Eighth National Assembly And Shape Of Things To Come - by Bayo Olupohunda

Every time one attempts to take a break from political commentary to focus on the salient but more important social issues that confront us as a nation, politicians will kick up the dust that distracts us and shifts our attention from the serious challenges of nation-building to mundane issues that feed their egos and personal or group ambitions. 

Unfortunately, each time our elected representatives start to act out their drama of the absurd, we all, like the classical tragic Greek audience, queue up behind the protagonists and the villains and by so doing the country is torn along partisan bickering which does nothing but widen our fault lines and heat up the polity.

Needless to say that the ongoing political acrimony by elected representatives in the Eighth National Assembly is not necessarily informed by altruism or the common good but driven by selfish ambition to appropriate the resources of the country or position themselves for future political calculations. How sad! Regrettably, Nigerians, especially the youths, rather than demand that our leaders meet the needs and aspirations for which they were voted into office, have taken to the social media to pitch their camps along primordial sentiments. But we have travelled this way before and it has led us nowhere. If we remember the corruption, waste and chaos that characterised the Seventh National Assembly, Nigerians must say never again should our representatives feed fat while they pretend to represent us.

Now, almost a month after the inauguration of a new government and the National Assembly, it seems our elected representatives are back to their old ways. Past experience has shown that when politicians and elected officials put their personal interest over and above national interest and the common good, the nation suffers.

But our politicians do not seem to mind when the polity is heated up because of their inordinate and selfish ambitions to dominate the power equation. Now the Eighth National Assembly has started on the same well-worn path that doomed the Seventh Assembly and confirmed it as a failed assemblage of legislators in the estimation of Nigerians. Going by the drama and intrigues that heralded the inauguration of the both chambers, then Nigerians should prepare for a legislature whose modus operandi will not be any different from the last one. As the saying goes, the morning shows the day.

But one thing is sure. What is playing out in the National Assembly is certainly not the change Nigerians either wished or voted for. Nigerians did not expect that their elected representatives will begin to bicker so soon over wardrobe or furniture allowances or who occupies which position. But here we are again confronted by the malfeasance and scandals that blighted past assemblies like the Seventh National Assembly which will go down in history as one of the worst gatherings of lawmakers since the return to democracy 16 years ago.

As a reminder, the last assembly was poised to be a clog in the wheel of democratic progress in the way they conducted their affairs as the Second Estate of the Realm. For example, we saw how attendance dwindled over the years. It became worse during the last days of the last assembly when important deliberations were discussed with few members present. Yet, our indolent (measured by the number of bills passed per year against the money spent for their upkeep) and insensitive legislators collected sitting allowances for being absent at deliberations. They simply sat at home while they got paid. Where can that happen anywhere in the world except in Nigeria? Between 2011 and 2015, the 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives were known more for scandals and unhelpful committee hearings that produced no result. There were just too many scandals involving the legislative houses too numerous to mention.

Now, Nigerians are again confronted by another potentially wasteful assembly. No sooner were the two chambers inaugurated than the age-old scandal over allowances broke out. This is certainly a pointer to the shape of things to come. In the latest scandal, the newly inaugurated National Assembly is reportedly set to get a whopping N8.64bn ($43m) to spend on clothes. Make no mistake; the lawmakers will get the allowance. Nigerians will cry and whine but the lawmakers will have their way. They always do because Nigerians allow the travesty to happen.

Perhaps, a breakdown of the obscene wardrobe allowance will help Nigerians see the need to fight the corrupt system that feeds the profligacy of the National Assembly. The allowance which will be split between both chambers of the National Assembly will see the 109 members of the Senate receiving N21.5m ($108,000) each while the 360 members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber, will each receive N17.5m.

As if that was not enough, the National Assembly will also receive furniture and car loan/allowances. The furniture allowance will see 107 senators receive N650m while the House of Representatives members will receive a total of N2bn. The lawmakers can also access car loans with the senators possibly provided with N867m and the House of Representatives members rewarded with N2.8bn in car loans to make laws for us. While ordinary members of both chambers get these allowances, two principal officers from each chamber, the Senate President, the Speaker of the House and their deputies will have furniture provided by the Federal Government.

Before the inauguration of the Eighth National Assembly, there had already been calls for transparency and reduction in funding for the lawmakers who rank among the highest paid in the world according to The Economist magazine. Our lawmakers earn around $160,000 annually based on current exchange rates–more than British lawmakers. While the lawmakers earn so much, Nigerians survive on the N18, 000 monthly minimum wages.

How can we possibly justify this waste in an era when both the Federal Government and states cannot pay their workers and when the country owes so much money both domestically and internationally? When millions of Nigerians live on less than one dollar per day and unemployment is at its highest ever? In spite of the explanation by the House leadership, nothing can continue to justify this rape on our commonwealth by a few Nigerians who are no better than other citizens.

By contrast, in the United States where we derived our brand of democracy, supplementary congressional allowances make no provision for clothing and in Britain, clothing expenses are not listed among expenses of members of Parliament. For Nigerians who went to the polls and voted for a new government on the premise of its change mantra, there is a real need to see significant evidence that, under President Muhammadu Buhari, excesses such as extravagant allowances are effectively cut out. Certainly, our country cannot continue to justify nor tolerate the waste by a few legislators. Nigerians can also draw inspiration from Kenya where citizens forced legislators to re-consider increases in their pay with angry protests in 2013.The National Assembly is already infamous for its wage bill as well as a litany of allowances and it continues to receive immense funds that do not reflect the current financial reality of our country.

Still in its early days, the National Assembly will have to make a bold decision on its expenses and while it appears that the newly elected Senate President, Bukola Saraki, may be in support of fiscal transparency, he must begin to show real intent on pushing the agenda for a prudent and transparent federal legislature. Nigerians owe it a responsibility not to continue to condone the excesses of our overpaid but underperforming legislators.

- @bayoolupohunda