By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
Revolt against NASS
It is clear that the federal legislature does not enjoy a good reputation among Nigerians, judging from public’s reaction to its recent misunderstanding with Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Central Bank Governor. It was another opportunity for all sorts of sensational reports and misrepresentations in the press against the lawmakers. Even after Sanusi made his clarification at the Assembly, the most comprehensive report that I read on the issue, which was carried by the Leadership of Saturday December 4 (Pg. 19), said in its opening sentence that “…he raised an alarm over the high cost of maintaining the National Assembly, which he put at 25 per cent of the nation’s expenditure”. Wrong. Sanusi did not say so.
Also, in the brief heading of the article, the author said, “The statement credited to Central Bank Governor, Malam Sanusi Lamido that 25% of the nation’s recurrent expenditure is consumed by the national Assembly annually no doubt stirred the hornet’s nest…” Again wrong. Sanusi did not say ‘recurrent expenditure’.
Sanusi used ‘overheads’ in describing the N136.2billion he referred to in his lecture. But it was this form of reporting that enraged the lawmakers who were so furious that they did not investigate to find out what he actually said and even when they summoned him they were not ready to listen to the correctness of his statement.
In reporting what transpired, The Nation made an elaborate cover last week which unfortunately ended with a note that showed the legislature punctured Sanusi’s line of defence. I relied on that report to write my Trivial 2, titled The Day Sanusi Got it Wrong, in which I accused the Budget Office of misinforming Sanusi and him for not verifying the figure. My attention was drawn to the fact that Sanusi was indeed correct, as some Saturday papers showed. I took considerable time to study many of the reports and the 2010 federal budget which I obtained from the website of the Federal Ministry of Finance. It is clear that I was wrong. The figures from the Budget Office were correct, but only without the addition of service-wide votes of N660billion which, of course, are also part of recurrent expenditure. Why the Budget Office excluded the vote is not mentioned in any of the reports that I studied but the lawmakers suspect it is aimed at blackmailing them by jerking up their percentage of the recurrent expenditure.
This controversy, which is a product of a simple misconception, is leading to a sustained condemnation of the legislature by the Nigerian public. If it will end in reducing the running cost the legislature, that would be a great development. The legislature has been waxing its pocket through various means. Its budget has risen from N19billion in 2000 to N154billion in 2010. Each senator is now entitled to a total of N37.5million, and each member of the House N31.3million, as a package of basic salary and allowances. Then comes the most criticized constituency allowance that totals N111.6million for every House member and N180million for every senator, annually. Generally, the constituency allowance is seen as a cooool money, since it cannot be accounted for in most constituencies.
Apart from what they get within the premises of the National Assembly, Nigerians generally believe that the legislators extort the MDAs, which themselves have become a bastion for executive corruption. The lawmakers use their power to approve budgetary provisions by the executive bodies and their role as watchdog over them to share in the stupendous theft. Their harvest from this area could be more than what they receive at the Assembly including the now infamous constituency allowance. We have also witnessed situations where the lawmakers were bribed by the President during the tenure of Obasanjo in order to pass bills, their basic function.
In a country where the average citizen earns less than a dollar per day, the extravagant living of the lawmakers will justifiably attract condemnation from the public and competition among politicians. As a result, less than 30% of them return to the Assembly at every election. The public is also hesitant to support them and is ready to believe anything that would be said, genuine or fabricated, about them. For example, a text message started circulating yesterday that says “it costs the Nigerian tax payer N290million to maintain each member of the National Assembly. A working day earning of a Nigerian senator is more than a yearly income of a doctor; it is more than the salary of 42 army generals or 48 professors and 70 commissioners of police, more than twice the pay of the US president or 9 times the salary of US congressman.”
The Assembly is largely to blame for this bad public image. Instead of focussing on their legislative duties, they dabbled into executive functions, claiming that they will not be a rubber stamp of the executive. So they started adding and deleting budgetary provisions mostly in favour of the departments that would bribe them or for their own benefit. They forced the executive to include “constituency projects” whose funds they spent without much to show. Yar’adua wanted to stop the practice in the 2008 budget but he was pressured to retain them, though, instead of putting it into the pockets of the lawmakers as Obasanjo was doing, he placed the vote under the MDGs in the Presidency. The lawmakers were furious. They have not stopped complaining.
The lawmakers should also not blame the public for any misconception. They have refused to approve the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in collaboration with the executive because it will empower Nigerians to know, ask and fight for their rights. Many Nigerians will believe the above text message which is almost the per capita distribution of the Assembly's recurrent expenditure among the lawmakers. Though not accurate, as not all the recurrent expenditure of the Assembly is stolen by the lawmakers, there is very little anyone can do to defend them. The situation is worsened by the absence of whistleblowers among them. Not a single lawmaker came out to show the public his payslip in order to douse its apprehension. Everything is shrouded in secrecy.
The FOI bill would have accorded aspirants the information they need to plan, before elections, what they would do in government. That would have shifted our politics from focussing on personalities to issues. But right now, how can a presidential candidate come up with an agricultural plan, for example, when he does not know what is on the ground? All he can do is to make popular statements, like “7-point Agenda”, during his campaign and spend over two years in office planning. If the lawmakers have not been conniving with the executive, which we despise just equally as much, much would have changed in this country.
What do we do with the legislature? There have been a number of suggestions. However, whatever should be done must encompass three things: reducing the number of members, severely cutting down their per capita expenditure, and harnessing their capacity. Their numbers can be reduced by adopting a unicameral legislature. We do not have to become Americans. The number of constituencies also needs to be reduced to something like 109, given the advances in transport, communication and information technology. Their capacity can be improved by raising the basic qualification of eligibility to be a lawmaker and intensive on the job training. Finally, their salaries should be tied to the national minimum wage, may be 20 times of it; that is, if the minimum wage is N7,000.00, a lawmaker will earn 20 times that amount, or N140,000. Then allowances could be similarly fixed as percentages of the basic salary but not exceeding, say, what a federal permanent secretary would collect as a package. I think this will give us a manageable, affordable and tolerable figure. Bodies like EFCC and RMAFC should ensure that the lawmakers do not pouch elsewhere as they do now. It is only then we would know who are really ready for service and who are not.
Needless to say, the executive too needs similar taming, if not more, for the corruption happening there is by far more than the one at the National Assembly. Yes. The National Assembly has a total budget of N158billion or 3.4% of the 2010 Federal Budget. What is happening to the remaining 97% of the budget, or N4.4trillion spent by the executive? We do not see it. We do not feel it. The presidency alone, it was reported by Transparency International in the mid 2000s, accounted for 56% of the total corruption taking place in the country. And i add: it is vicariously 100% responsible for it since it controls the instruments agencies of law enforcement. There is nothing to indicate that anything has changed significantly as at today.
Would the legislature and the executive succumb to these demands? Not until we revolt. And our greatest revolt would be with our election votes. They are the missiles with which we will bring down the fighter jets of corruption. Let us make better use of them.
December 6, 2010