When the Supreme Court ordered last month two members of the National Assembly – Senator Sani Abubakar Danladi and Herman Hembe – to vacate their seats and to repay within 90 days all salaries and allowances they received since they occupied positions they did not rightly win in elections, the court signalled the beginning of the end for politicians, who engage in misconduct during elections. Not only did the court order the legislators to vacate their seats, it also confirmed the rightful winners of the elections. It was a judgment whose implications resounded across the country.
Although there have been instances in which the Supreme Court nullified the elections of sitting legislators and state governors, such as the sacking of Governor Chris Ngige and the instalment of Peter Obi, as governor of Anambra State, the latest ruling represents a landmark decision for a number of reasons. First, the court ruled the two lawmakers must refund within three months all the salaries and allowances they earned illegally since they have been at the National Assembly. This is something that is relatively new. It signals that politicians who occupy positions to which they are not lawfully entitled must keep in mind they would be compelled to vacate their seats, and return to the government all the money paid to them incorrectly, regardless of how long they held the unlawful position.
This new ruling will strike fear into the hearts of politicians. The key worry for all politicians is how they would find and refund thousands and possibly millions of naira they would have consumed in previous months and years. It is a tough call but it is the kind of tough judgment we need to get desperate and dishonourable politicians to play by the rules during election.
Another reason I endorse the Supreme Court’s judgment is that politicians will learn to save any salaries and allowances they receive until all legal challenges have been resolved. Essentially, politicians have now been placed on notice that they are living on borrowed time and robes if they think they can adopt the Epicurean philosophy that encourages everyone to eat, drink and be merry on the understanding that tomorrow they shall be no more.
Politicians always believe that in a failed state, such as Nigeria, they could commit crimes and get away free. Now, the Supreme Court has signalled that regardless of how long an illegality might have lasted, justice has no deadline to be enforced. Justice is justice and must be recognised and respected whenever illegality is struck down. The message from the court is that impunity can never supersede the rule of law. It is a message that clearly states that illegality can never overwhelm justice.
Ever since the return of democracy in May 1999, there have been stunning cases of financial misconduct, embezzlement of public funds, appropriation of government property, exchange of insults, regular use of kickboxing skills to settle legislative quarrels and outright demonstration of bad behaviour by men and women elected to make laws in the interest of the nation. On some occasions, you will find that parliamentary debate took on a raucous note and authoritarian methods were used to restrict some members from expressing their views.
When lawmakers become lawless, they fail to command the respect of the public. On paper, the Senate and the House of Representatives are held in high regard because the members are seen as role models and symbols of moral authority. However, on account of ill-discipline and corrupt practices among members of the National Assembly, only a few citizens regard them highly. Majority believe the lawmakers are preoccupied with the pursuit of their personal interests rather than advance the welfare of citizens.
Regardless of how anyone might feel, public opinion holds that senators and members of the House of Representatives have performed below standards, have failed to serve as the voice of the voiceless in our society and have, purposely or unintentionally, allowed higher authorities to hijack their conscience.
All of these have contributed to overturn what the public has come to associate with civilised procedure and conduct for lawmaking. Public disquiet and outrage over persistent disgraceful conduct by National Assembly members is warranted. By the parliamentary positions of power they hold, they are expected to set examples that are likely to be copied by the rest of society. Unfortunately, they don’t.
Some members of the Senate, including some of the past presidents, contributed to the upper chamber’s run of bad press and negative publicity. You name them. Evan Enwerem and Chuba Okadigbo (now deceased) drifted from one mess to another, leading eventually to the loss of their exalted positions. Enwerem’s tenure, for example, was dogged by grave questions over his character and his academic credentials. Specifically, these included allegations that he lied under oath and the more heinous accusation that he engaged in certificate forgery.
It has been said that lawmakers, who take up positions of authority must show good manners and prudence in their public conduct, in the way they manage public finances and other matters. The public also expects the same level of accountability from other politicians. We have seen in the past 18 years financial irresponsibility in budget allocations, lack of transparency in the distribution of national resources and in the bizarre arguments put up by the National Assembly leadership to justify their ostentatious and insufferable allowances and lifestyle in an economy that is in recession.
The public no longer perceives elected lawmakers, as men and women of high character or as the conscience of the nation. I have heard people say that a blemished democracy is much better than a military dictatorship. I am yet to be convinced that Nigeria ought to have a flawed democracy or even a benign repressive government. It is indeed an oxymoron to talk about a ‘caring’ authoritarian government. A despotic government is the exact opposite of a democracy. It is not good for human society. The rulers are not accountable to anyone. Freedom of expression is heavily constrained.
The history of the National Assembly since 1999 is replete with disasters of sorts, including depressing cases of misconduct that range from the absurd to the roguish. The National Assembly has abdicated its responsibility. Rather than make laws to empower the poor, to enhance the position of women and the less privileged, rather than serve as a check on the executive, rather than make laws to compel the executive to govern in the best interests of all Nigerians, National Assembly members collude with the government to impoverish ordinary citizens. The budget approved by the National Assembly every year is stuffed with self-serving interests designed to enhance their welfare. This is why the gap between the poor and the rich in Nigeria will continue to widen.
If we want to renovate the nation’s image at home and overseas, we must start by imposing severe punishment on politicians, who engage in electoral fraud, financial crimes and embezzlement of government property. This is the message the Supreme Court has conveyed by the heavy penalty it handed out to Herman Hembe and Sani Abubakar Danladi.
The National Assembly, as an institution of our society, must undergo radical moral, psychological and physical reforms in order to serve the purpose for which it was established. Public image of previous sessions of the National Assembly suffered immeasurably as the image of the current members has been hammered in mainstream and online media. Everything suggests that the current National Assembly members appear determined to keep the flame of their tattered image burning for much longer.