On the day the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ahmed Idris Wase, presided over legislative matters, democracy died in Nigeria. It was the day Wase stood democracy on its head when he argued, unreasonably, bizarrely and astonishingly, that Nigerians in the Diaspora had no right to present petitions to the House. He used his temporary authority to shut down Mark Terseer Gbillah, a member of the House, who wanted to present a petition he received from members of his constituency residing in the United States who go by the name Mzough U Tiv Amerika. The focus of the petition was insecurity in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states.
In an authoritarian style ruling, Wase did not allow the petition to be presented. He consistently interrupted and interrogated Gbillah on the right of the petitioners who were residing outside Nigeria to express their views on how the country was being governed. Guided by ignorance, Wase implied that the petitioners must reside in Nigeria for them to be qualified to present a case to the House. He overlooked the mammoth financial remittances made by Nigerians in the Diaspora.
The exchange between Wase and Gbillah might have come out as comical but it was not hilarious at all because of the dangerous implications it could have on the human rights of every Nigerian citizen, regardless of their place of residence. Despite the consistently rude interruption by Deputy Speaker Wase, House member Gbillah handled Wase’s provocative arguments with philosophical calmness and commendable civility. He deserves to be congratulated. The hallmark of maturity is the ability to remain calm in the face of all provocations. Wase’s conduct was odd and shameful. It was not the behaviour you would expect from someone occupying the high position of Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.
As the exchanges lasted, everyone wondered whether the Deputy Speaker had become so restricted, blinded and stretched in his thinking, his vision, and his ability to show leadership and maturity. By Wase’s ill-advised and thoughtless interruptions in the House, he belittled himself and his legislative position, and demonstrated practically that he lacked leadership skills.
It is mindboggling that a Deputy Speaker could expose on the floor of the House such a high level of ignorance and poor understanding of the concepts of freedom of expression, citizenship, identity, nationality, representative democracy and human rights. The House of Representatives is the last place you would expect to see a legislator gagged for trying to present a petition by members of his constituency.
Living in a foreign country should not disenfranchise Nigerians from exercising their rights to participate in, or contribute to, deliberative democracy. Nigerians in the Diaspora may not be allowed to vote during elections (something that ought not to happen in the 21st Century) but they have the absolute right to raise issues relating to injustice that is occurring in their home country. It is their inalienable right to communicate their feelings to their representative in parliament.
Following public outrage, Wase quickly tried to put a spin on what he said. It is ludicrous for the Deputy Speaker to claim, days after the drama, that he was misquoted, or quoted out of context, or misrepresented, or misinterpreted or misunderstood. Too little, too late. The public is not naïve, gullible or easily fooled. No matter how Wase tries to deny, alter or twist his despicable arguments about Nigerians in the Diaspora, he ought to know that his utterances were recorded on video and circulated in the public domain.
Public discomfort and anger over the inappropriate behaviour of federal legislators is growing. As holders of positions of authority, legislators are required to conduct themselves in morally approved ways that should be copied by everyone. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
The public conduct of many members of the House of Representatives and the leadership, as well as members of the Senate, has not inspired anyone. For many years, the legislators displayed unacceptable behaviour in public and private spaces, including gross abuses of their rights and privileges, undistinguished achievement record, dishonest practices, dramatizing and participating in fistfights, failure to recognise and respect their own ethical codes of conduct and selfishly endorsing for themselves huge salaries and allowances that are at odds with the hardships that other citizens experience, particularly allowances that are not reflective of the nation’s poverty index and the number of citizens living below the poverty line. These abuses are documented.
Deputy Speaker Wase has become infamous because of how he treated a fellow member of the House. Unquestionably, his behaviour showed he is impetuous. He likes to do things the way he desires. He trespasses on other people’s rights to express themselves. He imposes his views and, worse still, he is rigid, conservative and anachronistic in his assessment of issues. Owing to these character flaws, including the disrespect he showed to Representative Gbillah, the Deputy Speaker has annoyed the public, particularly Nigerians in the Diaspora whom he insulted by his old-fashioned and unsupported view that they were not qualified to present a petition through their representative in the House.
The Deputy Speaker exceeded his powers. He does not have any more rights than other Nigerians, whether they are residing inside or outside the country. He has no authority to determine when and how Diaspora Nigerians can contribute to national debate or the topic they are allowed to speak on. It is only in an undemocratic or repressive state that citizens are barred from discussing topics designated as taboo by the ruling authorities. The last time I checked, the name Nigeria came up as a democracy, not a dictatorship.
We are living at a time when adult representatives display infantile behaviour. The House of Representatives is facing a serious test of character of its Deputy Speaker, as well as his disgraceful leadership style. Deputy Speaker Wase is likely to face prosecution for demonising Nigerians in the Diaspora and insinuating that they are no good, they have no voice and they should be disregarded.
The House of Representatives has never had a comforting history since 1999. In the past 22 years, the House has rolled from one scandal to another, including the shame that blemished first Speaker, Salisu Buhari, who was convicted for forgery and perjury by an Abuja chief magistrate’s court on July 22, 1999, as well as other Speakers with a history of indignities, such as Patricia Olubunmi Etteh and Dimeji Bankole.
Indiscretions by past and present leaders of the House lend credence to public perceptions that the House of Representatives has abdicated its responsibility to the nation. It is for this reason that a former chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mrs. Farida Waziri, described the House of Representatives as a “House of scandals upon scandals.” That was a fitting description. Past events in the House, including the recent outrageous behaviour of the Deputy Speaker, justify that sobriquet.
In democratic societies, legislators who occupy positions of authority are expected to show a high level of good behaviour and discretion in the way they conduct themselves in public and private domains. Nigerians expect the same level of responsibility and decorum from the current leadership of the House of Representatives.