Persistent calls by a cross-section of Nigerians to make legislative duties, part-time, are continuing to gain ground. The former Minister of Education and World Bank Vice President for Africa, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, recently lent her weight to these calls during an address on the cost of governance in the country. Of particular concern to Ezekwesili and many of those who made similar calls in the past is the high cost of running both Houses of the National Assembly, especially the salaries and fat allowances of the members. The view has also been severally canvassed that the mediocre performance of the legislators does not justify the jumbo perks of office they receive.
The problem of the high cost of running the National Assembly and the executive arm of government has been generating ripples in the country in recent years. The salaries and allowances of legislators and other political office holders are clearly indefensible in the face of the dwindling financial fortunes of the country. This is more so as there is a dearth of funds for critical infrastructural projects. The high cost of governance in the country is not sustainable. It flies in the face of the poverty in the country, which has been attested to by many local and international organisations.
Yet, last week, the House of Representatives rejected the suggestion to make legislative duties, part-time. While many members of the National Assembly conceded that the cost of governance and the resources expended on the legislature could be high, they, nevertheless, argued that it would be wrong to portray the legislature as a burden to the economy and the nation’s democracy.
We strongly disagree with the view that the cost of running the National Assembly is not a burden to Nigeria’s economy. Available facts do not support this claim. Indeed, with the recent revelation that a staggering N1 trillion was expended on the National Assembly over an eight-year period, the impression that has been created is that the country is not getting good value for the money expended on the institution.
For instance, since the inception of the present democratic dispensation some 14 years ago, rarely has the National Assembly met the minimum sitting requirement of 181 days in a year as provided for in section 63 of the 1999 Constitution. Instead, the lawmakers are widely believed to be enjoying maximum benefits for minimum work. Worse still, the two chambers have often been enmeshed in sundry scandals. The situation has largely been the same in the States Houses of Assembly and the local government legislative councils, where similar tawdry affairs are reported very so often. Certainly, it is only when the legislators are seen to be fully productively engaged in matters that are important to the people that their insistence that legislative work should be full time can be appreciated and supported by the people.
Otherwise, there will be no justification to continue to have them continuing to work on full-time basis. Although the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria envisages that legislators would work full-time, the framers of the document could definitely not have foreseen the huge allowances the Federal legislators would appropriate to themselves, to the detriment of the economy and the well-being of other sectors of national life. The sad reality today is that the nation’s dwindling economic fortunes may not be able to shoulder this huge responsibility in years to come.
Beyond the financial cost of the National Assembly, the institution has also neither been accountable nor transparent, especially on the matter of the allowances of its members. In the 11 years between 1999 and 2010, the National Assembly reportedly passed only 20 bills, and half of them were Appropriation bills. If figures from Civil Society groups are anything to go by, it costs about N240 million a year to maintain each federal legislator. This amounts to N489,630 daily for a senator and N343,945 for every Representative. This outstrips the salary of the American President, and that of the British Prime Minister. This expenditure gulps a big chunk from the national treasury, an unhealthy development that the Governor of Central Bank, Mr. Lamido Sanusi, alerted the nation to a few years ago.
We affirm that against the nation’s economic realities, this huge cost is unsustainable. The expenditure contributed to the resort of the House of Representatives, under former Speaker, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, to a bank loan of N10 billion to finance some of the perks of office of its members, in 2010. This, in itself, is a good reason for legislative duties to be on part-time basis, to reduce the cost to the country. It will be a pragmatic step; otherwise, we may just kill this democracy to satisfy the pleasures of legislators at the detriment of other needs that are begging for urgent attention and resources in the country.
If we make lawmaking a part-time affair on account of the need to reduce legislative costs, the cost of governance will be greatly reduced, and the money saved can be channeled to more pressing needs of the country. The time has come to retool the legislative arm of government and “cut our coat according to our cloth”.