Legislators and Accountability Episode 41:

IDEAS Radio 5 July 2019

Legislators and Accountability

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, it’s ten minutes past four, 99.3 Nigeria Info, and this is Public Square, where we talk about all the big issues in politics.  And a lot has happened in the past week. Our handles on Twitter: @PublicSquareNG, @RotimiSankore, @ideasradiong, @naijama, @aghoghoobo, those are all the handles.  If you’ve got questions and comments, let us know what you think about the discussion today which is a big one, if you’ve been following the politics. Senator Elisha Abbo who represents Adamawa North Senatorial district, angered a lot of Nigerians on social media platforms, of course offline too, when a video appeared to show him slap a sales assistant at a shop in Abuja.  And the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, referring the matter to the Ethics and Privileges Committee, says that the Integrity of the Senate will not be compromised, he wanted a report on that one.

Ayo Obe, great to have you join us in the Public Square today.

Ayo Obe: Hi Aghogho, and of course, I’m always happy to be here with IDEAS Radio in the Public Square with Rotimi Sankore.

Rotimi Sankore: Afternoon.  Welcome Ayo.  

AO: Hi.

RS: Yeah.  So, Aghogho has introduced the matter …

AO: Well, I actually thought that rather than just talking about a particular issue which as we understand it now …

RS: A particular individual.

AO: Or a particular individual who, as we understand it now is in the hands of  the Nigeria Police, and may face criminal charges, I thought that we should look at things in a … it in the context of Legislators and Accountability, because at the same time as the … Senator Abbo is being asked to account for his behaviour, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission has now taken up the mantle, or the gauntlet I should say, the gauntlet thrown down by Tracka Nigeria and some other NGOs in Nigeria, about the Constituency Projects.  So I felt that it was a good opportunity for us to look at the way that … at our legislators. They don’t have immunity from prosecution in the same way that the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors have. And yet, they may not have immunity from prosecution … 

RS: But there’s impunity

AO: … but the way they behave, is with impunity.  That’s exactly the problem. Because in the case of the assault, there was this suggestion that an apology is enough.  And for me, I think that, this is always what happens, and it happens in so many cases where women or poor people or the marginalized, are victims of oppression by the powerful and well placed in society.  You find that they are pressured, threatened, and if necessary bribed, into giving up their rights to have justice done. We see it a lot with rape victims. And often in those cases, the rape victim is a child, and the parents decide that the matter will not be pursued.

RS: The exact point we made this morning on Morning Crossfire.

AO: Oh, really, I’m sorry, I missed that.  But what this made me look into was … was just asking the question of … what is the, what is the penalty for a legislator who transgresses?  Or is it the fact that … only when they are caught, when they are found out, that they need to be held accountable? And again, to whom are they accountable?  Because the case of the Senator, the case of the Constituency Projects, it’s certainly a matter of issues being raised in the social media space, and the legislators now having to … be accountable.  But are they accountable just because a Twitterstorm was raised, or the matter was trending on Facebook? Or are they accountable to their constituents? Or are they accountable to the Nigerian nation as a whole?  These are some of the issues.

RS: I think that there are also two dimensions to it, because if you are a public official – in this case, a member of the National Assembly – and your private conduct is contrary to what is expected of you.

AO: Absolutely.

RS: So that’s one.  The second is: if as a public official, your public conduct … in line with your perceived duty – because I mean, I don’t believe in constituency projects – but as far as things stand, it is seen as one of their so-called duties.  So if in the line of duty, you also misbehave, how are you held to account? Because if Tracka and all the other NGOs had never raised this issue of: Er, Mr. Senator or Mrs. House of Reps, N200 million was allocated to you supposedly to do so so so; you have not accounted for it, Follow-the-Money goes there, and finds that in fact … the so called computer centre … 

AO: Independent contractors …

RS: Eh heh! … the so-called computer centre is somewhere that has two old aging computers in it, or the so-called borehole is inside somebody’s compound …  

AO: Or that the contractor …

RS: … with a fence round it!

AO: Well, the thing is that in many cases the contractor is …  they say that: “It’s nothing to do with me guvnor! It’s all to do with the contractor.”  But then you find that the contractors, when you lift the corporate veil … 

RS: The contractors have …

AO: But I’ll say one thing that I did when I was considering this matter, because we know that the Police had to be forced to take action on the matter of the slap, in fact what that … the video … I actually … normally when I hear of these things, I don’t watch the videos, but this time, I made myself watch the video that had been … had gone viral, and I … the things that shocked me apart from the actual physical assault, was the … 

RS: Was the deliberate nature?

