Hello! Do you know your Representatives?
As it is time for a review of 17 years of democracy, we the people should ask many contextual questions about dividends of democracy so far. Academics such as Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, (PhD) would tell you in a different context that the most remarkable dividend of democracy is freedom. They are right. But in our milieu, where we still grapple with basic needs, we celebrate mediocrity and frivolities that our dealers called leaders feed us with every day. Our elected leaders build classrooms, provide school chairs, bore holes, school uniforms and commission them with fanfare every day in the 21st century and they want the story and photograph on the front page.
Be that as it may, we have a responsibility to review the 17-year old democracy, Fela Anikulapo Kuti would have called “dem don crazy”.
In reviewing the journey so far and contrasting it with what Bill Gates called, “the road ahead”, we need to ask some basic questions about the value of this representative democracy.
History shows us that tumultuous times bring change, but we have been told that our change variant is a gradual process. Even as we wait for the dividends, we can interrogate some of the institutions that are designed by law to help the change process. Certainly, one institution that actually symbolizes functional democracy is the legislature. It is the most significant arm of government, though the executive arm is more prominent. That is the institution that epitomizes the concept of representation in a democracy.
Let’s examine this context from a remarkable line by a significant politician in the United States, Thomas Phillip a.k.a Tip O’Neill, who was the second-longest serving Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives (1977-1987). The man became famous for coining a phrase, “All politics is local”.
The former U.S Speaker’s phrase encapsulates the principle that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. Politicians must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect them into office. Those personal issues rather than the big and intangible ideas, are often what voters care most about, according to this principle that has elicited many doctoral theses.
The point here is the relevance of the phrase to our discussion this week: We would like to examine the mission of a typical representative, a legislator beyond legislation and dubious oversight functions.
As Professor Ben Nwabueze once noted, the Legislature is the distinctive mark of a country’s sovereignty, the index of its status as a state and the source of much of the power exercised by the executive in the administration of government.
When referring to democratic governance, whether parliamentary or presidential, the organ of government that captures the mind most as epitomizing the concept is the legislature. For that is the place where the public sees democracy in action, in the form of debates, and consideration of motions, resolutions and bills. The closest politician to the voter is the representative of his constituency in the legislature. Thus the most significant phenomenon in a democratic set up is to see the legislature, the Assemblies of the people’s representatives in action.
But even as we face turbulent politics that sometimes makes the environment very toxic, the smoke now gets clearer from the electoral battlefield. Now, it is easy to blame Abuja and the president for all the woes associated with governance. I think Abuja should not be the only appraisal focal point in a representative democracy such as ours. Our obsession with the centre and the man at the centre has been excessive, especially in the media. We tie our destiny to the acts of the executive heads in Abuja and 36 states state capitals. I believe we should stoop low to look at some other low hanging fruits in this democratic experiment. Let’s see how our powerful representatives too have been representing us in a democracy. Wherever you are reading this, let me ask some simple questions: Do you know your representatives? Do you know your representatives in your state assembly? Do you know the one who represents you in the House of Representatives in Abuja? Do you know your Senator? Do you know the persons representing you in the federal and state cabinets? I hope the answers to these questions are not blowing in the wind.
The dilemma for political theorists in the context of legislators’ responsibility has been that if persons represent a particular local electorate in the parliament, should they pursue that electorate’s interests, or the national interest? Given the choice between electorate and nation interests, most members would probably claim that their local electorate is their prime concern as ultimately their political survival is based on their electorate’s opinion.
But the deliverable from this discussion point is the need to raise the bar of law making beyond passage of appropriation bills and oversight functions. We must embrace the concept of representation, which is critical to democracy. It calls for thorough education of the people that the pressure for cash and other personal gift items for pleasure cannot develop our democracy and indeed our country.
According to the author of The Decline of Representative Democracy: Process Participation and Power in State Legislatures, Alan Rosenthal:
Some legislators go even further than those who incur out-of-pocket expenses, usually for long-distance telephone, in helping constituents. An Oklahoma representative is an example. A constituent called him at home to complain about the overgrowth of weeds on the median strip of the local highway. The representative knew there was no way he could get the highway department bureaucracy to do anything, so he took his own lawnmower, drove to the highway, and cut down the weeds himself. A Colorado representative acted in a similar fashion. In going door-to-door in his district, he asked constituents if he could help them in any way. One woman told him, “Yeah, you can water my petunias”. The representative thereupon went outside, turned on the hose and watered the petunias…
There are other instances of service beyond the call of duty. There is another story about another representative from Massachusetts, where a Senator would regularly pick up clothes that constituents wanted exchanged at Filene’s Basement department store in Boston. The basic lesson here in all these case studies even from the developed economies is that in the discussion of representation, members and former members all agreed on service as an important part of their job. Besides, helping constituents, in their minds, is what they are supposed to do. In Florida, this is one simple way the representatives and the represented see representation.
Constituents come to a legislator with problems like the following: “We are having problems getting a permit,” or “I want my daughter to go to Florida state”. Here legislators write letters and make phone calls to help constituents out… But if you fail to represent your constituents, it will be so obvious and the issue of recall will be part of the immediate consequences of failure. Therefore, we need to change to acquire some social intelligence to do this. I saw this in Maryland in 2003 when Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastation blow on Washington D.C. and Maryland areas. I saw when the constituents relied on only their representatives for restoration of electricity. They did not remember their governor then or even their Mayor. The first port of call was the constituency office or the house of their representatives in the Congress.
It is a tragedy, therefore, that we have this kind of unprecedented energy crisis in this country that is taking lives; no fuel for cars and generators at a time electricity has dropped to its lowest level in years. I mean at a time prices of all food items too have inexplicably risen and about twenty-eight states cannot pay salaries and not one representative is talking to the constituents by way of sympathizing, empathizing or comforting. In Ondo State, for instance, there has been permanent power outage in the entire Ondo South Senatorial District comprising Ile-Oluji, through Okeigbo, to the four local governments in the old Okitipupa Division since December 2014. Even before then, there had been blackout since 2004 in many parts of Ilaje and Irele local governments. I think the people to be bothered about this electricity companies’ wickedness to the people are the elected representatives, not the president and the governor. I have not noticed ruthless seriousness about this from the representatives of the people of the Ondo South Senatorial District. What is the meaning of representative democracy if all the representatives from the South West cannot be ashamed of the deadly state of Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and Lagos-Shagamu-Ore-Benin Expressway?
What is representative about a democracy if all the representatives from the South West, South South, South East in the National Assembly in Abuja cannot influence the executive arm to complete the Abuja-Lokoja dual-carriage way that began about 13 years ago?. It is shameful that our representatives continue to fly over these important roads that we the people use. It is an insult to the people that at a critical time such as this, the power minister, Mr Babatunde Fashola, for instance, has not considered it expedient to talk to Nigerians regularly about the terrible state of electricity supply in the country. Therefore, I think it is time to look beyond the president’s and the governors’ offices for solution and explanations. We should look for the contact details of all our representatives and start demanding responsibility from them. They have shirked their responsibility for the part 17 years. Our civil society organizations (CSOs) should help in sensitizing the people about representative democracy. They should also help us with database on these important elements in our democracy. If you have problem with admission of your children into tertiary institutions, for instance, you should learn to look for your representatives. Don’t ask for money. Ask for their service. They need to do more than passing appropriation bills and a few others. They should represent the people. We the people too should compel them to open functional constituency offices where interests and concerns can be raised. That is the essence of representative democracy.
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