The encounter between Arunma Oteh, Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, and Herma Hembe, erstwhile chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Capital Market and other Institutions, continues to generate comments and analyses both at home and abroad. Some describe it as a political fiasco while others say it was a collision foretold and, therefore, not unexpected, judging by the antecedents in both arms of the legislature. Indeed, it is not an unusual development. The encounter goes beyond a drama enacted on the floor of the National Assembly. It’s a kind of literary tour de force that draws anchor in Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
For students of literature the circumstance, the dramatis personae and the ingredients are virtually of the same stock. To put it more succinctly, it is too much of a coincidence that something that “happened” in the fiction world of Wessex, England, a couple of centuries ago was being played back on reality television in the Nigeria of 2012. Perhaps this goes to lend credence to the argument that while art truly mirrors life, life can also, through some kind of mystical or divine machinations, mirror art. In journalistic parlance, this is a case of man biting a dog. By all ramifications, this is hot news. And this is the literary dimension of the Oteh-Hembe clash on the floor of the Green Chambers on March 15. At the risk of being mischievous, the writer is tempted to believe that Oteh was already aware of this literary episode or had probably scanned through Hardy’s novel before she came out smoking on that fateful day, and almost choked the daylight out of her cross-examiner-in-chief.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, a seemingly normal court process was turned into a nightmare for the chief judge, Henchard, by the accused, an old woman, a beer (furmity) seller who was being tried for disorderly conduct in public after getting drunk. Her defence was way out of this world. It was a bomb! She literally scattered the Town Hall, venue of the court hearing. She narrated how some time ago, a man, drunk like herself, behaved in a disorderly and unethical manner by selling his wife and child to a sailor for five guineas (five pounds, five shillings). And who could have done such an evil, something akin to a deliberate violation of the moral order? The woman did not leave that question hanging as she pointed in the direction of the judge himself, the mayor! Then came the clincher. “It proves he’s no better than I, and has no right to sit there in judgment upon me.” It was a damning vote of no confidence in the judge and the legal process. The judge had no choice but to voluntarily step down from his Olympian height and go down the dale of ignominy.
Oteh did no less. Accused of not running SEC very well and piling up a Mount Kilimanjaro bill in the hotel, she stayed in for eight months, while awaiting government accommodation, she looked like a piece of cake ready to be devoured by the hungry lions in the lower arm of the legislative assembly. The implication was pretty obvious – a spendthrift and incompetent person is not fit to head SEC. Like the woman in The Mayor... who took the mayor to the cleaners, Oteh screwed up courage to question the integrity of the chairman of the committee probing the affairs of SEC of which she is the DG. She rose up to stoutly defend her integrity, or what remained of it, after the battering she had had the previous day when her competence was called to question. She accused the chairman of unethical conduct by demanding money from SEC and collecting flight ticket and travelling allowance for an official journey he never undertook. She made it clear to the world that the committee was too compromised and not fit to question her or sit in judgment over her integrity. Hembe, like Henchard, his co-traveller in the temple of “justice,” had to abandon his post as chairman of what she described as a “kangaroo court.” It was a blow barely above the belt but its effect was nevertheless devastating to the committee and its members.
It was not the best way to end a hitherto noble assignment in the supposedly hallowed chambers of the legislative arm of government. By now, Hembe may still be wondering what hit him. Did he see it coming? Did anybody ever warn him to beware of the “Ides of Woman”? Hembe fell foul of the much dreaded feminine mystique and had his nose rubbed against a jagged rock. You don’t toy with an angry woman because heaven knows no fury like a woman scorned. An angry woman fights with anything she can lay her hand or head on. She can pour hot water on you, drown you in a pot of hot soup or take razor blade and redraw the contour map on your body. Check the evening papers or soft-sell magazines to see angry women in action.
In more extreme cases, a woman can manhandle her man’s manhood, bite it or sever it from its root, all in a fit of anger which goes to prove that a woman provoked to anger is like a time bomb ready to explode. Perhaps Hembe might not have run into this cul de sac if he had ample knowledge of the feminine mystique. Women may be perceived as the weaker sex but that is just on the surface. They have a fascinating aura of mystery and power that only the uninitiated would toy with. Hembe could have scored a victory, a pyrrhic one at that, the previous day but little did he realise that when a ram gives a head butt and retreats, it’s not out of cowardice but a tactical move to regain its energy and plan a new strategy. He had Oteh pinned down to a corner, March 14, but let go of her to recoup and regroup for the mother of all battles the following day. It was a tactical error or what a Malawian critic is wont to call “blunder in Blantyre”! He virtually succumbed to what students of oral literature would also describe as the “osoronga syndrome,” a kind of feminine mystique, not in the negative, demonic, cultic form but in its positive, affirmative, dynamic, revolutionary sense. They can be decisive and deadly if unjustly and disgustingly provoked, especially in public.
By now, Hembe would have learnt that women are not objects to play yo-yo with in public but who should be adored and respected for their own contributions for the advancement of the country. In whatever position politicians find themselves, they should learn to be humble. Having the power to summon people before committees should not be equated with having superiority over everybody. They are and should remain servants of the people who braved the elements and all man-made obstacles to cast their votes for them. And like in The Mayor... every public officer should always remember the day the past may walk in to question the present and spray his coffee with granulated sand. That will be quite unpalatable.
And for Oteh, it is not yet Uhuru despite her “disrobing” of the young and inexperienced committee chairman, the 2005 graduate of law from the Benue State University. She still has many crocodile-infested rivers to cross. Yes, she has an outstanding academic record and a glittering working experience both at home and abroad but her filibustering style of defence may not survive any form of legal scrutiny. “I’m-not-the-only-thief, you-are-also-a-thief” kind of argument is not, cannot and will never be a necessary or sufficient defence in any theft case. The furmity woman admits her guilt but her argument is that the mayor is equally guilty of a similar offence and should not sit in judgment over her case. Is that Oteh’s argument, too? If it is, then we don’t need a WAEC examiner to return her script with a score of F9. That goes beyond any feminine mystique.