Towards his second and final four-year term in office, Maureen Chigbo and I interviewed Dr Chimaroke Nnamani, governor of Enugu State, for Newswatch magazine in 2007. As we were about to round up the very interesting conversation with the proudly articulate foetal surgeon, I asked him what his immediate political plans were. Was he heading for the senate?
"No!", he said with some emphasis as if I had asked a stupid question. "How could I? I have made at least three senators. I have made a senate president."
I had a feeling he believed that the upper legislative house of the national assembly was clearly beneath him. He thought I should have known that and not expected him to give a thought to becoming a senator. But a few months later after he completed his term, Nnamani answered his own question. He became a senator and served one term from 2007 to 2011. I have not seen him since our interview and would not know what had changed and why his excellency, the kingmaker, accepted to descend from the Olympian height of government house, Enugu, to the senate chambers as a distinguished senator. I think he spoke too soon and soon enough he munched his own unsalted words.
In 2007, Nnamani and a few of his former colleagues started a trend that has now become a political tradition in the country. Almost every governor who completes his two terms in office heads for the senate. I have heard some cynics uncharitably refer to the senate as a retirement home for former state governors. It does seem like that because going into the senate is a process of retirement from politics. After being a governor, there are only two high profile political offices - the presidency and the senate. One seems much easier to get into than the other. And for the record, two of former state governors, Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, made it to Aso Rock Villa. President Buhari was a military governor of old Borno State. Aso Rock too has room for them.
Let us be charitable. It should give us the creeps to think of the senate as a retirement home for doddering, spent political forces. The senate of the Federal Republic is and will always be an active legislative house whose distinguished members are discharging the heavy constitutional burden of making laws for the good governance of our country, a country for ever in earnest quest for good governance. Still, it is right to see the senate as the last bus stop in the political relevance of their excellencies. Hording power by the self-recycled few at the expense of the many men and women seeking to get in, is part of the enduring game of politics.
There are 95 senators. In the current national assembly, the eighth, there are 15 former state governors and two former deputy governors in the senate. The 2019 general elections cut short the political longevity of some of them but they would be replaced with new former governors, some of whom are Kashim Shettima (Borno), Orji Kalu (Abia), Ibikunle Amosun (Ogun), Tank Al-Makura (Nasarawa) and if Rochas Okorocha (Imo) eventually succeeds in persuading INEC to give him a certificate of return, then former members of the Nigerian Governors Forum would maintain their formidable presence in the senate.
Is this a good or bad thing for the country? I am still wondering about it. What does this hardening political tradition portend for our national politics? Is it about finding a good retirement home after eight hectic years as state governors? Is it about serving the nation in a new, relevant political capacity for the good of the country? Or is it about power, naked political power, and the inability to let go of its levers?
Let's quit pretending not to know. We do. This is all about power. It could be argued, and with some justification, that the presence of former governors in the senate would enrich debates in the upper house and lead to the churning out of laws that should keep our country on the straight and narrow path of a country governed by laws, not by the whims and the caprices of men. After all, as former state chief executives, they come into the senate with the benefit of having been involved in making laws and implementing them in their various states. Problem is, unless I am missing something, I have not seen records showing that the former governors are the most active sponsors of good or radical bills in the senate. This leads, perhaps, to the uncharitable conclusion that they might not be the architects of laws for the good governance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. A senator is not obliged to do or say anything. He can keep his lips padlocked but he remains a distinguished senator, fully entitled to all the sumptuous allowances as well as pension as a former governor.
Power is powerful. It is sweet. Very sweet. And intoxicating. Very intoxicating. In our form of the executive presidential form of government, the president, the governors and local government chairmen are all chief executives. We have the largest collection of political chief executives in the world, I think. A state governor in Nigeria is more powerful than the presidents of many developing countries. In terms of appropriating, exercising and misusing political power in the well-honed tradition of the African big man, the American president, acknowledged as the most powerful man on earth, could hold the candle to a state governor in our country. Just remember not to ask President Trump to hold a candle to anyone of them.
Think of how difficult it is for a man that powerful, the unchallenged alpha and omega in his state, to be persuaded by the piece of paper called ballot paper to let go of the levers of power. It is easy to picture he who lets go of the levers of power as a man forgotten in the empty political market square. When you no longer have everyone at your beck and call; when you suddenly find that there is no one feeding on the crumbs that fall from your table; when you find that you can no longer raid the treasury at will and do with the people's common wealth as you wish; when you have no sirens heralding you wherever you go; when you find yourself treated like a cured leper, then it begins to dawn on you that life after power is a lonely, powerless life. You may be rich, but your wealth does not cure you of your loneliness or buy you the privileges that you once took for granted; you may be influential but the wedding of your son or daughter would attract only a handful of grumbling friends, not mega contractors because you are yesterday's man trudging towards the sun set. It is a frightening feeling cured only by holding on to the levers of power for as long as you do not become a victim of a political accident.
If you leave power, it leaves you. Few men, if any, Nelson Mandela exempted, could live with the agony of the loneliness of the powerless. This is why men cling to power and are either separated from it through an accident of politics or when the grim reaper comes calling. Dictators cling to power because the fear of losing it trumps being reminded of its transience. The ex-governors are in the senate because it helps them to keep their hands on the levers of power. They become both semi- or permanent fixtures in politics at the local level as well as men of the moment in our national politics. Yes, power is sweet.
(To be concluded)