One of the more significant political events in Nigeria’s democratic evolution—and one which seems to have escaped general commentary—is the recent news from the Akwa Ibom House of Assembly, a news item which would have been amusing if it wasn’t equally alarming.
Essentially, that state’s legislature—in full mental capacity, one assumes—okayed a law that, amongst other things: provides a life salary to ex-governors and their deputies; allocates funds of up to N90m annually for the domestic upkeep of each past regime; allocates up to N150m annually for medical services to guarantee their continued physical ability to enjoy the benefits, provides for a “five-bed room maisonette” to be built for these worthies (in Abuja or Ibom—because choice is important); and dashes out such other mind boggling emoluments that would make an average Nigerian conclude that the news story was a prank report—somehow overlooked by an overworked and underpaid editor.
But, in the absence of any contradictory statement from the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, we have to assume the story is true. In that case, this is a worrisome situation. Not because a governor who has served effectively doesn’t deserve his reward, but because this law violently contradicts the ideals of accountability—and ultimately bastardizes the concept of democracy.
You see, democratic process suggests that the promotion of public welfare should be the first consideration in the allocation of public funds. Public money should be spent on the greatest public need. This is a very straightforward idea and requires little argument. However, in some exceptional circumstances, public resources may be allocated to private persons as a symbol of solidarity: for example, handsomely rewarding the bravest soldier at the war front, or giving an annuity to the composer of the national anthem. But these are exceptional cases—such private persons must have done something outstanding to deserve the people’s money.
More importantly, even in these exceptional situations, the reward is given to the private individual by the public itself—conveyed, often, through public opinion on the subject. Any resulting law on the issue is, more often than not, a legislative expression of public feeling in the first place. This is how things should be.
And this idea of measuring public good against public expense is consistent with democratic ideas: public money should not be dashed out randomly, and definitely not just as the person in charge pleases. Nobody is expected to be paid just for showing up. Yet, this exactly is what has happened in Akwa Ibom: governors and their deputies will be paid just for showing up.
There is no underlying concept of rewarding good deeds in the Akwa Ibom law. The individuals who will take benefits under the law may have obtained power through a corrupt process. They may have done nothing significant or developmental for the state. They may have looted and despoiled the state. They may even have been downright malevolent. It doesn’t matter under the law. If they served as governors or deputies, then they get paid. They get paid simply because they held an elected position—in a country where winning an election is already its own reward.
This, alone, makes the legislation wrong.
But, there is a more alarming aspect to the issue than its lack of an underlying entrepreneurial principle: if the newspaper accounts are correct, this law originated as a bill from the sitting governor’s office. This is a critical aspect. The law did not originate from the people of Akwa Ibom either directly, through public opinion, or indirectly through their legislature. Nobody went on the streets of Uyo asking that ex-governors and their deputies ought to be taken care of. Nobody marched in Ikot Ekpene or Ikot Abasi to get this done.
Instead, as far as anyone can see, Governor Akpabio thought up the idea, and he sent the bill to the House to stamp it with the toga of legality. And, as the infamous meme certifies drily, “Darzall”.
Therefore, one has to wonder if Governor Akpabio has not finally discovered the loophole in the countless campaigns against corruption: why should you go through the trouble of stealing public funds when you can simply enact a law to give you the money freely, directly and without account? This flaw in the fight against corruption seems to have eluded a number of governments so far, but now Akwa Ibom has opened the door.
A sitting governor has essentially allocated public funds to himself and his club members openly and without blushing. It is bad enough when sitting governors name streets and buildings after themselves in unabashed self-aggrandizement, but this has taken the accountability game to a brand new level. This is legitimate corruption—or stealing, if you prefer.
You see, the fight against corruption, so far, has focused on sanctioning public officials for flouting the existing laws. And that is why people walk free when you cannot prove they broke the law. But what happens when these public officials decide to save themselves the trouble of trials, by simply changing the law—or at least, directing it to favour them? After all, if a law allows it, then it is not illegal—and ultimately, it is not corruption. This is the fundamental question: who controls the lawmakers? What prevents other governors or the president from pushing similar laws across? What stops them from making it legal for all government officials to take 10% off every government contract they authorize? What stops a governor from passing a law giving his children—or any other person he desires—a salary for life?
The only clear answer, in Nigeria today, is this: because they still have a sense of shame.
But Akwa Ibom is proof that our reliance on this sense of shame may no longer be enough. And that is why this news story is significant to our developing democracy: the existence of the Akwa Ibom law is evidence that Nigerians are yet to have any actual control over the legislature and, by extension, the executive.
Of course, we have the judiciary. It is possible that some indignant lawyer may challenge the law in a courtroom—and it is possible that, by some stroke of luck, he may win. But the judges are meant to interpret laws, not to make them. And what’s to stop the lawmakers from directly weakening the judiciary—by law?
Let’s put it frankly: what’s to prevent our laws from being used as the tools of oppression?
A sense of shame. Maybe.
But let’s hope that still holds some weight, because that sense of shame is the only security Nigerians have between them and total governmental irresponsibility.
Unless, of course, Nigerians decide to take matters into their own hands.
Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.