Concepcion “Connie” Picciotto arrived the United States as an 18-year-old from Spain. She worked at the Spanish embassy in New York. She later moved to Washington DC where she seemed to find her life’s calling. Connie, as she was fondly called, became friends with William Thomas who started out protesting in front of the White House months before Connie started her record breaking and at times impactful protest at the White House. Connie essentially lived the rest of her life as more or less the neighbour of the US. Presidents from 1981 when she started keeping her peace vigil at the Lafayette Park end of the White House till her death in January 2016. Her protest has been deemed, “the longest-running act of political protest in the US history” by informed observers.
I happened to be at Lafayette Park at the White House two Sundays ago and Connie’s tent remains there as activists take turns to maintain the vigil she kept for some 35 years.
There is a lot to be picked in her story and the issues she stood for but for the purpose of this piece, despite Connie being regarded as a hero by many, the other hero in this story is the American democracy that allows for an immigrant to maintain a virtually permanent presence, right in front of the office and residence of the President of the United States. There is something to be said here about democracy in its very essence.
Nigeria more or less copied and pasted the American presidential system of government, despite being a former British colony. America is the father of modern democracy even though Ancient Greece is its origin. We copied the American system but we have yet to copy the essence of that system. Connie and any American can set up a tent and stage a protest opposite the White House because the President of America who occupies the White House is a staff of all the citizens of the United States. He runs a presidency of the people, a presidency by the people and one for the people, not just by the letters of the constitution as it is the letter of our own constitution, but in truth and in deed as it is not our reality, even today under a president who rose to power via the sheer will, determination, intellect and commitment of ordinary Nigerians! In other words, Nigeria operates a democratic government on paper, in reality, based on the essence of democracy; we have yet to start operating a truly democratic system. Ask Nigeria’s longest running protest group, the Bring Back Our Girls and you’d be told the closest they have ever gone to the Presidential Villa is the Independence Avenue where they eventually always get stopped by fiery looking policemen, irrespective of whoever has been president since the movement started. Note that Independence Avenue is still several hundreds of metres from the Presidential Villa. As it is today, no protest will EVER arrive at the Presidential Villa. If you have ever been there or have ever been part of a protest towards the Villa, you know that a camel really and truly has a bigger chance of going through the eye of a regular needle than a protest successfully going through the impregnable barriers that lead to Aso Rock. This is one of the relics of the military – like those officers who stand behind the president or governors at public events when they stand to speak – that remain in our democracy. It will take a bold, brave and legacy-minded president to bring down those walls separation between the President of Nigeria and the Nigerian people.
If you, even if not American, intend to contact President Barack Obama, all you need to do would be to visit the website of the White House, click on “contact” and you will have direct access to emails, phone numbers and other means of reaching President Obama or whoever gets to be president at any point in time. President@WhiteHouse.Gov
is the fastest way to reach the US President. As usual, we tried to copy the Americans – and there is nothing wrong with copying something that works, so we have our own www.statehouse.gov.ng
but click on contact and the farthest you can go is, “Office of the Special Adviser to the President (Media & Publicity).”
The British Prime Minister works from No 10 Downing Street, the US President works from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500; where does the Nigerian president work from? You said “Aso Rock Villa.” What is the address of Aso Rock Villa? What does Aso Rock Villa look like? How many Nigerians have access to Aso Rock? Forget access, how many Nigerians have seen Aso Rock Villa?
Government in Nigeria operates behind a veil and until that veil is removed, we really cannot indeed say we operate a democracy. We know the budget of the National Assembly per year but no one outside of the lawmakers knows its details. These are meant to be the representatives of the Nigerian people but the Nigerian people are in the dark as to how their parliament disburses its budget. The National Assembly is the true spine of our democracy, you cannot have a democratic system without the representatives of the people. You can have government without a parliament as long as you have a president or head of state but you cannot have democracy without a parliament even if you have an elected president! The Judiciary and the Executive existed under previous military governments. The Executive existed in different forms while the Judiciary existed as it always has. The arm of government that started out afresh at the advent of democracy in 1999 is the Legislative arm.
The leadership of the Senate is embroiled in various allegations of corruption and criminality, the leadership of the House of Representatives is burdened by allegations of corruption by one of its own who ought to know, the former Chairman of the Appropriation Committee. They are innocent until proved guilty – fair enough – but since the allegations, have you seen any telling move by any of the Houses bordering on opening up the books of the National Assembly?
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, committed to opening up the books of the Senate; he also tweeted commitments on working to reduce the pay of lawmakers. The books of the Senate remain closed, the pay of lawmakers remains high and sinister, only less higher than the walls that divide the Senate and the people for whom it exists. Allegations of corruption against the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, would have started a process of his office throwing the books of the Lower House open. No attempt has been made on that front whatsoever but even more tragic is the fact that the people are not making such a demand. Mostly, because they expect the allegations to be swept under the carpet and the ruling All Progressives Congress has not disappointed on that front as moves to do the same are moving faster than Usain Bolt has ever run.
Do not miss the point, from a President Muhammadu Buhari that continues to maintain an Aso Rock with the same veil that separated military head of states from the Nigerian people despite his rise to power being on the strength and will of the people’s trust in his “man of the people” persona, to the aforementioned leaders of the National Assembly, this piece is not about these personalities, it is about our system of government, dressed in the adorable garment of democracy but with dirty under wears reeking of unaccountability, opacity and secrecy all providing cover for a body fed fat and unhealthy of corruption, waste and the apparent reality of underdevelopment and failure of governance as we have come to know for the most part of our democracy.