The triumph of impunity 

On November 19, 2022, I was privileged to be a resource person at a media roundtable organised by Emeka Izeze, Sully Abu and Sonala Olumhense. 

The topic of discussion was The Accountability Imperative: Why and How to Hold Politicians’ feet to the Fire. I am reproducing part of my contribution here with some slight editing because it seems to me that things have gone from bad to worse and are, indeed, heading for the worst. I warned in my contribution that holding the politicians’ feet to the fire is a dangerous undertaking and one that must not be undertaken lightly. The discussion, as I noted then, raised two points: one, that the mass media had so far been remiss in holding our politicians’ feet to the fire; and two, we were still left to wonder why and how it should be done. 

The duty of the mass media to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire is derived from section 21 of the 1979 constitution. It expressly imposes a constitutional and a professional duty on the mass media. Section 21 of that constitution obliges the media to “…uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” This was replicated in section 22 of the current 1999 constitution as amended. The constitutional imperatives have been with us for some 23 and 43 years, respectively. 

The two provisions were enacted at different times in our history by two military dictators as part of their efforts to make the mass media the eyes of the big brothers watching over our governments at national, state, and local government levels. Their objective was, and is, good governance and the respect for the law and the rule of law. These provisions also point to the duty as opposed to the mere role of the mass media to inform, educate, and entertain. The generals were persuaded that the mass media should do much more by looking over the shoulders of our political leaders and make them account for what they do or claim to do for the people. 

Accountability is fundamental to best practices in a democracy. Left alone, no political leaders would willingly be accountable to the people they purport to rule because they would have to account for what they do with the treasury which is our common possession. The mass media are best placed as the most powerful social institution to hold the whip over their heads and fan the embers of the fire at their feet and force them to reckon with the right of the people to know how they are governed. 

There are clear consequences when the mass media fail to undertake this patriotic duty to help sanitise our system such that there is a synergy between the rulers and the ruled. We can see that almost everything in the country today is badly flawed. Governance is badly flawed, given the flawed leadership recruitment process at all levels. Our electoral process and elections are flawed; our economic management is flawed; our education is destroyed and flawed; our national development paradigm is flawed; the management of our diversities is flawed; the anti-graft war is flawed; our national cohesion is flawed, and our state legislatures are flawed. 

The duty of the mass media under section 22 of the constitution is critical because of the cynical misunderstanding of the nuances of the executive presidential system. The normal institutional checks and balances are no longer there. Under our form of government, the legislature is obliged to carry out checks and balances in the system. Unfortunately, this is not and has not been possible because the leadership of the national assembly is packed with the president’s men; and the state assemblies are packed with governors’ men. Impeachable offences are thus committed with impunity without the fear of impeachment. No one tells an executive president or an executive governor or an executive local government chairman what to do because he has executive powers to do as he wishes and how he wishes. There is thus a huge void in governance with accountability treated as nothing more serious than a word. The mass media must step into that void. 

The mass media bear a major part of the blame for what our country has been turned into in the hands of the native sons and daughters of the soil. The mass media have not seriously taken up the duties imposed on them by section 22 of the constitution. The mass media must have the courage to afflict these people strutting the national stage in their expensive baban riga and agbada and constantly wake them up to their responsibilities and monitor their accountability to the people. 

A simple process requires the media to interrogate the annual budgets of the federal and state governments. They should find out how each year’s budget performed at national and sub-national levels with respect to capital projects. What happened to the money? Were the roads budgeted for built? What of the hospitals, primary and secondary schools? 

Flowing from that, let me make two quick points about our subject matter. One, we should look at accountability in broader terms. The constitution talks of government, not governments. The state is the government. Administrations and regimes come and go but government remains. An administration holds power at the behest of the state. In carrying out its watchdog duty, the mass media should also interrogate the processes leading to the conduct of elections and the formation of an administration. 

The electoral process is part of what the government does and must be periodically interrogated by the news media. State governors handpick their successors. Should the mass media allow them to get away with the assault on our democratic freedom and our right to have a say in who represents us? Do the state governors have the right to choose their successors? 

The political parties are the primary custodians of our electoral process. I have often argued against this because it is wrong. In the second republic, FEDECO was unquestionably the primary custodian of our electoral process and elections. It had the powers to qualify and disqualify aspirants to high political offices and was thus able to weed out undesirable elements from political leadership. 

This provision was retained in the Electoral Act 1999. It was one of the first provisions to be removed in amendments to the Electoral Act. The mass media failed to seriously interrogate this because not many of us saw that it was part of a plot by the politicians to weaken INEC to their own advantage.

It is a clear travesty of our constitution. In refusing to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire, the mass media have denied themselves the right and abdicated their duty to vet those who seek to rule us at all levels. We do not know them. Or, to put it another way, we see them on posters and billboards. Is that enough to help the electorate make rational choices among the contestants to high public offices?  

We can only remedy this by instituting a tradition in which the mass media vet those who seek to rule us at all levels. If this is done properly and transparently, the mass media will succeed in weeding out from government moneyed but unsavoury characters. We should be tired of corrupt and incompetent leadership by now. 

The anti-graft war is today being treated as a huge joke by the politicians, the courts, our traditional rulers and much of the general public. Thieves continue to be celebrated with traditional titles conferred on them by traditional rulers, the supposed custodians of our culture and tradition. Mobs, the courts and the police prevent EFCC from arresting suspected highly placed thieves. It is part of the failure of the system that the courts help to flout the laws to protect thieves; traditional rulers celebrate thieves; the police shield men who have ravaged our common treasuries and carted away billions of naira and insist on living in the laps of luxury; mobs are hired to protect former public officers from the law. And so, corruption reigns and the rich but corrupt former public officers become the lords of this manor. We deserve better, much better.

Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]

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