Sunday, June 26, 2011

Guidance and Counselling for Nigeria’s Parliamentarians

The importance of legislature in a democracy cannot be underestimated or over-emphasized. The parliament is the linchpin on which democracy rests. Populated by the elected representatives of the people, parliaments make laws for the peace, order and good government of the country; approve annual and supplementary budgets of the government; oversee the performance of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies; approve nominations into key government positions, etcetera. Aftermath of the April elections, Nigeria’s national and state house of assemblies were inaugurated in June 2011. As the lawmakers settle in, it is important to remind them of the need to work in the national interest rather than pursuing their personal aggrandisement.

Truth be told, Nigeria parliaments at the federal, state or local government levels need to redeem their soiled image. At present, many Nigerians see them as ‘members of legisla-thieves ‘or ‘legislooters’. They are perceived as corrupt, inept, incredible, scandalous, indolent and a drain on the nation’s scarce resources. The distinguished and honourable men and women of the Nigeria legislature therefore need to be conscientious and serve the best interest of their constituencies and the nation at large.

To my own mind, Nigeria parliamentarians are overpaid and should therefore slash their salaries and allowances. In a country where over 70 per cent are said to be living below poverty line and government is foot-dragging to pay N18,000 minimum wage to her workforce, Senators collect N45 million quarterly allowance / running cost while their counterparts in the House of Representatives are taking home N42 million. Principal Officers get between N100m and N50m as quarterly allowances. For instance, the Speaker gets N100m while his deputy gets N80m, the House Leader pockets N60m; Deputy Leader N57m; Chief Whip N55m; Deputy Whip N54m and the Minority Whip N50m.

According to a report in Daily Sun of Friday, 3 June 2011, the 469 national lawmakers will earn N338.6 billion in the next four years. According to the report “The amount which covers salaries and sundry allowances to be earned by the lawmakers does not, however, factor in the deferential pays and other perquisites that go to the principal officers of the two chambers of the federal legislature. It does not also include expenses incurred on duty tours and estacode. It is also silent on the unverifiable lump sums that come from ‘oversight functions’ and ‘lobbying’.” Each of the parliamentarians also has about 11 aides working with them in Abuja and their constituency offices. Does anyone still wonder why election into the national assembly was a ‘do or die affair’?

To whom much is given, from him much is expected. Sadly, in spite of the humongous remuneration our lawmakers get, their performance is nothing to write home about. In the 6th National Assembly, in four years, the Senate passed a total of 90 bills or thereabout while their counterparts in the House passed a total of 187. This is out of over 400 bills (executive and private member bills) brought before our lawmakers. It was even reported that the Adamawa State House of Assembly passed a total of 17 bills in 4 years! Many of these bills were passed at the twilight of their term. The abysmal performance was largely due to the lackadaisical way our lawmakers go about their constitutional duties. Many a time, some of them are absent at plenary and committee sessions.

Another reason being that Nigerian parliamentarians are in the habit of observing long adjournments and vacations. This is not entirely their fault as the 1999 Constitution in section 63 says “The Senate and the House of Representatives shall each sit for a period of not less than one hundred and eighty-one days in a year”. A similar provision for the State House of Assembly can be found in section 104 of the Constitution. Thus, once our parliamentarians sit for a total of 6 months and one day in a year, then they have fulfilled the Constitutional provision. This law will need to be amended for the parliamentarians to sit for a minimum of 250 days or nine months of the year. In fact, our lawmakers should only get reasonable sitting allowance and not salary. That will help to reduce the cost of governance.

Another vital reason few bills are passed by our parliamentarians is their preference for oversight function over and above law making. In conducting this supervisory role, they engage in frequent travel and myriads of probes. This would have been in order if the oversight visits and investigations result in better governance. Beyond the showmanship, there isn’t much achieved. Many of the committee reports are not treated while reports of probes are safely locked up in the filing cabinet of the assembly leadership. It therefore wasn’t surprising when Bunu Ibrahim’s Presidential Projects Assessment Committee (PPAC) said in its report to President Jonathan on 2 June that the Federal Government is currently executing 11,886 projects, many of which have been abandoned. These are facts that should have been long unearthed by the legislature in the course of their oversight duty. There is an unconfirmed allegation that the parliamentarians use the oversight sessions to negotiate personal deals.

The unimpressive performance of Nigeria’s legislative houses is also owing to the undue meddlesomeness of the chief executives viz. President, Governors and Council Chair persons in the affairs of the parliament. These executives covertly and sometimes overtly influence the choice of leadership of the Assembly. We saw that play out during the inauguration of the current legislative assemblies. There have been instances where Governors locked up parliament for months following a disagreement over issues. This was the case in Ogun State under the immediate past administration. Some chief executives also withhold assembly fund if they fail to cooperate with the their government or want to assert their independence by inquiring deeply into the activities of the government.

It behoves the current national, state and local assemblies to learn from the pitfalls of their predecessors and avoid same. They should eschew greed, truancy, scandals, brawls and other behaviours unbecoming of honourables. The executive too must stop treating parliament as its appendage. For non-performing representatives, it is high time their constituents invoked the provisions of recall as contained in section 69 and 110 of the 1999 CFRN rather than wait for 4 years to vote them out of power.