- Post 26 July 2009
- Last Updated on 27 July 2009
- By Moses Ebe Ochonu
Even in a country with demonstrably low standards of public accountability, citizens still expect the government to make a pretentious attempt at character scrutiny when it makes appointments into public office. The Nigerian government usually obliges, staging deceptive ceremonies of inquest in the National Assembly. But as many perceptive commentators have noted, character and biography figure in these confirmation “hearings” only as unspoken footnotes.
These exercises have already been reduced to periodic shams, elaborate rituals scripted and performed as political theatre in the legislative chamber. That’s the section of the ritual that is for public consumption, sometimes with the added drama of television cameras. Nigerians crave these appearances of democratic normalcy. Their government, schooled in the art of self-interested pandering, feeds the public appetite for sham.
This unintended symbiotic arrangement is the irony that sustains the rot in governance in Nigeria. There is something in our failed democracy for everyone, especially for lovers of theatre. Even those who profess an apolitical commitment to national renewal get in on the act. They, too, sometimes tune in, hoping forlornly that hard questions would be asked those who are nominated for public service—that, for once, the undeclared appendices to their declared biographies would be laid bare, reinstating, for that exceptional moment, the ideal of transparency. A string of disappointments has done little to reduce our attraction to the meaningless formalities of make-believe democracy.
In Nigeria the vetting of would-be political appointees are not biographical inquests. Which is why, time and again, public office nominees have escaped scrutiny, the kind that justifies the expense and legislative attention devoted to confirmation hearings. This perversely ingenious Nigerian bifurcation of the personal and the political is why legislative superintendents of the vetting process have proactively shielded their nominee friends from rigorous inquiries into their persons and pasts. There is a belief, it seems, in Nigerian politics that personal character has no bearing on political performance, and that antecedents are poor guides to the political conduct of those seeking public office. Hence, the inattention to the pesky little details of personal history when considering nominees for political office. Ours is a twisted interpretation of all civilized notions of privacy and the private-public divide.
Let’s cast aside the small matter of bribes circulating to facilitate and lubricate the legislative rituals of concealment and to buy the nominee the legislative privilege of anonymity and immunity.
Already we have the bow, a Nigerian invention that functions as a stand-in for the rigorous questioning of the vetting process. One thing about the bow: at least it is not pretentious. It screams its intent loudly: that the bowing nominee and his legislative minders have a mutual interest in not exposing potentially embarrassing underbellies. It is a sincere declaration, however tragic, of the unwillingness of both parties to pry into sensitive biographical territories.
I have so far only touched on the public script of the Nigerian political art of concealment. There is a more sinister text, a subtext if you will, that flips the logic of political vetting on its head. In our PDP democracy, there is no such thing as a vetting, in its quaint, boringly conventional meaning. There is, rather, a process of information gathering that is envisioned not to unearth disqualifying biographical details and troubling professional trajectories but to reaffirm the complicity and investment of the nominee in the existing national miasma.
Beyond the televised legislative performances, there is always a more discrete process. It is cryptically called security clearance. This is the province of the State Security Service, which is typically led by a politicized operative sworn to fanatical personal loyalty to the usurper of the moment.
This dirty job is assigned, as a matter of course, to those who can produce incriminating information at the government’s behest at a moment’s notice. These are the folks who have the files that can be dusted up to devastating effect if Aso Rock in its strategic political wisdom determines that there is a political imperative that requires it. These are the folks who know where the bodies are buried in the multi-generational savaging of Nigeria. How fitting then that they should be the ones to inventory the closets of every potential political appointee—every culprit seeking reentry into the scene of the crime.
This secret scrutiny helps Abuja determine if a potential appointee is “with us” or “with them” or if his with-us-ness is strong enough to resist any residual moral inclinations seeking to reassert themselves.
This is the stage at which a nominee’s record is examined for the merest indication of rebellious behavior towards the status quo. This is the process that seeks evidence of the nominee’s unbroken loyalty to the broken system, the exercise that helps to determine if the nominee’s personal and professional history bears the familiar marks of complicity in Nigeria’s ruination: the unexplained bank accounts; the fake qualifications; the concealed criminal convictions; the forgeries; the embrace of fraudulent mandates; the secret sins of nude oath taking and fetish observances—anything that assures Abuja of the nominee’s self-preservationist investment in the preservation of the current malaise.