AO: … no, was the sense of entitlement: “I will close you down!  I will do this!” The … and also the way that the police officer who was attached to the person, started to join in the assault on the woman, dragging her out for arrest, and heaven knows what was happening outside, but what we understand from newspaper reports is that she had to go to hospital and have treatment for injuries to her eyes.

RS: So in the case of private conduct of public officials that is inconsistent with their public office, what should happen?

AO: Well, I was looking at it, because apart from the … any criminal sanction, I looked into the question of what happens when legislators are seen, or considered to have brought the legislative body into disrepute.  Now I have to say I could not find a single case of a legislator in Nigeria resigning because of such things. The most I could lay hands on was Salisu Buhari, the Speaker who had to resign in 1999 … 

RS: Because of the age adjustment.

AO: Well, he was … he resigned first of all because he was found to have been indulg… engaged in forgery and, you know, false declaration.  You know, he apologised … perjury and so on. But in the end he could not have stayed because he did not meet the age qualification. And it’s a little bit of a shame that the Senator involved in the particular issue of the assault is the youngest Senator, because just as when a woman transgresses, then her case is always brought up to explain why no other woman … 

RS: … should hold office.

AO: … should be allowed near the corridors of power.  In the same way…

RS: So in this case too, all young people … 

AO: … Exactly!  All young people … no, it’s a fact.  Young people are likely to be tarred with the same brush of immaturity, inability to understand the boundaries between their private conduct and their public.  But I did find that, of course in South Africa there was a case of an MP who resigned, but he was kind of getting out, he was kind of jumping before he was pushed, because he didn’t want to testify before a committee, which, if he had remained a Minister and an MP, he would have had to do.  But in the United States there are several cases of legislators who are merely accused, not found guilty, not convicted, but legislators who have been accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment and so on, and they have been made to … or they have chosen – I won’t say they have been made to – but they have resigned their position as lawmakers.  I mean, I’ll just give you … In March this year, “an Arizona legislator resigned on Wednesday amid an ethics investigation into reports that he was charged with sex crimes decades ago.” And mind you, it’s not that he had been found guilty decades ago, but he was … he had been charged. Then another one, in Pennsylvania, again in March, in the United States: “Six days after he was formally accused of sexual assault, Pennsylvania state Representative Brian Ellis has resigned his seat in the General Assembly.”  Same thing, a California State legislator also resigned his seat after being accused of “unwelcome flirtation and sexually suggestive behavior” with several women. And he resigned “as colleagues were due to vote on whether he should be expelled.” Now the problem is that there, the colleagues had a sense of how it reflects on them as a whole when such things happen. Here … and it’s a question too, whether they allow partisan issues to guide their conduct, because we remember when President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in the United States, when it got … 

RS: Over the Monica Lewinsky …

AO: … when it got to the Senate, the Senate … the political calculation had already been that the Senate would not remove him from office.  The same thing is happening now with Donald Trump; the House may vote to impeach, but when it gets to the Senate … 

RS: Can we just throw in a word there to say that in America, ‘impeach’ doesn’t mean ‘to remove’.

AO: It doesn’t mean it here either.

RS: … from office, it just means you’ve been indicted.

AO:  It just means you’ve been indicted.  But it doesn’t mean it here either, it’s just that the process follows with barely a breath.  So yes, ‘impeach’ doesn’t mean ‘remove’. So it’s a question now, the Senate President is said to have set up some kind of inquiry into the conduct of the legislator.  Now, the People’s Democratic Party – to my mind – got out in front of this scandal. They didn’t dig their heels in and start trying to defend the indefensible …

RS: In a partisan way.

AO:  … because of partisan considerations.  Rather they said that he was … they condemned the behaviour.  But should he remain in position? Should a legislator who is found wanting in such a very glaring way …  Because I found that it’s not just that there was the assault, for which there may be criminal sanction. It was actually – as I said – that sense of entitlement, that sense of …

RS: … very deliberate action, impunity 

AO: No no no no no, I’m not talking about the actual physical assault.  I’m talking about the way that the legislator was talking: I will get you closed down!  And this. If not for this, I would have done this! And: If you were not my friend …! And so on and so forth.  And I found myself wondering: Should such a person be entrusted with power at all?  

