Last week Wednesday, a new chapter of shameless conduct was opened in the parliamentary history of Nigeria. Lawmakers “treated” Nigerians to a tragicomic drama of legislative indecorum as President Muhammad Buhari presented the 2019 budget proposal to the joint session of the National Assembly (NASS). The seemingly choreographed chorus of boos and cheers did not merely pedestrianize the gravitas of budget presentation, it was a crass demonstration of parliamentary insensitivity to the austere socioeconomic plights of Nigerians. In fact, the actions of the legislators did not convincingly demonstrate their awareness of the fact that Nigeria is heading to an uncertain economic future, which cannot be adverted without bipartisan cooperation, and creative approach to problem solving. Is it that they were deluded into thinking that legislative high jinks can provide solutions to the many problems confronting Nigeria?
The episode of unprincipled protest clearly shows that Nigeria’s development, prudence, selflessness, and the sustained wellbeing of the citizenry are not the driving forces of executive-legislative liaison. This is sad. Nobody can feign ignorance about the festering relationship between these two arms of government, however, it is counterintuitive that partisan affinities were allowed to brazenly fuel legislative conduct that threatens national interest, and the public good.
The sad episode at NASS points to the trouble with Nigeria, which the eminent writer, Chinua Achebe, refers to as a failure of leadership. It calls to question the leadership acumen of President Buhari, and that of the point-men at NASS. The attempt to bully the President, the failure of the leaders of NASS to maintain order for them to make their ceremonial speeches, foreground their inability to manage differences, see sameness in otherness, build bridges across partisan divides, and mobilize people to advance common goals.
Again, the boos and cheers may signify a clash of halo effect and horn effect. In psychology, the halo effect speaks of a situation where one virtuous quality of a person shrouds his or her shortcomings, and so, he or she is elevated to the pedestal of sainthood. Lawmakers who see the President as a paragon of ethical rectitude and sagacity have a mental bias of halo effect, and this was manifest in their cheers of approval. Conversely, in psychology, the horn effect denotes a mental bias against a person, because of a known vice, which eclipses his or her virtuous qualities, and so, the person is confined to an ethical, sociopolitical pigpen. Lawmakers who chorused boos seemingly have a mental bias -of horn effect- against the President.
Beyond the clash of halo and horn effects, the episode raises a fundamental question about our culture of respect, particularly, respect for the Presidency. At some point in this administration, the fear of Buhari was the beginning of wisdom, and respect for Buhari was the benchmark of patriotism. His reputation for integrity made him a revered symbol of national renaissance that could traverse political boundaries, and sidestep minefields. But that seems to be in the past. Hence, it will be wise for the handlers of Mr. President not to merely reduce the sad episode at NASS to the banality of bipartisan politics or attribute it to the growing strength of opposition parties. They should soberly and objectively investigate if the actions and inactions of Mr. President have instigated a credibility deficit, reputational damage, liquidation of goodwill, attrition of loyalists, and fraternal squabble in parliament. Let us assume that the President incurred scorn and odium for his actions and inactions. Would it be naïve to assume that our lawmakers are aware of the saying that, “You don’t respect the man, you respect his rank”? If the assumption is right, then their action may point to a corruption of rationality, morality, and good judgement.
In Scott Ryan’s critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, a statement culled from a posthumous collection of Rand’s journal writings, reflects the attitude of our leaders: “What is good for me is right.” In fact, it was the credo of William Edward Hickman, a 20th century American kidnapper and child murderer who soi-disant himself “The Fox”. This ethically debauched credo became well known, mainly because, of Ayn Rand’s response when she heard it; “The best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard” and her subsequent modelling of a fictive character, Danny Renahan, after Hickman.
According to Ayn, this fictive character in her attempted novel titled, The Little Street: “is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness – (resulting from) the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people … Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.”
Let me ask, do our leaders understand the “importance of other people”? Do Nigerians “exist for” our leaders, and do they understand why we should? Can we say empathic affinity is the cornerstone of representational democracy in Nigeria? Anyone with a shred of honest would most likely say that, largely, our leaders do not feel our pains. They are incapable of walking in our shoes. They are unaware that youth unemployment has engulfed Nigeria with a dystopic fog. They cannot face the reality that the dwindling price of oil spells economic volatility for Nigeria. In fact, the deception of power and affluence have made them to tune out from their consciousness all looming calamitous socioeconomic realities.
Lawmakers are elected to provide representation for the people in the sphere of governance. They function best when they embody the aspirations and frustrations of the people. Conversely, they caricaturize the essence of representational democracy, when their actions and inactions are inspired by parochial class interests, and at variance with the yearnings of the people. There is no gainsaying the fact that the boos and cheers that accentuated or de-accentuated the remarks of President Buhari were mere expressions of elite dissensions arising from the gambit of access to power that characterized the recently concluded party primaries, and ostensibly unfavorable distribution of national resource to a bloc of the political class. In other words, the boos and the cheers were not uttered in order to register the disapproval, misgivings or acquiescence of their constituencies to the economic direction of government.
Ideally, the legislative arm of government embodies the definitive feature of democracy. As a rich tapestry of national unity, influential locus of collective ideation, and the authoritative voice of the enlightened will of the people, it is expected that its moral character and operational methodologies should epitomize the crowning glories of Afro-pragmatism, and Euro-American norms. During the golden era of orality, one of the high points of the democratic ethos of our forebears was their enlightened use of rhetorical devices during moments of verbal combats and contestations of ideas, particularly, in the village square. NASS being a modern incarnate of African Village Square, one expects our representatives to eschew tactless verbal mannerisms that inflame emotions, magnify differences, extenuate mental agility, and enliven primitive instincts. If we are willing to learn from history and open our minds to different sources of knowledge, we would discover that contrary to the impression made by our revered lawmakers, wisdom is not decremental, it is incremental.
The business of lawmaking must not be allowed to degenerate to the pedestrian ambit of noisemaking. It is clear that NASS is in danger of becoming a house of odium, particularly, if it does not allow boundaries to be meeting places, and not dividing lines. The problem with allowing boundaries to be dividing lines is that they become places where otherness and sameness clash, a place where ethical principles are highly praised, but poorly applied. Our lawmakers cannot afford to make a mockery of the fundamental and instrumental values of expressing dissent, if they seek to be architects of a new Nigeria with strong structural and cultural democracy. They should endeavor to be torchbearers of liberty and people-oriented development who operate above the nihilities and banalities of partisan politics.