Umahi: The rotten underpinnings of our democracy, by Ayo Olukọtun

Prof. Ayo Olukọtun
Prof. Ayo Olukọtun

Earlier this week, the Federal High Court in Abuja in a landmark judgement ruled that the Governor of Ebonyi State, David Umahi, his Deputy, Dr Kelechi Igwe, and 16 members of the State House of Assembly vacate their seats. Their offence? Abandoning the Peoples Democratic Party, under which standard they were elected into office, for the All Progressives Congress in a sensational case of party defection. The lawmakers had joined Umahi and Igwe in a show of solidarity, a characteristic example of pack behaviour in contemporary Nigerian politics. The judge had also ordered that the assemblymen and women refund all the salaries, which had been paid to them from the date of their defection. In the immediate aftermath of the judgement, an embattled Umahi called a press conference to lambaste the judge and the judiciary, bristling that, “I feel sorry for the judiciary…the judgement was purchased.” So harsh were the governor’s words that the Nigerian Bar Association had to call him to order, especially as no proof was provided to the effect that the judgement was a cash-and-carry one. Barely 24 hours later, Umahi’s lawyers disclosed that the governor and his deputy had filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal in Abuja.

Considering that the case may now be sub judice, this comment will steer clear of the lawyers’ disputations and fireworks, and comment on the wider implications of the judgement.

Let me introduce this dimension in the following manner. How much trust should a man repose in a wife who suddenly deserted her husband’s home in a quest to marry another man? The answer is not merely blowing in the wind. It is right on our tables and is a clue, I believe, to the pervasive racketeering, distrust, disloyalty which go on in our political space. To expand the metaphoric allusion, the new husband may well ask: Could it be the day that the unfaithful wife deserted her husband that the relationship or courtship began? The answer is simply that it could not have been that. The question can be stretched further to inquire whether all along the deserted husband had taken for a wife a mole planted in his house to wreak havoc, spy on the man and give information constantly to outsiders. One can also wonder whether the unfaithful wife will suddenly turn faithful in her new home.

Of course, one could argue that political parties are not marriages and that is correct. But you can hardly dispute that familiar to the two institutions, if they are to work, are elements of coherence, integrity and trustworthiness. As things stand today, there is a bazaar and deluge of parties jumping across all the political parties to an extent that makes one wonder if we do not require another word such as association, an informal group to describe what we now call political parties. Thoroughly commercialised, subverted and disempowered are our political parties, illustrated by an infamous roll of party defectors including such names as Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President of Nigeria; Senator Godswill Akpabio, Minister of Niger Delta Affairs; Mr Timpre Sylva, current Minister for Petroleum Resources of Nigeria; Mr. Godwin Obaseki, current Governor of Edo State; Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, a former Minister of Aviation, to mention but a few. In other words, and as in many other respects, Nigerian politicians have normalised the abnormal, converting it into a strategy for gaining or retaining power.

You may wish to ask: Are the defectors celebrated or cold-shouldered? Good question. We know without a shadow of doubt that the decampees have the carpet rolled out for them, hailed as heroes and the entire process, at least in recent times, usually begins with a visit to the seat of power in the Aso Rock in the case of those crossing over to the APC. The opposition party is no less guilty for they mete out royal treatment for opportunist politicians who change parties in what has become a tragic symbol and resonance of political decay in the Fourth Republic.

In my younger days in primary school, we were taught ethics and morality through morality tales, which in Yoruba are called “alo.” In a didactic fashion, the instructor will unveil an event usually of a fabulous or mythical nature in order to pinpoint the disaster that befell an evil man or woman who refused to abide by civilised norms, decency or to quit perverse ways. The story will end with something like: ‘What does this story tell us?’ The class as I recall will usually chorus: ‘This tale teaches that there are consequences of a drastic nature waiting to overtake young people that refuse to quit evil and obnoxious ways.’ Thereafter, the teacher will smile with approval in recognition that the moral has been well received. Has anybody wondered what lessons the current set of politicians are teaching the young ones by their conduct in so many areas, including carpet-crossing, and the celebration, nationally, of those who have turned unfaithfulness and immorality into principles of state policy?

In earlier commentaries on this scourge, I demonstrated that party switching is not peculiar to Nigeria anymore than is public sector corruption. It occurs in developed democracies like the United States but just like the Corruption Perception Index which ranks perverse and corrupt behaviour, the instances in the developed democracies, and even in some developing ones, are few and far between. Illustratively, in the 50 years between 1947 and 1997, there were only 20 political defectors in the United States.
This writer has lost count of how many politicians have defected to other parties in the last five years alone in Nigeria. If this were a country where absurdities are not standardised, party defection would be a subsidiary part of the anti-corruption campaign, moreso because many of those who defect do so, not out of policy disagreement but as refuge-seeking from retribution or sanctions regarding offences such as graft and looting of public property. Indeed, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, went on record a few months back, saying that by receiving political decampees with blemished records, the APC was advertising that it is just a mirror image of the PDP, which it sent packing. Needless to say, he was a lone voice in the wilderness of wrongdoing and obtuseness.

However the Umahi case turns out—it is hard to predict the outcome of such cases—the PDP has scored a victory in the court of public opinion by ruffling feathers regarding the national amnesia concerning party switching. It will be edifying if a constitutional amendment is introduced with the intention of reducing decamping to the barest minimum, or at any rate, to show that if the politicians see nothing wrong with it, Nigerian citizens do. It demotes our democracy, reducing it to buying and selling in an immoral market where the game in town is not power with purpose but power to gratify alimentary longings famously expressed in the coinage by Chinua Achebe of power being treated as a “juicy morsel.”

Those who wish Nigeria well must rise up to celebrate this moment of moral victory–even if temporary–over political squalor.

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