When former Governor, Diepriye Alamieyeseigha launched his campaign for the Bayelsa Central senatorial seat, his poster slogan read ‘Pardoned for service’ – an infamous reference. He was alluding to the Presidential pardon he had been granted after admitting to corruption charges from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Here he was, back, and ready to rekindle his political ambitions.
Nigerian politics is full of surprises. Surprises that fuel political disillusionment within the polity.
In 2007 six former governors from Yobe, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau, Kebbi and Kaduna were elected to the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly, commonly called the Senate or Red Chamber. In 2011, the number of former governors in the Senate rose to 11.
At the inauguration of the 8th National Assembly, there were 16 former governors who had joined the Senate as duly elected representatives. And this trend is only set to increase, with the polity unable to do much about it.
Some commentators refer to the Senate as the ‘Governors' Retirement Home’, a lodging ground for politicians who are yet to put an end to their political careers and ambitions. As it tends to be in Nigerian governance, the trend is viewed with suspicion and criticism. Yet this trend is not unique to Nigeria, and neither is the unlimited tenure for elected senators.
It is common in presidential systems such as the United States, for the Senate to have no limits on its tenure, in an effort to retain the institutional memory of the Chamber. This allows experienced and veteran lawmakers to shape legislative agendas over a long period of time, after getting accustomed to the debating style of government.
But with Nigeria, there are other concerns.
Unlimited tenures appear to be the reserve of well-established democracies, which reward and praise experience, rather than maintain a revolving door for office holders. In Nigeria, the high level of distrust between the people and elected officials is exacerbated by the higher level of graft and corruption officials ritually indulge in. Despite this, many state governors who are unpopular amongst their state residents are recycled at federal level with little hope of significant governmental impact.
Many Nigerian governors notoriously under-perform. Many Nigerian senators are no different. Passage from one to the other is usually at the expense of the people. So while in theory, experience in public office is something to applaud, in our context, it is a burden to be discharged.
Governors are beneficiaries of immunity from legal challenges while in office and can easily fend off any allegations of mismanagement. Therefore, the argument that former governors retain senatorial seats in order to maintain influence in government and hold off any anti-graft investigations has gathered sway among most of Nigeria’s polity.
And again, the people can do very little about it.
While the election of President Buhari has convinced people that power lies with the voters, the same may not be true for these senatorial seats. Governors traditionally maintain a firm hold on their states, acting as state executives with all but Presidential powers within geographical limits.
This allows them to become strong contenders for senatorial seats because of the large political bases, networks and finance at their disposal. Little can be done to restrain such influence, although some state governors have found themselves inhibited by party forces.
Additionally, the current political structure of the nation is such that voter accountability has been focused on the Federal Executive government. While voters may pay attention to the National Assembly as a whole, they do not pay as much attention to the election of the individual senators. But to understand the big picture, one must first look at everything close up, beginning with local constituencies.
As the 8th Assembly kicks in, the new Senate President, Bukola Saraki has promised changes to the former legislative style through more transparency and communication with the polity. But he himself is a beneficiary of the trend, having just served as the Governor of Kwara State.
Bukola Saraki's party won an unprecedented electoral victory based on the promise of change. There is a worry that as far as the Senate goes, it is the same old story. Either way, one thing is clear, the revolving doors need to be shut soon, before it becomes too late.