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Tolu Ogunlesi: Hope is a word we’ve never learnt to spell

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Tolu Ogunlesi: Hope is a word we’ve never learnt to spell

by Tolu Ogunlesi

As I type this, the tragedy in Nairobi is still playing out; the horrific reports of gunmen invading the bustling city’s most upscale shopping mall (think the Palms in Lagos, or the Ikeja City Mall), guns and grenades blazing.

They were not exactly keen on hostages; all they wanted to do was shed as much blood as possible. Twenty-four hours after the shootings started, some of the terrorists are still reportedly holed up in the mall, defying attempts by security forces to flush them out.

Following the news on Twitter, and realising that one of the dead victims is the Ghanaian writer, Prof. Kofi Awoonor, one of Africa’s best known poets, I reached out for my copy of a 2002 collection of poetry, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, by another famous African writer, Wole Soyinka. (Awoonor was born barely a year after Soyinka, and like Soyinka was deeply politically conscious, spending time in jail in Ghana in the 1970s, and then going on to serve as Ghana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in the early 1990s).

Samarkand is arguably Soyinka’s most insistent anti-fanaticism, anti-extremism polemic (to the extent to which poetry can be seen to serve those purposes); containing an extended meditation on religious zealotry (‘Twelve Canticles for the Zealot’), and tributes to the now deceased Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (who survived a 1994 stabbing by a Muslim extremist) and to the victims of the 1998 terrorist attacks on the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

A decade after that collection came out, Soyinka’s words still ring loud and true: “Who kills for love of god kills love, kills god, / Who kills in name of god leaves god / Without a name.”

Elsewhere in Nigeria, another kind of terrorism is playing out – not directly resulting in the shedding of blood but still no less destructive – in our universities. It is now more than 80 days since the Academic Staff Union of Universities went on strike.

Is there perhaps an irony somewhere in the juxtaposition of these facts – that Nigeria’s best known and most vicious terror group is known by the name “Boko Haram” (which literally translates into “Western Education is forbidden”) and that between them Nigeria’s government and its university teachers union have conspired to “forbid” the practice of education in our universities for almost three months now.

Saddest of all is that in everything, from security to education, those to whom we should be looking for solutions appear to be more interested in playing selfish politics. We can see the evidence that deep down in them, members of Nigeria’s political class don’t care for anything that does not have to do with how 2015 will turn out for their personal interests and ambitions.

Finally, for the last piece of depressing news for today, we turn to the National Assembly. Like ASUU’s case, this is largely about salaries and allowances. Last June, The Economistmagazine carried out a review of legislative salaries across the world, and found that Nigeria occupied the top position – the average Nigerian federal legislator earns an amount that is 116 times Nigeria’s per-capita income, compared to less than four times in the US, Britain, Germany, Canada and France.

You will recall that the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Lamido Sanusi, first highlighted the issue in 2010, when he said that a quarter of the entire federal budget for “overheads” went into taking care of our federal lawmakers.

Months later Reuters reported, quoting the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, that our Senators earn, apart from their generous salaries, N63m quarterly in “constituency” allowances, while their House of Representatives colleagues receive N45m per quarter. “Nobody accounts for it. Once they get their N63m a quarter, they roll off and do whatever it is, which may have nothing to do with legislative duties,” Reuters quoted PLAC founder, Clement Nwankwo, as saying.

It then went on to quote an anonymous Senator, when asked about his jumbo package, as saying: “What is your business with our salaries? Are we not working for them?”

Are they? Perhaps, we should start by asking – what is the duty of the legislature in Nigeria? The Constitution has already helped answer that question, making it clear that our lawmakers “shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof…”

I recall an interview I read in 2011, in which Lola Abiola-Edewor (House of Representatives member from 1999 – 2007), at that time contesting a senatorial seat, lamented: “When I was in the House of Representatives, I believed that my work should speak for itself… I used to laugh at colleagues who called press conferences for sinking one borehole whereas I was writing committee reports late into the night at home with no audience.”

Those comments raise interesting points about the way we play our politics in Nigeria. Lawmakers who do things for show – generous handouts to their ever-demanding constituencies – are more likely to be deemed as “working” than those who take the unseen and underappreciated but far more appropriate route of working to create and advocate crucial and transformative legislation.

No doubt, a great deal of the failing lies with a citizenry that judges every public office holder by the amount of cash and contracts they are able to hand out as “dividends of democracy”; but it is clear that our legislators are themselves complicit in ensuring that the legislature is seen as existing to compete with the executive arm of government in the award of contracts.

To this end, this Thursday, September 26, at 10am, the youth advocacy group, Enough is Enough Nigeria (http://www.eienigeria.org/), will be organising a protest rally at the National Assembly premises in Abuja, to ask our legislators to prove that, considering the huge sums of public funds expended on them in salaries and benefits, they have added any value to the citizens of Nigeria. (In 2009, NEXT newspapers reported that in its first two years in office the 3rd Senate of the current Republic had succeeded in passing only 15 of the 284 bills tabled before it for deliberation. That pace of work hasn’t changed much in the time since then).

For starters, the EiE is asking for “an immediate breakdown” of the $1bn the National Assembly is costing Nigeria in 2013 alone.

Also, among the demands is “that the attendance list for each plenary be made public.” The EiE is also asking for the release of “all voting records on all constitutional amendments”, on the basis of the fact that “Nigerians have a right to know how their representatives honored their wishes for changes to the constitution.”

If they have been elected by Nigerian citizens and are being funded by those same Nigerian citizens, then it is only appropriate that the lawmakers make themselves accountable to those citizens.

What is most interesting is that two of the biggest crisis points in Nigeria today are the most funded sectors in the federal budget as proposed by the Executive: security and education. Education by itself accounts for the largest singular allocation in the 2013 budget – N427.5bn (8.57 per cent of budget). The combined allocation to Defence, Police and the Office of the National Security Adviser is N776.5bn (15.6 per cent of the entire federal budget). How are these funds being spent?

In ending, I shall return to Soyinka’s Samarkand. Specifically to the poem, “Elegy for a Nation”, dedicated to ‘Chinua Achebe, at seventy.’

In a poem that swings wildly between hope and despair, Soyinka laments: “Death bestrides the streets, rage rides the sun / And hope is a sometime word that generations / Never learnt to spell.”

May the souls of the innocent departed, everywhere from Benisheik to Apo to Nairobi, rest in peace. And may all the hopes and dreams irrevocably smothered to death by the antics of ASUU, may they also rest in peace.

And may we learn, someday soon, to spell hope. And, to keep it in print. Amen.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Tolu Ogunlesi. Follow this writer on Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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