Editorial: The Jamboree by Wives of House Reps

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For those who say Nigeria is a country where wonders shall never end, the two-day retreat at the Sheraton Hotel Abuja, for wives of members of the House of Representatives, is an aberration and insult to the Nigerian people. Led by Gimbiya Dogara, wife of House speaker Yakubu Dogara, the retreat was organized under the platform of the House of Representatives Members’ Wives Association (HORMWA). The forum on the theme: “Role of Spouses of Members of Parliament in a Representative Democracy” focused on “the positive and critical role of wives of legislators, through support services to their spouses.” First lady, Aisha Buhari was the keynote speaker. At a time the nation is laboring for breath under bureaucratic overweight, corruption and the worst economic recession in decades, this needless and wasteful deployment of public funds by the wives of lawmakers, whose jumbo pay is asphyxiating the nation, was another clear example of the profligacy of government that has bloated the cost of governance and rendered the country’s democracy unproductive. The egregious extravagance is callous, insensitive, shameful and inexcusable. It is mind-boggling that Mr. Speaker spoke at the event, tacitly endorsing expending public funds on a project with no redeeming value to the people. This is an eyesore for the speaker, who should be hiding his head in shame.

According to the organizers, the forum was to “identify ways in which spouses can effectively contribute to the work of their spouses as lawmakers and share insights on engagement of spouses in basic legislative practice and procedure.” Fair enough! But with all due respect, public funds should not be used for that purpose. Mrs. Dogara, who has now assumed the unflattering title of “Her Excellency” must be cautioned so her actions don’t interface with her extra-constitutional role as wife of the House speaker. By even involving the first lady, the retreat magnifies the impropriety of the wife of a serving House speaker, being so elevated with an ego-massaging aberration, meant to curry favor from the Nigerian presidency. For the wives of lawmakers, operating under a ceremonial platform unknown to the constitution, to act in a manner that leaves much to be desired, defies common sense.

The decision by the First Lady to be part of this jamboree, even as Nigerians are scavenging for existence under her husband’s watch is invidious imperviousness at its worst. It is absurd, offensive, totally immoral and embarrassing to the country. The galling effrontery to waste taxpayers’ money for an event that adds no value to the country, negates all that public morality stands for and is outright provocation and contempt for the Nigerian people. It typifies an official endorsement of public officials abusing their offices and the trust reposed on them by ordinary citizens. The entire episode diminishes the first lady, the presidency and the House speaker and throws up unsavory issues of power, abusive privilege and greed, as the retreat constitutes a moral burden on the image of the House.

Shockingly, the official invitation to the event, replete with spelling and grammatical errors was adorned with the country’s coat of arms and national colors. From all indications, this practice that began with former first lady, Patience Jonathan appears to have become infectious, disrespectful as it is of Nigeria’s sovereignty. Adorning the invitation with the seal of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and using the coat of arms in the manner it was done by HORMWA amounts to a desecration of national symbols and disrespect to all Nigerians. Acts such as these, ridicule Nigeria in the comity of nations and Mr. Speaker needs to demonstrate that he understands the implication of the leadership position he occupies and end the odious excesses of his wife, for which he could be held accountable. 

Embarrassing as it is to the Speaker, the situation is hardly unique. Mrs. Dogara’s retreat was just another window into the tragic kleptocratic narrative by the spouses and family members of public officials that has become synonymous with governance at all levels in Nigeria. It is worth recalling that some time ago, Mrs. Monsurat Sunmonu, wife of then speaker of the Oyo State Assembly, corralled 32 wives of legislators plus an unknown number of aides and principal officers, to an eight-day jamboree in London. The reason for the trip was to enable the women learn how to cook for their husbands who as legislators now apparently deserve better than the local Nigerian food they have hitherto been used to. The Speaker spiced up the trip by leading the women on a shopping spree. Conservative estimates put the cost of the trip at N50million of taxpayers’ money. The London trip came hot on the heels of another trip by Oyo state legislators who had just returned from a “working tour” of South Africa.

Delta State joined the inglorious band of perfidy when the entire State House of Assembly, went sojourning in the USA, for a special training program at the University of California, Goldman School of Public Policy, euphemistically called “capacity building leadership course” to enable them hone their leadership skills and learn the art of legislative business. As is the practice, the 30 lawmakers spiced up the trip with a shopping spree. The trip cost an estimated N150 million ($1 million) of taxpayers’ money. Then, there was the scandal involving Abiola Kola-Daisy, daughter of Oyo governor, Abiola Ajimobi, who wore a dress that cost a whopping N3 million ($16,900) to attend a Fashion Awards in London.

This profligacy speaks directly to the grotesque sense of priorities among Nigeria’s political elite who squander the spoils of office on luxury cars, trinkets and other trivialities that tickle their fancy, while the majority of the people go hungry. Such outrageous extravagance is greed, avarice, and plain wickedness that points to a flamboyant imaginary self-concept, deeply rooted in moral degeneracy and selfishness. Democracy has become an unbearable burden to the people of this country. Since 1999 the political class as a whole has shown impetuous and irresponsible behavior at the expense of the people. Public officials and their family members are squandering the resources of the nation. The looting and waste going on in the name of governance has no parallel anywhere else and is responsible for the breeding of an angry and alienated citizenry who see no dividend in this democracy. Long-suffering Nigerians have been waiting for the sanitization of the system but it has gotten worse.

Regretfully in the Nigeria of today, everyone does what he likes with nobody calling for restraint. Cases of heinous corruption fill the air with only a handful being investigated and even fewer prosecuted. The political parties, whether in government or opposition, appear not to have guidelines on acceptable conduct and discipline. From the President right down to local council chairman, elected officials and their family members enjoy luxury lifestyles, and clearly do not see themselves facing the vicissitudes of ordinary life in Nigeria. The spouses of House reps should ask themselves if and when they ever heard that wives of legislators in any country outside Africa had undertaken such a retreat.

It bears repeating: the wife of an elected lawmaker is unknown in law. Even the first lady is a ceremonial position from which the spouse is expected to use her personal comportment to enhance her husband’s image. To the extent that it serves some public good – charity, humanitarian causes, it is tolerated. But these spouses must never dare attempt to usurp the powers of their husbands, let alone drag them to the dangerous grounds of infringement of the constitution. Their status is a moral pulpit from which the highest of values cherished by a nation are expected to be espoused, especially by example. It is no podium for unconstitutional actions, substantive or symbolic.

And here is the point: the action of the wives of House reps has challenged sundry observers to query the meaning of politics in Nigeria. Governance is about the people and not about the privileges and personal preferences of public officials and their spouses. There is an urgent need for President Buhari to put an end to these excesses which have been taken to ridiculous levels of absurdity. This should be the agenda of any politician who truly intends to change Nigeria.