Good day, Benjamin.
You are probably used to being referred to as “Honourable Kalu,” but unfortunately I have never been one for using honorific descriptors when engaging with elected representatives. You’ll have to excuse my lack of respect and not hold it against me while you read this. Blame it on my poor upbringing where good Nigerian values like genuflection, poverty and folding myself down to the size of a single Okin biscuit in the presence of power were not taught to me.
I am writing this with respect to our exchange over the weekend on the subject of the draft Infectious Diseases Bill, which was smuggled through two readings in the House despite as many as half of its members not seeing it. A lot of things happened in the aftermath of an investigative story I wrote, which broke down the draft bill and exposed it as a threat to constitutional democracy and a comprehensively plagiarised farce.
I would have liked to send you this apology privately, but I am constrained to do so here on the pages of a national daily because following our little exchange, you blocked me on Twitter. I hope you get to read this and understand that I am truly sorry about a lot of things, and I wish I could change them even though they were not all my fault.
I am sorry for the severe emotional pain I must have caused you by exercising my constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech while critiquing a draft bill that you and your colleagues think is none of my business.
Apology for the state of Nigeria’s legislature and leadership
Let me start by apologising for the fact that at a time of unprecedented global and national economic upheaval, you were apparently the best person that the people of Bende federal constituency in Abia State could find to represent them. I offer my heartfelt sympathy to the good people of Bende because if you were all that was available, I can only imagine how hard life must be for them. One day hopefully, things will get better.
I wish to apologise to the people of Nigeria in general, for being in a position where someone as thoroughly unsuited for democratic representation not only sits in their Lower House, but is actually the House spokesperson. Worse still, the fact that you are not a one-off fluke, but a broadly accurate representation of those who sit in the House underlines the misery of the Nigerian condition. Sorry to us all.
You see, when you appeared on national television on Friday morning and proceeded to inform the country that the passage of a bill that would end all our civil and property rights was not our business and that we should face our respective fronts and “respect the House,” I was not angry at you as an individual. Even when you called me an “alarmist” on television and attempted to discredit my hard work by claiming that I created a false impression about the bill’s originality, I did not hold it against you. You know why?
The reason, Benjamin, is that I understand you. A popular preacher asked the questions in another context, but I understand how you exist and how you were formed. I know where you come from and I know “who you are.” I have spent a lot of my life around people just like you – people who see the titles of public office as the next milestone in their careers after achieving what they consider to be success. After getting the degrees, building the careers, marrying the childhood sweetheart/trophy wife, building the dream houses, buying the cars, having the children and getting the chieftaincy title, what else is left?
Going into politics of course.
For you and hundreds of your colleagues in the National Assembly, seeking electoral office was a self-aggrandising career move that had nothing to do with any desire to serve or represent people in Bende or Mushin or Ilejemeje or Tundun Wada. You probably have as much in common with your typical constituent as I do with someone from Swaziland. As far as you are concerned, you are their king and they must respect you accordingly.
People are fond of saying that you don’t know why you are there, but this is wrong – you know exactly why you are there. You are there for the title and perceived status, which is why even on Twitter, your account name is “Ben Kalu (Spokesperson House of Reps),” even though the bracketed information is already available on the account’s bio. The purpose of such strategic tautology does not escape me – “they” must know exactly who Benjamin Kalu is before engaging him.
Of course, this isn’t just about you, Benjamin. I also have to apologise on behalf of the Nigerian people to whom the concept of asking for and requiring more of those who would be their leaders and representatives is as unfamiliar as snow
I can only apologise to you for raining on your parade by reminding you that regardless of how bastardised Nigeria’s political system is, you WILL respect the fact that you are merely an elected messenger, not the emperor you fancy yourself as. As I told you just before you petulantly blocked me, it is not my job to “respect” you – it is your job to respect Nigerians. Clearly, judging by what you did next, you did not want to hear this at all. Sorry about that, Benjamin. My bad.
I am sorry for the severe emotional pain I must have caused you by exercising my constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech while critiquing a draft bill that you and your colleagues think is none of my business. Why, it’s almost as if by carrying out my responsibility as one of the few remaining independent public interest journalists in Nigeria, I am a walking, breathing reminder that not every Nigerian is an impoverished, ignorant, forelock-tugging serf with low self-esteem who does not know the difference between an elected representative with no executive power whatsoever like yourself, and a Supreme Everlasting Leader in the mold of Kim Jong-Un.
We can’t be having any of that now, can we Benjamin?
General apology for the Nigerian condition
Of course, this isn’t just about you, Benjamin. I also have to apologise on behalf of the Nigerian people to whom the concept of asking for and requiring more of those who would be their leaders and representatives is as unfamiliar as snow. I am sorry because despite having widespread instant access to the biggest free information resource humanity has ever created – a resource that could help them understand how badly you and your colleagues are shortchanging them – they would rather use their internet access exclusively for entertainment and fighting with Ugandans on Twitter.
The country in whose hands the destiny of at least 1 billion of humanity’s most mistreated people rests is populated by victims of the 5 Monkeys Experiment. They have been conditioned over decades of Murtala Mohammeds, Muhammadu Buharis, Ibrahim Babangidas and Sani Abachas to expect nothing from people like you except the occasional handout that must be received with a joyous, grateful smile and a hearty “THANK YOU SIR!” for the privilege. Maybe throw in a few old ladies singing your praises and pronouncing blessings from the gods into the bargain.
I must say sorry on their behalf because it is their undue docility, intellectual incuriosity, low self esteem and cultural lack of purpose that creates and throws up people like you as Nigeria’s representatives and leaders. If Bende were a county in Michigan or a borough in London, you would have exactly zero chance of getting even a seat on the local council board, much less a seat in the national parliament. You didn’t elect yourself, so clearly the people themselves are also your enablers.
I must apologise for them, and also for the fact that they gave you the idea that everyone in Nigeria is a knock-kneed weakling who cowers at the sight of titles like “Spokesperson House of Reps,” instead of seeing it as exactly what it is – the spokesperson for a group of people elected to represent communities.
You have now encountered someone who sees you for exactly who and what you are – clearly you are not a fan. I sympathise.
But the thing is, Benjamin, I am not your enemy. Your own people in Abia State have a saying, “Okuko na-arogoro ite onu, chetekwe mma gburu ya,” which means “The chicken frowns at the cooking pot, ignoring the knife that killed it.”
It is all well and good making me your new enemy because I pointed out that you are not very good at your job and that hurts your ego. The real problem, however, is that you clearly and blatantly lack credibility. If you were worth the respect you are so keen to demand, you would have it. I have never seen John Bercrow or Nancy Pelosi on Twitter or on TV demanding that their constituents should “respect” them. Respect is earned organically, not requisitioned like an inflated line item in a House of Reps committee budget.
You can either set about building this respect by becoming better at your job, or you can keep on hiding in your little bubble where you are Lord and Eternal Führer, screaming “RESPECT ME!” and blocking people on Twitter.
Somehow I think I know which option you will choose.
This piece was originally published here by Business Day on Monday, May 4, 2020.