By Shaka Momodu –
For the past two weeks, I have stayed glued to the television watching with fascination tinged with envy, the American Senate confirmation hearings for cabinet nominees. The quality of what I have seen and listened to has reinforced my belief that our politicians are not ready for the challenge of nation building and more depressingly, our own “Congress”, the National Assembly, is a joke. Our senators are a bunch of amateurs, totally out of depth.
I am sure if they’ve been watching the ongoing confirmation hearings, they would realise what a joke they have been! But if they think they are just nearly half as good, they should go back and watch the confirmation hearings they conducted for President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministerial nominees. And if after watching their own hearings, they are still convinced they are not jokers then, I will tell them once again that many Nigerians including my humble self are ashamed of them. Their conduct leaves a lot to be desired – a sour taste in the mouths of Nigerians.
Now compare the Senate hearings to confirm Buhari’s nominees and the ongoing United States Senate hearings to confirm Donald Trump’s cabinet picks and tell me whether the standard of the Nigerian Senate is anything to be proud of. Many of them hardly know the functions of the Senate beyond their oversight function through which they extort financial benefits from ministries, parastatals and departments. During debates, many of them have been caught on camera sleeping and snoring in open parliament.
When not in parliament, they are frolicking with women of easy virtue in Rolls Royces, multi-million naira SUVs, and other exotic state-of-the-art cars. They drive these expensive cars to their dusty constituencies without the most basic infrastructure or amenities – no electricity, no roads, no pipe borne water, and no healthcare facilities. It is one of the contradictions one finds difficult to explain about our country and its leaders.
As if this isn’t bad enough, the National Assembly members are known more for fighting for increased constituency projects’ funding where they double as contractors for projects that are used to steal money outright. They are more interested in personal allowances, office maintenance allowances and all other mundane personal beneficial accruals. They lack the capacity for empathy for their people and openly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth to intimidate ordinary Nigerians.
Watching Trump’s nominee for the position of Attorney General of the United States of America, Senator Jeff Sessions grilled by the Senate who until just a few weeks ago was a member of the same Senate and more importantly, a member of the same Senate Judiciary Committee charged with the responsibility of conducting the hearing was particularly interesting. In striking contrast to the Nigerian Senate, he was not asked to take a bow and go as one of their “own”, as our senators do here in that feeling ofcamaraderie and cooperation, nor was he spared by his erstwhile colleagues in their questioning. He was subjected to all the processes, as he faced a barrage of tough questions about his record on several issues.
In fact, he was grilled for nearly two whole days. Every senator on the Judiciary Committee took turns to put him on the spot without mercy. Sessions was questioned repeatedly for hours at a stretch about allegations of racial, religious and gender bias, his voting record in the Senate, and every issue – against him. He was challenged several times by his own colleagues on his stand on issues and made to provide clarifications. His answers were further questioned. Members of the public who opposed him and those who supported him were given five minutes each to state their case. It was so interesting to watch.
The Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson was grilled about his close business ties with Russia, particularly his relationship with Vladimir Putin in the light of the alleged meddling by Russian in the U.S. election to help Trump. He was also questioned about the new government’s plan to defeat ISIS which is a top security issue in the U.S. His stance on the Syrian crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the principle of the two-state solution in the Middle East, sanctions on Russia, climate change, human rights, China, NATO, and a host of other crisis spots around the world that affect America’s standing and security provided revealing insights into the incoming government’s intentions. His tenure as the Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil also came under scrutiny. No aspect of his career was left untouched during the hearing.
The pick for the Secretary of Defence, James Mattis took his turn on the hot seat and was subjected to rigorous questioning. Asked to provide clarifications about his position that seems to imply his opposition to allowing female soldiers in sensitive combat front-line roles and participation in special operations, Mattis walked back his comments, emphasising that he was open to allowing women play any role in the military and was more interested in the quality of manpower rather than sexuality.
Trump’s pick for the CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, was grilled about Russia hacking, and cyber security threat, torture and other threats around the world. He like other nominees broke with Trump on key campaign rhetoric, like enhanced interrogation tactics, NATO, sanctions against Russia, etc.
