October 1, 2022

KAPEB.COM

my web blog

Takeaways from British Prime Minister’s debacle

Once a while, it is refreshing, even therapeutic, to turn away from one country’s diminishing fortunes and state of siege in order to take a look at what is going on in other lands. To do this is not just an intellectual adventure, but an attempt to prospect for comparative lessons and takeaways. It is so easy to be overwhelmed and sorrowful concerning Nigeria’s current low ebb when you consider, for instance, that over a week after Kuje Correctional Centre was attacked and over 600 prisoners freed, nobody in position of responsibility had thought it wise to either educate the public or resign over an event that, if we stretch it, could easily have been the invasion and takeover of Nigeria. Notice that as terrible and volcanic as the incident was, the politicians are having a ball, wallowing in their private fortunes and imaginaries over how they will govern the country and presumably share the spoils of office, even if the nation under them is slipping into a huge hell hole.

So, let’s take a break and consider Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister’s travails and largely self-inflicted woes and how the British citizenry restored the sanctity of democracy. Johnson is a well educated and privileged politician. He attended Eton College and Oxford University, came to power three years ago in a landslide victory which got many comparing him to Margaret Thatcher, a conservative stateswoman who changed the political and economic architecture of British life. But, Johnson, as the British would soon find out, is no Thatcher, given that apart from Brexit, he does not have to his credit any lasting policy innovation that will rank him in the class of Thatcher. That is not the worst disappointment as there have been several British Prime Ministers that were mediocre and apparently bereft of governance ideas. Johnson’s distinction, as we may call it, lies in his ability to get enmeshed in one scandal after another, and his capacity to change the story as public pressure is piled on him with each scam.

See also  England’s Justin Rose withdraws from British Open

As some have observed, his chaotic marital status, including marriage to 3 women and a host of mistresses, began to reflect in his handling of British public life. True, a happy marriage does not necessarily translate into capacity to govern; nonetheless, marital disasters could well affect and afflict leaders battling for record in high office. The other thing that may have been consequential for Johnson is his antecedent as President of his debating society at Oxford which predisposed him to majoring in rhetoric, optics, style which are his immense niches; as opposed to substance, clarity of ideas and simple honesty. The noose began to close on him after a clutch of scandals, including an ill-fated attempt to change parliamentary rules in order to save an embattled ally. Johnson narrowly survived but that did not deter him from trying the patience of the British in other ways, banking widely on his luck.

Among the key scandals that he was involved in is the one that broke out over his attendance of a party in the course of a Covid-19 lockdown, a policy which as Prime Minister he was expected to lead and drive. That apart, there were issues raised about who paid and how much was paid for the renovation of his apartment at 10 Downing Street, and for holidays in the Caribbean Islands. After a period of staying in denial and extended debate, the burden of evidence pointed to the suggestion that private individuals, including a rich conservative politician, bankrolled the two activities, contrary to the rules.

In a country like Nigeria, these ethical violations would not have been issues in the public space because the standards or ethics are extremely low, anyway, not to mention the capacity of leaders to downplay and wash off public concern about their ethical standards. This is not the case in Britain which operates a largely unwritten constitution resting on conventions, traditions and what we may even call gentlemen’s agreement.

See also  Let Tinubu bear the burden of his choice

Before the Pincher scandal involving Johnson’s deputy Chief Whip of Parliament, Christopher Pincher, who was involved in sexual scandals about which Johnson feigned ignorance, there had been in June a narrow survival by Johnson of a Conservative party vote of no confidence which found 41% of Tory members of Parliament voting against him. A more calculable and integrity-driven figure would have thrown in the towel at that point, but Johnson struggled desperately to remain in office until the Pincher affair broke all pretence to a modicum of decency on the part of Johnson. In the wake of the Pincher affair, at least 20 cabinet ministers and other state officials, including the high profile Ministers of Finance and Health resigned their portfolios in order to shame Johnson into resignation. It is strange, if not perverse, that matters of a country like Britain known more for whispering rather than abrasive talk could degenerate to the storm which had overtaken Johnson. But it had come to a choice between Johnson and the British democracy, and the nation rose in revolt against repeated assaults by the Prime Minister on British legacy and ethical fibre.

For a country like Nigeria, where nobody resigns from public office even when all hell has broken loose on them, this is a big problem because no matter how bad things get, the culprits will cling to office and continue to run riot. In the past, it was thought that the legislature could act as a check on an underperforming and errant executive as it did during the ill-fated third term attempt by former President, General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd.) But over time, this power has been whittled down into almost nothingness. What we have now is a cosy relationship bordering on the incestuous relationship between the executive and legislature. This means that the executive can more or less disregard “noises” from the legislature because the so-called hot speeches and probe upon probe increasingly take the form of entertainment, diversions or vehicles for titillating a fatigued public. Is there any chance in Nigeria that any minister or head of parastatal can resign when things go heavily awry? I don’t think so, for even those ministers that were forced to quit in order to contest for the presidential primaries witnessed some of them begging to come back as ministers after losing the primaries.

See also  What you should know about infertility and depression

How about the civil society once described as the epicentre of Nigerian democracy? This once magnificent institution of oversight has lost a great deal of its moral lustre, partly because several of its leading lights have been incorporated into government either at the federal or state level. This means that if we had a situation, talking hypothetically, in which the country descends into a leaderless or rudderless circumstance, the civil society could not be relied upon to speak with clarity. God forbid that Nigeria should become a sitting duck for capture by extremists or terrorists, but even if that was about to happen, how many voices would be raised in the civil society?

 What is required beyond mere ‘electoralism’ is for our institutions to work to the point where as in the case of Boris Johnson, the chief executive can be fined by the police for transgressions. Sadly, this does not appear to be in the offing.

Professor Ayo Olukotun is a director at the Oba (Dr.) S. K. Adetona Institute for Governance Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye.