There is much excitement about a tidy sum of N225 Million spent by a Ministry of Aviation parastatal to buy treated cars for use of the Minister, Ms. Stella Oduah. My problem with the discussion is that most of the commentators are missing a deeper, more fundamental issue. That issue, in my opinion, is key to both why Nigeria’s democracy is progressively losing its legitimacy and the reason impunity reigns, fracturing consensus for progress. This troubling phenomenon is a mindset issue associated with power and authority in Nigeria, and I call it the hunter – conqueror mindset.
To discuss the bullet – proof car scandal and think of it just in terms of corruption, or vanity, or misapplication of resources from the commonwealth of all is to have limited scope of engagement on a phenomenon that afflict many who seek public life in Nigeria. The reason many public servants and politicians in Nigeria cannot understand what the noise is about on the issue is that for many of them the state or the commonwealth is a spoil of war.
To many of today’s political appointees and elected politicians, victory at the polls, earned or rigged, is conquest of the Nigerian people and the commonwealth is the booty of conquest to be deployed to the benefit of the victor as he sees fit. For many it is like the fable of Barkin Zuwo: Government money was found in Government house; what is wrong with that? For those many who strain and strife and arrive the corridors of power, their turn to chop has arrived and all those who suggest they are not at liberty to do as they please with public money, the lives of others and the future of all, are either disgruntled losers in the opposition, rabble – rousing activists or just plain jealous people. This condition is aided by the dearth of citizenship.
The failure of citizenship in Nigeria has meant that vertical accountability is seldom a tool of the governance process, thus allowing public officers get away with things that will be totally unacceptable in normal societies, ensuring impunity writ large as the signature of popular culture in Nigeria.
Given also that Nigeria is the ultimate country of the big man and the elite cause institutions to be weak, erecting the strong man to solve problems, the mindset of power is fundamentally that of “Who are you to question my judgment” especially in the use of something I have acquired in conquest: This mindset not only considers request to be accountable, an insult, it actually treats the welfare of power as a higher public good than the well-being of citizens. This is why I was not surprised to read on twitter recently the report credited to Reuters that a few of Africa’s politicians or a few of its rich businessmen own enough to free Africa from the shackles of crushing poverty.
If you go from the conqueror part of the mindset to the hunter side you learn a few things. As different from the farmer who plants and waters until a great harvest in due season the hunter kills his game ad gets his instant gratification. The truth, if it be told, is that our political elite have a hunter – conqueror mentality which makes it difficult for them to understand that there is something wrong with spending so much of the money of a people so poor they are struggling to eke out a living in a manner that questions the discretion of power. The “audacity of plebeians” as I call the contemptuous view of the people’s right to complain and hold power accountable is really what the trouble is in Nigeria.
This view widely held by the entrepreneurs of power, those who chose power for money or ego, reasons other than sacrificial giving of themselves for the common Good is the reason the kind of conversation on the Aviation cars are mere irritations to the kind of people who dominate Abuja and other power centres. They never ask why American top government officials fly economy when British Airways thrives mainly because Nigerian public officials fill up their First class cabins.
Until we can purge ourselves of this hunter – conqueror mindset, Nigeria will remain all dressed up with nowhere to go.
An important point to note here is that given what we hear about the Aviation Minister’s personal fortune she can afford to buy a dozen of those cars without her bank manager noticing the movement. So why make a parastatal that cannot equip well to do its job spend a huge part of its budget to burnish her vanity. Simple. It is part of the Hunter-Conqueror mindset. Those who conquer the people, the mindset suggests, should be entitled to living off the proceeds of conquest. It simply reassures that the world runs at their pleasure while they are in power.
Do you notice that you hardly see Governors and ministers on commercial flights these days? For some it is a relief they do not have to put up with the nuisance of security and protocol people trying to impress the boss at boarding as they inconvenience others. But it is the new chic for power to fly around in PJs (private jets) and on charter aircraft. All this at taxpayer expense. Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as President of the US wondered how a person can be good Transport Secretary without taking the train to work every day will be turning in his grave if he saw Nigeria today. This is because he would not understand the Hunter-Conqueror mindset.
Go to the General Aviation terminal in Abuja, the PJ Parking lot and you will see how the emergence of two societies that will eventually destroy us is crystalizing. The trouble is not just that there are a few super rich and to many poor. The real trouble is that the money they fault has not come from genius that created jobs but from privatizing the commonwealth. So it is easy there to have a Hunter-Conqueror mindset, different from the way Warren Buffet thinks.
The challenge to progress in Nigeria is significantly how to destroy this Hunter-Conqueror thinking that has given us public servants disconnected from society and reality.
Pat Utomi, Professor of Political Economy and Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.