All the other nominees faced different Senate committees that were baying for blood given the acrimonious presidential campaigns with an outcome that stunned the world. Before the open hearings, all the nominees had engaged the different senators in their offices to press the case of their confirmation. There has not been any reported incident that a nominee took stacks of dollar bills along as bribe to facilitate the process. They engaged them on their ideas on how to make America a better and an all-inclusive society for every race and religion, especially the protection of rights and freedoms. It was all about serving America’s national interests and promoting America’s leadership around the world.
It is seen as a privilege and honour to serve their country. Is there any course nobler than that to the American or to many Western politicians? I dare say no!
In our case, senators either ask for bribes directly or the nominees themselves “know what to do” – a euphemism for offering bribes to smoothen the path to their confirmation whether they are qualified or not. Their past records of poor performance in public offices are never queried once money has changed hands. What a pity! Touts, certificate forgers and incompetent people are cleared as ministers by the Senate that is equally peopled by men and women of shady characters who make laws for the generality of Nigerians.
Any further doubt why the country is failing on all fronts? The next time the president sends nominees to the Senate without attaching portfolios to them, the Senate will be doing itself and the country a world of good to reject them and MUST insist portfolios should be attached before it even considers them.
There is another lesson from America to shame our public office holders. It is this remarkable story of Joe Biden, the outgoing vice-president of the U.S. He served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, a whopping 35 years before he was nominated by Barack Obama to be his running mate. He is just rounding up his eight years as the vice-president, bringing it to a total of 43 years in public service. But his long stint in public service is not the lesson here.
For nearly all his years in the Senate, Biden commuted by Amtrak train from Delaware to attend to his Senate duties in Washington and back home again to Delaware to be with his family. Now, how many of our senators travel by public transport? Come to think of it, why should they – when they buy and maintain exotic cars for themselves as official cars at great public expense.
For all of Biden’s public service, he doesn’t have much to his name in terms of material acquisition. But he has an unblemished reputation and an enviable record of service which are priceless.
When his son, Beau – who by the way, was the Attorney General of his State of Delaware – was down with cancer of the brain and couldn’t afford the expensive treatment, Biden contemplated selling his house as he revealed last year in a CNN interview but was stopped by President Barack Obama.
“He (Obama) got up and he said, ‘Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house’,” Biden said.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you the money. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money. Don’t, Joe – promise me. Promise me.’ I said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to have to anyway.’ He said, ‘Promise me’,” Biden said. Obama took from his PERSONAL money to support the medical bills of Biden’s son. He didn’t order the Health or Treasury Secretary to release government money to pay the bills. He took from his personal money to support his vice-president.
Now, this is a man who has served in public office for 43 years and yet did not have the money to pay for cancer treatment for his son who had himself spent all his small savings and didn’t have anything left. I am sure many Nigerians will find this strange. Well, that is the story of public service. That is the story of America, with all its contradictions, remains ennoblement to all.
Now compare Joe Biden’s conduct to that of our senators, representatives, governors, local government chairmen, councillors, and all public office holders appointed or elected. Then ask yourself, if Joe Biden were a Nigerian public office holder, would he not have had the money for the treatment of his son no matter how expensive it might have been? I can bet an arm and a leg that he would have had the money but the Nigerian state would still have borne the cost. It would charter an air ambulance, fly him round the world in search of a hospital to get treatment. As you read, there is not a single hospital in the country that our leaders trust to take care of their health needs. At the slightest headache or ear infection, they fly abroad for treatment.
We adore great leaders or change agents of other climes as role models and admire them for their heroism and contributions to their societies, but we have none to give the world to admire except corrupt politicians and public office holders to despise. Public office is seen here as a God-given opportunity to line one’s pockets and bully the populace. Public office holders organise thanksgiving services to thank God for their appointments and in no time after they resume, personal mansions begin to sprout everywhere, big obscene parties are thrown to mark birthdays while lavish weddings are organised for their children.
On his part, Joe Biden served the people of Delaware for 35 years and the American people as the vice-president for another eight years – a total of 43 years and yet was unable to pay for his son’s cancer treatment. This should give concerned Nigerians lots of food for thought about the average Nigerian politician and public office holder. Need one say more?