By Sam Omatseye
They acted without the epaulettes of elders or the gravity of the name the law embossed on them. They could not distinguish themselves from the agberos in the motor parks. They kept at it even when it was obvious that they had chosen to be juveniles in an adult environment. It was as though they envied the world of hooligans and had craved a part in that theatre of the macabre. Politicians work with thugs and roughnecks as a matter of routine, and sometimes they cannot distinguish themselves from their brutish errand boys. They acted neither distinguished nor honourable.
They saw the budget presentation as an avenue to ventilate the venality of the street, the unrestrained rabble of the fake revolutionary. Their voices were brusque, their noses flared, their emotions gushed like barbarians, their feet unleashed in stomps. They might have jumped if there was room. What they could not attain in space, they accomplished in the filth of language and rascally gesticulations of their uncouth hands. The legislature is a platform for tasteful rhetoric, not abuse; for heroics, not disgrace; for ideas, not juvenility. It is the people’s chamber of thought and conduct, not a cesspool of brigandage.
They are the bedbugs of our democracy. If you are not in bed with them, they give you bedlam. Rather than being civil, be evil. In place of cheer, you jeer. Don’t be human, try primitivism. To boost their profile, they have to boo.
Then some of them say it was all spontaneous. Really? The placards erupted miraculously onto their hands with curse words gleaming in ink. The spirit of the chants about “freedom come” sprang on their collective lips at the same time, just like David said in the Bible that “the spirit of God spoke by me and his words were in my tongue.” These hecklers must have fallen under some strange power, a secular, caveman’s anointing. They did not practise the acts we saw on the NASS floor, even though we all know they held a meeting the previous night to derail the budget presentation by President Muhammadu Buhari. In the Poland of the Middle Ages, historians described their legislature as “divinely ordained confusion.” But the Nigerian show was neither divine nor ordained.
Those who lost the first argument find solace in the virtues of democracy. They say the ideology abides chaos. They quote the fellow who soiled the solemn air as Obama addressed the joint session of Congress. But even his fellow Republicans scowled at his scandal. Joe Wilson of the South Carolina had shouted “you lie” when President Obama pointed out the glories of his health care programme. Vice President Joe Biden shook his head, but Obama strode on unscathed.
The House passed a resolution condemning him, and Wilson placed a call to the White House to offer his apologies and Obama graciously accepted. In our case, we are preening in iniquity. It was the first time a president would be presenting a budget to a joint session with a leadership from the opposition. It hoisted a chance for historic fraternity. Other nations would exploit such rostrums to make history and adorn the archives. When we make history, historians and posterity recoil like last week.
In the United Kingdom, a fellow uttered a slur and was cautioned, although he denied he used that word. That was because mouthing indecent language is anathema, even though mild interruptions and even occasional shouts, mainly murmurs, are permitted. But not trafficking in foul words like “liar” and shameless shouts of “no” when the president lists some of his doings. In the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition 2009, the rule says, “the use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the house is strictly forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order…”
The onus lies on the presiding speaker to restrain the “spontaneous” outbursts of erring lawmakers. Bukola “Eleyinmi” Saraki and bumbling Dogara conspired with their silence. They did little to register their disdain for the Neanderthal effusions of the fellows. I have decided not to name the hecklers today. They belong to the night of first ages, apologies to Joseph Conrad in The Heart of darkness. Those who think we have improved from First Republic barbarism, and we have benefited from the insights of history, only had to assault their eyes and ears with the drama of the absurd by the politicians.
What were they heckling? Was it the N-Power programme that is common knowledge? Was it the onset of work on the Second Niger bridge? Was it the rail work between Lagos and Ibadan that overthrew the headlines just as Buhari was delivering the speech? The guys were not happy because he did not sign their electoral bill and he had chopped off some of their thieving proposals in the budget. If they objected to Buhari’s claims, they have other avenues to show it. They could even devote a session of the house to it.
The difference between the British parliament and the American is also pre-ordained in the architecture of the chambers. The American structures its Congress with rooms between the seats, and it allows the lawmaker to speak as though on a stage. It means more dignity to the lawmaker and respect for decorum. The British is more claustrophobic, and lawmakers tend to sit closer and it could mean intimacy as well as intrusion in another person’s space. This format could encourage uncomfortable conduct.
In spite of the British example, and in spite of shouts, the duty is with the speaker to subdue any tendency to temerity. But we claim to copy the American presidentialism, and the case of Joe Wilson summarises the way to go. But some of the errant lawmakers are still congratulating themselves. Eleyinmi Saraki flayed the budget without even condemning the show of shame.
The theatrics has paid attention more to the antics of the lawmakers than the sublime subject of how to run the country in the coming year. The budget is so important that that session is the most important rite in our democratic almanac. It is about how do we educate our kids, feed the poor, repair and build roads, heal the sick, soar with the high and mighty nations in the world. Yet we turned it into an alawada epic, grown men ranting and chanting like inebriated masquerades in a village festival.
Even when Buhari paused to tell them, mock-flattering, half-scolding, that they were better than that, they saw no need to abate their nuisance. He also told them that the “world is watching us.” They were lost in their imprecatory lust. They were irredeemable in their foul rhythms of gutter and guttersnipes.
The president presented himself with dignity. His aplomb showed that in spite of his fabled temper, Buhari knew how to rise above the absurdity of the day. Neither in gesture nor words did he sully the dignity of his office that afternoon. Rather it was the lawmakers who undermined the cathedral majesty of the presidency and the nobility of their offices.
Once when he referred to his work in Bonny, he paused when the sound of liar rang out, he looked at the heckler with an inflamed eye, and continued his work. It was a glimpse of Buhari the GOC who defied his army chief Garba Wushishi and asked Nigerians to start reading the constitution.
The errant lawmakers should apologise, not only to the president but also to Nigerians for selling this democracy short with their ill manners.