By Azuka Onwuka
As general elections draw near in Nigeria, the time for politicians to start eating maize while walking on the street has come. They will go to different open markets to buy palm oil or yam. They will go to public schools to eat the hostel food. They may even wear school uniforms. All that is to create an image of simplicity, humility and accessibility and get the people’s votes.
Ironically, the moment they win an election and get inaugurated, they stop all the acting and wait for the next election time to repeat the drama. And though the masses know that these politicians are toying with them, they still indulge them.
Have you observed the deification given to these same leaders by their aides and the masses once they are in office? It is painful to watch our president and governors treated like invalids who cannot help themselves. When they walk towards their seat, the aide-de-camp rushes to the seat and pulls it back for them to sit down. Then the ADC moves the chair forward for them before stepping out. Depending on what the event is, the ADC may stay permanently behind them all through.
When the Nigerian political leaders are walking and it is drizzling, or the sun is hot, an aide holds an umbrella over them, because their hand is too weak to hold an umbrella. Nigerian political leaders cannot even hold a folder or a book. It is too heavy for their fragile hands. What about carrying their own briefcases or suitcases? Those will certainly break the spinal cords of Nigerian leaders!
If it were possible for aides to walk around for Nigerian politicians or defecate on their behalf, they would have outsourced these activities too. Once in office, the Nigerian politician is a king or queen that is too exalted to do certain things. Ironically, the Nigerian masses give excuses on their behalf. It is hard to find a Nigerian politician who acts the same way in and out of office. Former governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, may be an exception.
Interestingly, these same politicians travel overseas regularly and see their counterparts in North America, Europe, Oceania and Asia. They see presidents and prime ministers of powerful nations take care of some basic, private things. They see presidents and prime ministers holding their umbrella and even using it to cover their wives. These leaders hold their briefcases when they travel. Nobody runs to pull their chair out when they want to sit down. When they attend a dinner, no aide holds a plate for them while they dish their food. They do it themselves. Their words and actions make it clear that they are leaders, not rulers.
The way these leaders of developed countries brief the press clearly defines their attitude toward the electorate. It is rare to see such leaders sit down while briefing the press. They stand all through the process. Members of the press sit and listen to them. The media people ask them questions one after the other. They answer still standing on their feet.
The message in that briefing format is that the leaders are serving, not ruling. They are accountable to the people. That briefing format also subtly helps the people to gauge the physical fitness of their leaders. Just as organisations expect their employees to be physically fit so do developed and progressive countries expect their leaders to be fit. If their leaders cannot be on their feet for about an hour, then it shows that such leaders are not physically fit to perform their duties maximally.
In the Nigerian case, it is the opposite. Political leaders sit while addressing the media. Their media managers ensure that there are certain questions that are not asked from their principals. Journalists who ask probing questions are seen as enemies. They are not usually invited to such sessions. In fact, in the case of presidential media chat, when a Nigerian president agrees to chat with the media, the questions to be asked are usually sent ahead for approval. The questions are allocated to particular journalists to ask. Follow-up questions are not usually allowed. And journalists are not allowed to go beyond the approved questions. Any journalist who veers off the approved questions is blacklisted. The flight, accommodation and feeding costs of the journalists are usually taken care of by the government. Additional money is also given to them as an allowance. They are treated as the guests of such a leader all through their stay. In return, they are expected to reciprocate the “warm hospitality” given to them by being of “good behaviour.” If they don’t, the money that should be given to them at the end of the interview or media chat may not get to them or maybe generously “edited.”
Consequently, such media chats or interview sessions with presidents or governors become more of public relations sessions. The critical questions that need to be asked are not asked and the clarifications that the country needs to get on important issues remain elusive. The country makes do with whatever the media aides’ dish through press statements or interviews. If any negative issues arise from such statements, the president or governor can easily deny saying such a thing never happened. It is credited to the media aide in question and the media aide becomes the fall guy of the political leader. The media aides are not usually worried to be blamed for such issues as long as they retain their jobs.
The poverty and high unemployment rate in the country have also helped to worsen the way Nigerian leaders treat their citizens. The culture of deification of leaders is also a factor. Most Nigerian ethnic groups had kings who were seen as the representatives of the gods. They could not be questioned. Their subjects prostrated or curtsied once in their majestic presence. These rulers dispensed favours and punishments as they wished. Even when modern rule came, it was difficult to make a clean transition from that era. Therefore, it is seen as an infra dig for a political leader to hold an umbrella or a bag or even a book. Just as servants do such things for kings, political appointees do such for political leaders.
Consequently, it is difficult for political leaders to be accountable to the people. They see themselves as doing the people a favour by providing amenities for them or even visiting them or talking to them. They feel angry whenever they are asked certain questions or criticised.
If Nigerians want to see a better Nigeria, they must change their attitude towards political officeholders. When party candidates suddenly begin to eat maize along the road or drink tea with a sachet of N30 milk or buy vegetables from an open market, we should tell them to stop the deceit. We should ask them to show us pictures or videos of them doing such years before they decided to seek political office. Nigerians should stop tolerating political scammers who create a false narrative of simplicity and accessibility just to get votes but become inaccessible, condescending and insatiable monarchs once they get elected.