FORMER minister Oby Ezekwesili’s statement that over N1 trillion had been committed to the maintenance of the National Assembly in the last eight years may not startle many Nigerians, who are now so familiar with stories of the legislators’ jumbo pay and lavish lifestyle. But it is still bound to raise questions anew about the high cost of governance in the country and whether the Nigerian economy can sustain such outrageous expenditure on a miserably unproductive arm of government. It is another sad commentary on Nigeria’s false dawn and a palpable threat to democracy.
A little over two years ago, the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Lamido Sanusi, claimed that about 25 per cent of the overheads in the national budget went into the upkeep of a prodigal legislature. Before him, Itse Sagay had released mind-blowing remunerations and allowances of our lawmakers, which have not been debunked to date. But, more recently, The Economist of London did a report in which it rated Nigerian legislators as the highest paid lawmakers in the world, earning far higher than the wages of their counterparts in advanced economies and older democracies such as the United States of America, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Britain.
Now, Ezekwesili revealed that in 2005 and 2006, the national parliament was allocated N54.79 billion each, but the allocation went up to N158 billion in 2010 and that it had been steady at N150 billion since 2011. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Jonathan government is so much indifferent to this legislative infamy.
Ezekwesili deserves praise for her fortitude to add to the voices of truth and courage, which hopefully, will galvanise the people into action to end the endless bleeding of the country by some egoistic and self-centred few. This newspaper has long been arguing for a drastic reduction in the cost of governance and fiscal discipline. Considering that there are 469 lawmakers at both chambers of the National Assembly, it means that about N266.5 million was expended on the lawmaking process of each lawmaker per year in the last eight years. Yet, over the years, there have been many news reports about financial scandals in the hallowed chambers.
It is the height of absurdity that a class of people could be drawing so much from the public till in a country where about 70 per cent of the population is living below the United Nations $2 poverty threshold. These are, indeed, politicians who are preoccupied with lining their pockets rather than running the country, which is what they were elected to do in the first place. Now, wasteful spending is undermining public support for democracy. While corruption has become pervasive, public infrastructure has witnessed a total collapse, just because the lawmakers have failed in their oversight duties and cannot hold the executive to account.
Worst hit is road infrastructure, which has led to avoidable deaths of thousands of Nigerians. Yet, the bill to amend the Railway Act of 1955 has been gathering dust at the National Assembly for years. The National Assembly members have continued to wallow in obscene opulence, while our universities and hospitals remain poorly funded.
Available facts suggest that even when the lawmakers sponsor bills, their parochial interests overshadow that of the country, such that the bills are ultimately dumped by the Executive. There are 498 of such bills not signed into law since 1999, according to Ahmed Makarfi, a senator and former governor of Kaduna State. Under the watch of the National Assembly, N1.5 trillion was abused by the Federal Government between 2002 and 2012 from the Stabilisation Account, Ecological Fund and National Resources Account.
A capable and effective national legislature is a foundational pillar of every democratic government. Despite being constitutionally vested with enormous powers of oversight over other arms of government, the lawmakers have fallen short of expectations in many respects, leaving many to wonder whether this is actually the kind of democracy they envisioned when they chased the military away 14 years ago. In functional democracies, lawmakers ensure that the Executive remains focused on its vision for the people.
It is time for root-and-branch review of our legislative system to bring about change. It is unconscionable and immoral of the National Assembly to continue to ignore the people. There is no way the benefits of good governance can get to the people when the cost of governance is as high as it is in Nigeria. Just as Ezekwesili suggested on Monday, the need has become very compelling to reduce lawmaking to a part-time business, with far less remunerative benefits. By so doing, only those with a sense of patriotism – and with contributions to make – will find their way to the National Assembly. There is no doubt that most of the present lawmakers are there because of filthy lucre. In the alternative, Nigeria must face the reality and adopt the unicameral assembly option, which is what Cote d’Ivoire did recently.
Achieving this may not, however, come easy. But it is only when politicians know that they are under public scrutiny that they can give their best to the country.
Source: Punch Editorial