Let the Poor Breathe: How Not to Love Nigeria

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By Mon-Charles Egbo

The famous quote by Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is an ageless homily for mankind. It teaches that periodically, there is a need for individuals, organizations and particularly, governments to review their thoughts, words and deeds for possible adjustments towards an expected end. And this is achieved through self-appraisal and or attention to external opinions.

Again, this explains why citizens are lawfully empowered to lend their voices through commending and condemning whenever necessary, every action or speech of governments and their representatives. The people are also to offer useful ideas and demand necessary explanations, depending on the situation. In other words, it is the right of everyone, irrespective of status, to have a say in how they are governed. This is the whole essence of the universal freedom of expression.

As such, criticism is not only a catalyst but is essential for good governance. Through it, governments are guided into people-oriented performance. Also, beyond offering the people the ground to demonstrate that indeed governance is about them, criticism is an avenue to demonstrate one’s love for the country. And again, it engenders responsive governance and advances participatory democracy. So any government or leadership that is averse to criticism is on the path to failure.

But in all these, criticism loses its value whenever it is deployed for political expediency or motivated by partisan, sectional and religious considerations. It becomes unpatriotic and undermines national interest if it is not objective.

And quite sadly, this is one area that the elites have succeeded in taking advantage of the vulnerable masses. Through exploitative orchestrations, the ignorant and poor are armed with certain specific consciousness that greatly distorts their perception of government and governance, particularly the legislature.

This unfortunate trend has continued to erode every conscious effort towards participatory democracy as most citizens today chase shadows, leaving the substance, while ironically professing love for the country.

And consequently, subjective criticism has become the bane of Nigeria’s democratic development wherein the legislature is on the receiving end of perennial hostility and apathy towards public leadership and service. The national assembly is continuously under unwarranted attacks sequel to prejudice and ignorance being propagated by the elites with one hand while waving the banner of love for the country with the other.

This subtle inconsistency played out yet again recently when the senate considered a motion seeking to stop the intended hike in the electricity tariff. But before then, there was a trending maxim which depict the general mood of the masses since the advent of president Bola Tinubu’s administration. The phrase, LET THE POOR BREATHE, which incidentally was originated by Tinubu himself, has become a veiled passionate appeal for the government to always spare thoughts for the downtrodden when formulating economic policies, especially given the pains and agonies the masses currently experience. This slogan dominates every conversation that borders on the prevailing economy lately. Even organized labour and social media influencers have since adopted it as the theme of their campaign messages.

Hence and in apparent solidarity with the masses while ruling against the intended price increase, the president of the senate, Godswill Akpabio, jocularly highlighted that the core objective of the motion was to “let the poor breathe”. This remark was spontaneously followed by laughter that resonated with the rest of the senators. Yes, the lawmakers burst into laughter!

But the good news is that the motion, aside from being people-oriented, culminated in a resolution that is as well, in the overall interest of the people, especially the poor whose living standards would worsen in the absence of affordable public power supply. This is a fact.

Nonetheless, there were Nigerians who felt violated by both Akpabio’s mention of the phrase and the ensuing laughter by the senators. And so in expressing their emotions to which they are entitled, no doubt, several narratives laced with disparaging comments were thrown up. Summarily by their outbursts, the senate president mobilized his colleagues to make a brazen mockery of the same citizenry they are elected to protect and defend. Akpabio was even singled out for personalized attacks. All these were in a bid to dramatize love for the country!

Once again, it is within the rights and priviledges of these eminent and respected citizens to vent their misgivings, after all, we have equal stakes in this business of governance and also, governance is about the people. This is the beauty of democracy and a part of the price of leadership.

But placing those resentments side-by-side with the context of the senate’s conduct, particularly its disposition since inception, one can only identify sufficient contradictions.