These are good signs, excellent signals to Abuja that the nominee is ready. Ready to play his part in padding the system and fending off the radical noisemakers who insist on the desirability of little niceties like equity, transparency, probity, and justice. This is the way secret vettings are done in Nigeria.
The sphere of urban legends is awash with stories of government appointees who have found themselves favored for appointment and then hamstrung once in government by their weighty dossier—a fodder for governmental blackmail and a collateral against defaulting on or deviating from the agreed-upon script.
But the realm of urban legend is not the only terrain where this phenomenon manifests itself. Our depressing political realities bear it out. From the paranoid perspective of an illegitimate ruler and his minions, it makes perfect sense to insist that those who come on board the gravy train of government have tons of incriminating material in their closets. Records that can be mined for career-ending, humiliating blackmail if or when the appointee decides to repent or if he refuses to do the bidding of mentors. As with every deal, there has to be consequences for breaches and betrayals. The putrid moral CV is a Machiavellian safeguard against betrayal. As for the desired corpus of secret sins, the more egregious the more better.
Look at Maurice Iwu. His personal history is punctuated at every juncture by unexplained gaps and false claims of academic accomplishments. Notably, he has no first degree to report but lied his way to graduate school. But Iwu is one of the most favored political appointees of the Obasanjo-Yar’Adua political continuum. He is one of the most favored because he is one of the most loyal. And he is one of the most loyal because he is one of the most vulnerable—heck some of his dirt is already in the public domain. Presumably, there is more in his SSS/Aso Rock file, enough to keep him in line, enough to keep him from seeking self-redemption through some ill-advised detour to truth-telling. Enough to ensure that he entertains no silly idea of democratic heroism.
Consider the case of James Ibori, a man with a documented felony conviction in his record of UK residency and another one in Nigeria but who despite or because of this history, ascended to the coveted governorship of one of Nigeria’s most endowed states. Do not for one second assume that the SSS did not know about his criminal past. They did, but it served and continues to serve him well in the books of the PDP oligarchy who supervise the current phase of our decay.
That’s precisely the kind of record they were looking out for. Ibori stood out in this perverse political universe. In a conventional vetting process, such red flags of moral failings would constitute a death sentence, politically. Not in Nigeria. This pedigree is, in the peculiar moral eye of our PDP democracy, the stuff of envy among political contemporaries. Ibori had—and still has—the winning profile of the typical PDP operative; he is a living blueprint of political ascendance in Nigeria. His bewildering ability to escape justice and re-inscribe his political relevance in spite of his more recent crimes is a testament to the dark appeal of his resume in the politics of Abuja.
Speaking of resumes, how about the appointment of Mr. Tony Anenih as the Chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority—is that not a vulgar illustration of this phenomenon? Anenih is a man whose fingerprints are allover the political crimes of Nigeria’s recent history and who, as an embellishment to his repertoire of complicity, stands accused of mismanaging 300 Billion naira allocated to the Ministry of Works for various roads projects under his watch. That’s quite a resume if you seek the approval of the Yar’Adua-PDP establishment.
Even more than the allure of bad resumes, the Yar’Adua-PDP family is a sucker for recidivism. Repeat offenders hold a particularly hallowed place in their quest for total political domination. In this peculiar political family, there is perverse virtue in proving oneself ingenious in different criminal scenarios and environments. James Ibori is the template. Having perfected the theft of building and gardening materials from a London store, he proceeded to demonstrate the transnational and circumstantial efficacy of his tactics, repeating, we are told, his London scheme, in an Abuja building site. The embarrassing content of James Ibori’s closet is a guarantee to his Abuja friends that he will never turn coat. Ditto for Tony Anenih.
Next to coveting what upright people would regard as a bad resume, Yar’Adua’s vetters have a special fondness for nominees who consume conspicuously and are flamboyant and proud in their incompetence. Farida Waziri fits this mold.
Undertake a cursory examination of the CVs of Yar’Adua’s other appointees and friends. The recurring tropes are corruption, troubled pasts, and certifiable incompetence. On the last criterion, it seems that the man seeks to surround himself with his clones, political kindred spirits who would reaffirm rather than negate his happy cluelessness. The Yar’Adua regime has, as a result, become a vast incubator of incompetence, a haven of incestuous interactions in the mechanics of do-nothingness. It is where folks go to horn their skills in the art of political aloofness.