after the military had relinquished the reins, it broke apart into squabbling factions. The retreating Generals saw an opening and finessed the equivalent of a civilian coup by putting Olusegun Obasanjo and the Peoples’ Democratic Party in power after them.

Thus, those who paid dearly to bring Nigeria back to democracy in 1999 did not inherit power, leaving it for yet another set of thieves and vagabonds in the mould of their likes in the First and Second Republics. Unchallenged since 1999, these politicians have been doing as they please. This is why our thieving politicians are blissfully politicking while thousands of Nigerians are dying of cholera.

• Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He lives in Abuja.

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