RS: Obviously not.

AO: Because the inability to understand that the fact that you have a quarrel with a shop, or a shop assistant’s friend (because it was actually the friend of the shop assistant who was slapped) the fact that you have a quarrel with a shop: is that why you should now threaten … be able to bring the levers of power to bear to close the  person’s business down? Even the whole: You can’t talk to somebody on the telephone when I’m addressing you. I mean … one wants to almost say: Who the h*** … Who are you? I mean, you know!

RS: I mean, she can even choose not to respond at all.

AO: But that sense of … “A whole me”.  I can now start ordering, and pronouncing, and dictating the fate of ordinary people.  That was the area that I found particularly disturbing.

RS: Because we are running out of time, I think it’s also worth underlining that, when governance is done, as it is here, where once you are elected into the National Assembly your interaction with your constituents reduces.  There is no weekly or monthly interface … 

AO: Well there could be though.

RS: …where … Well yes, but I’m just trying to point out that the distance becomes an Accountability …  

AO: Absolutely.

RS: … problem, because you don’t have to face your constituents.  The other thing of course, is that governance literacy in many constituencies is not as high as it should be.  So some people will come out and say: “Ah, he has apologised now, he has begged them. What else do you want him to do?” type of behaviour.

AO: Resign!  I mean, as I said, you see, there is really that issue, is it, when you are holding … you know, as they say:  “From those unto whom much is given, much is expected”, or “Much is expected from those unto whom much is given”, and … you know … as I said, it is …  it ought not to be a partisan issue, but I did mention on my own personal Twitter page, I said that it was interesting to see the way that PDP had gotten out ahead of this, unlike some other parties which were protecting grasscutters until the last possible  … and then people were: What do you mean? That: What has this …? Is this the same sort of thing? And so on. And … no obviously, it’s not the same thing, but it is certainly the same sort of political issue.

Well, I want to … I have to bring this discussion to an end.  I think that the … our legislators certainly are now discovering that they are not going to be able to get away with doing what they like, whether it’s in their constituency projects, or in their personal behaviour, and we look forward to more of this.  But for now, I have to sign off on IDEAS. IDEAS as you know, the A in IDEAS is for Accountability.

RS: And the I is Integrity.

AO: Integrity.

RS:  And the Senate President said that this issue: “calls the Integrity of all of them into question.”  

AO: It absolutely does.

RS: So, thank you so much Ayo, very grateful.

AO: Well I have to excuse myself for next week, because I will be burying my Aunt in Ibadan, so … but who knows?  I will be back disturbing you during the … off and on during the, what we like … still like to call ‘summer’. But I want to wish everybody … I mean, what can we say?   Nigeria versus Cameroon, I mean, obviously Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability should ‘clear road’!

RS: Well so the football starts, so, the football kicks off at four … 

AO: Football is a game of Ethics and Integrity!

RS: … kicks off at 4.30 today, so we won’t have the normal programme, and I know that many people would have wanted to hear the detail of the Supreme Court judgment … 

AO: Oh, absolutely!

RS: … regarding what just happened in Osun State.  Well, if you have not had too much of it by next Friday, we will bring it to you then.  Otherwise, one of the big issues we need to address this month on the Public Square is that: there is no Ministerial list and the National Assembly is going on holiday, and when they go on holiday sometime this month, they will not be back until September.  So what happens to the country then? So …

AO: Well, Late Budget!

RS:  So join us next Friday at four o’clock on the Public Square where we’ll be talking about this on 99.3.

AgO:  And then, people can also go to our website on Nigeria Info  

RS: Yes, and follow some of the Osun … 

AgO: where we’re just seeing some … where we’re just getting some news in now.  I’m reading that the PDP working National Committee has suspended Ndidi Elumelu and six others over the controversy arising from Elumelu’s emergence as Minority Leader.   

RS: Over this minority leadership tussle.  Okay, so that’s more drama.

AO: That’s another of the sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander issues.

RS: That’s more drama.  So next Friday 4 pm, on 99.3 Nigeria Info, a bit on the Osun Supreme Court ruling, but very plenty on what happens if the National Assembly goes on holiday without Ministers?

AO: Are they going to another planet Rotimi?  They should be able to come back! But the President should have sent the list before then.

RS: We know.

AO: No, he should have.  

RS: Yes.

AO: Okey doke!

RS: Alright, thanks folks.

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