Squirrel, viper and the secretive parliament By Garba Shehu

Garba Shehu

The Viper is a deadly snake. But it is also calm and calculating. One day, it laid in a cool shade obviously enjoying a good rest. The squirrel climbed the three and as usual began its loud wise “kwa, kwa, kwa!” The viper warned the squirrel to keep quiet. “In your own interest and the well being of branch of this tree you perched on and my own, remain quiet.” The squirrel was adamant. His “Kwa, kwa, kwa!” drew the attention of the hunter, who fired his gun, “Gba!” and down came the dead squirrel. With it came the shattered tree branch. The squirrel and broken tree branch crashed on the viper. When the hunter came forward to pick his game, he was confronted by a sitting viper. He did not hesitate to fire a shot to kill the snake. For the simple reason of the refusal of the squirrel to keep quiet, the rodent lost its life. The tree was broken and the viper shattered to smithereens.

The parable of the viper is the story of Hon. Herman Hembe, Chairman House of Representatives Committee on the Capital Markets. It is not in doubt that Arunma Oteh, the Director-General of the Security and Exchange Commission is not altogether clean. She is not deserving of the exalted office she occupies. But like the viper, she was calm and calculating.. Hembe ignited the confidence in her when he went very, very personal and at a given point, he asked her this question: “what is your qualification? Where is your CV? Bring your credentials.” They say that when the eagles are silent, the parrots jabber.

Oteh, for all her faults, did obtain a first class at the UNN and rose to become the Vice President of the African Development Bank and could not understand how her tormentors should attempt to score a political point by subjecting her to public humiliation.

Her point to her tormentors was simple: if you come to equity, you must come with clean hands. In other words, those with glass moral jaws should not throw punches. If Hembe had ever thought the SEC DG was a doormat or a sitting duck, the woman proved him wrong during her appearance before the Capital Market Committee the next day. If Hembe had ever doubted her academic and professional pedigree, the woman, like a determined fighter, reeled out her credentials. It was obvious she was determined to reclaim her reputation, which was threatened by questions over her qualification.

Once done with the aspects dealing with her qualifications, Arunma Oteh finally went for Hembe’s jugular. In his book, 48 Laws of Power, Robert Green advises that you always go after your opponent’s weaknesses to humble him. And Oteh effectively did just that. She frontally attacked the moral qualification of Herman Hembe to question her conduct.

She wondered how a lawmaker who collected estacode and other expenses from SEC to attend a capacity building conference abroad but never did should have the audacity to question the integrity of others. She said Hembe never retuned the hard currencies, despite not attending the workshop in the Dominican Republic. But the bigger shock was her allegation that Hembe had demanded N5million cash a day before the hearing out of N39million the Committee allegedly demanded to help it facilitate the task.

Suddenly, public scrutiny shifted to Hembe and other members of the Committee on Capital Markets. Both Hembe and his deputy had told the EFCC investigators that, indeed, they collected the estacode and sundry expenses for a foreign conference they never attended and which they also never refunded.

Scandalized by this incident, the House leadership forced Hembe to stand aside along with other members of the Committee while the House Ethics Committee was saddled with the task of continuing with the SEC investigation and the conduct of Capital Markets Committee Members. This incident is a moral blow to the collective image of the National Assembly.

The primary focus of this column today however is not only about the bad image of the lawmakers but also about the rumours going round that the House leadership is contemplating a ban on live TV coverage of public hearings, especially on “sensitive” issues. In the course of doing damage control, the House Leadership must avoid the temptation of undermining the essence of democracy – openness and public scrutiny.

This incident, no matter how bad its resonating moral consequences, should not justify the move to institute secret trials. Every afternoon, the Sky Television network transmits the British Parliament Live, where the Prime Minister and government Ministers face a grilling from fellow MPs on public issues and policies. No issue is considered too sensitive not to be discussed openly. Despite its perceived security implications, the March 2003 US/British invasion of Iraq was openly debated to establish the veracity of claims that the late Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Why are our lawmakers afraid of open scrutiny? Are they scared that their double standard may be exposed? If they have nothing to hide, why must they have anything to fear about live TV coverage of public hearings? Open government is the essence of the democratic system. If House leadership is contemplating this TV ban on public hearings to protect themselves, then what becomes of the public interest, which they swore to protect?

The move is counter-productive because it may lead to a perception that the lawmakers are desperate to cover up their tracks to avoid future scandals. What is needed is not a ban on live TV coverage but a demonstration of sincerity, patriotism, integrity and selflessness by our lawmakers. How would our lawmakers earn respect when they demand money from ministries and departments of government during budget defence, oversight assignments and public hearings? This is unheard of in modern democracies.

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