For instance and also relying on the communicative nature of laughter, whatever meaning that is ascribed to a laugh is determined by the prevailing context or individual perceptions. Depending on the personality and situation, laughter is interpreted as “pleasurable, reassuring or threatening”. Put succinctly, one believes whatever suits their dispositions.

So in this case naturally, the senators’ laughter meant different things to different people. It represented sarcasm, a sense of triumph over an attempt to suffocate the poor and a response to the senate president’s humorous gesture. But whichever way, the eventual outcome of the motion cannot be diminished by narrow sentiments. By every standard of assessment, the legislation offered some fresh air to the poor.

Meanwhile, there are pertinent questions in this regard.

Firstly, does Godswill Akpabio have a history of making jokes? Yes. He has a remarkable sense of humour but is not reputed for trivializing issues or exhibiting discriminatory tendencies since his days as governor of Akwa Ibom State, 8th assembly senator and minister of the federal republic. His joke did not reduce the importance attached to the motion.

Again, is the 10th senate given to making a mockery of Nigerians, particularly the poor? No! A cursory look at the dimension of its resolutions so far indicates that the well-being of the masses remains its guiding philosophy.

Furthermore, has there been a time that the let-the-poor-breathe phrase was condemned for representing cynicism? No! President Tinubu who invented it was roundly applauded for his show of empathy, though urged to walk the talk all-round. Even social activists are now deploying it in their agitations.

Then lastly, if the senate had supported the proposed tariff hike, would there have been any benefits for the country? Yes! The investors in the power sector, their staff, families, associates and numerous other stakeholders, including the host communities across the country, who equally are Nigerians, would have had more and better opportunities. And of course, the government at all levels would have experienced a commensurate increase in revenue and then possibly, an improved service delivery in favour of the country. Yet the senate opted to identify with the poor as against the priviledged few. And instructively again, this is not a coincidence!

Diligent research shows that the 10th senate is resolute in its commitment to delivering principally, interventions that directly affect the living condition of the Nigerian masses. This is verifiable.

Buoyed by his fair understanding of Nigeria’s peculiar challenges, Akpabio had aspired to lead a senate that “MUST provide legislation that enables support for small and medium-sized enterprises, and helps to reduce the barriers to entry for small businesses. He emphasized that “these categories of legislation as well as others that promote the growth of the economy, and help create a more prosperous and vibrant nation MUST be our priority”.

Presenting his inaugural address, he solemnly stated inter alia: “to the Nigerian people, I say this: your dreams, your aspirations, and your well-being will be at the heart of everything we will do in this senate”,

Akpabio further vowed that “our laws MUST, therefore, align with the vision of Mr President to protect and provide for our people at the innermost core of their essence while our actions must also guarantee the best and most efficient use of our national commonwealth”. He stressed that deliberate attention must be accorded to “gender matters, with specific affirmative provisions to guarantee women’s inclusivity” including also “issues relating to persons with special needs and equality”.

Though arguably, it is still morning in the day, Senator Akpabio is yet to contradict himself. At least, whether humourously or consciously, he has led his colleagues to key into the project let-the-poor-breathe! So the ball is now in President Bola Tinubu’s court.

Therefore, we owe the senate, nay the national assembly, all the cooperation and support critical to excellence. It is certainly to our eternal benefit that the legislature succeeds. Whereas criticism is productive in governance, national interest should be the ultimate goal. Politics is since over and any action or word motivated by primordial sentiments is not for the people and does not in any way translate to love for the country. Every opinion should be viewed through the prism of nation-building. One major way to demonstrate genuine love for the country is to always seek to “let the poor breathe” through words and actions. Primarily, we should champion a constitution that provides equal-but-complementary powers for the arms of government so that we have the kind of legislature that we can be proud of. Also because law-making and representation are information-driven, we should actively and dispassionately play our roles towards this dimension.

But above all and in order not to be masked by misplacement of priorities, may we and our leaders always be persuaded that “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

Egbo is a parliamentary affairs analyst.

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