WEDNESDAY COLUMN by USSIJU MEDANER
The performance of the Nigerian National Assembly (NASS) since the reemergence of democracy in 1999 has been profoundly below par betraying its constitutional mandate. While expected to engage in the passing of significant constitutional amendments and socio-economic reform bills, actively curbing executive abuses, and functioning as a veritable platform for interethnic negotiation and conciliation in a nation rife with significant concerns including insecurity, including religious and ethnic discords, the verdict of the public on the two chambers since 1999 has been underperformance in their core functions of legislation, oversight, representation, and constituency engagement. This has been attracting widespread contempt and opprobrium with each passing assembly. The recurring argument has been that the Nigerian National Assembly underperforms due to its lack of depth and capacity to deal with contemporary legislative complexities. Of greater concern is the ingrained cynosural corruption and corrupt practices that further casts the institution into endless controversies and disrepute.
In a democracy, the legislature, the first estate of the realm, evolved to play the crucial role of ensuring good governance through enactment of appropriate laws, oversight and monitoring functions. In Nigeria, not much has been achieved in this regard since 1999 when the military vacated the political scene for civilian regimes. The legislators, both at the state and national levels have become puppets to the trifecta of selfish desires, the executive in most cases and the well-known establishment corruption.
How would the nation get it right in a circumstance whereby the concept of checks and balances in state affairs is nothing but charades of paperwork; when legislative crusade for good governance in Nigeria has unfortunately become a wild goose chase; and when the Nigerian National Assembly and its members are entrenched in some record-breaking corruption and fraud allegations against the nation.
The argument for the sustained existence of the legislative arm of government globally has forever be and still remain the control it brings to bear on all other arms and institutions of government and processes of governance via its astute monitoring, control, and oversight functions which ideally impose accountability on government spending, disbursement of funds and project tracking.
The tendency for corruption of government processes, institutions and personnel is forever ingrained in the minds of men and is responsible for the anchoring of the principle of checks and balances. It is believed and expected that when the legislative arm of government operates within the ambit of prescribed responsibilities; individual, corporate and organic corruption would be perennially under check.
The prescription of the authority to question actions of the executive president, inclusive of ratification of critical decisions of the president, scrutiny of the nation’s instrument of monetary acquisition and spending, subjection of heads of ministries, agencies and parastatals fund management and policies implementation to scrutiny, is but a weaponised design for sanitising the nation by logically arresting all innate corrupt tendencies in the governance problem-space.
In developed nations, and especially countries where institutional corruption has been extensively tamed, an active quotient in the mix is a well-structured, functioning legislature. The Singapore experience speaks volume. In the Nigeria situation, anti-graft laws would be toothless until NASS is apparently interested in, for instance, promulgating hard biting laws against high vices and crimes in the country and ensuring all citizens regardless of stations would be subjugated to the same law at all times and making NASS and its members exemplary upholders of the law of the land. How well this is adhered to is of concern beyond the borders of Nigeria. In a nation where we wittingly celebrate corruption and allow degeneration of almost all institutions to permit corruptive tendencies and persons to occupy critical positions of leadership in the nation; how then do we restore the right processes when the drivers are beneficiaries and lovers of the things that are perennially wrong?
Nigeria legislature has been found wanting on many fronts and is long in the making. The basic business of making effective laws for the nation has been as ineffective as the quality of legislative aides available to the lawmakers because of the circle of politicising every aspect of public bureaucracy. Most lawmakers who win elections, out of pressure, bring in their supporters who are in no way conversant with legislative business – just to compensate for political support. We end up witnessing a regime of copycat legislation; one without depth and robustness that brings values to the citizenry. Alas, the citizens have been complaining about it. Our perception of legislative work is so stagnated and corrupt that we only see the compliments and lure of unmerited enrichments in the offices of our lawmakers, without consideration for quality of participation and legislation coming from the chambers. Every four years, we remove and replace members thereby denying the chamber a healthy learning curve and with a limited depth of experience. In developed nations, some – not all – lawmakers serve over 40 years in the parliament before retirement with notable contributions. In Nigeria, constituents who are supposed to be thinking long term, take it as a turn-by-turn, zone-by-zone affair, so another person or group of persons could also have their turn of access to the so-called national cake at full control of the legislators.
So, we evolve through stages until the same set of people we castigated for corruption at state level in executive capacities and are subjects of both public scrutiny and anti-graft investigations and litigations freely find their ways to sit in the hallowed chambers of NASS; to preside over the finances of the nation. Aren’t we all accomplices?
The situation, without apology, has become the case of keeping a tuber of yam with a goat for safekeeping. Don’t we all know what will happen; and what has been happening to Nigeria? What other explanation can we offer for the recurrence of mammoth corruption in public agencies, parastatals and ministries right under the oversight jurisdiction of the National Assembly all over the years without any substantial response from the National Assembly.; In over 20 years of operation of NDDC, both chambers of NASS have respectively committees on NDDC yet it takes the incumbent president Buhari to trigger an unprecedented forensic audit – though not without resistance – to expose 20 years of uninterrupted rot in NDDC, which I leave to your imagination.
The establishment corruption and cooptation – for those who have no choice but to partake in the ‘sharing’ – are long in the making in NASS. At a time during the reign of President Jonathan, the CBN Governor lamented that the National Assembly was gulping as much as 25 percent of the nation’s annual budget for its maintenance. Another public outcry was that the members of the chambers have become lords as they unilaterally and unlawfully approved jumbo pays for themselves when the nation’s civil servants were yearning for take home wages, that the legislature is not willing to approve. Sometimes in 2016, as it has repeated itself again in 2019 and now in 2020, members of the legislature, in the midst of merciless economic recession developed appetite for exotic SUVs and despite outcries from Nigerians, went ahead to purchase the cars at a reported unit cost of N35 million. Nothing has really changed till date; rather, it is becoming more obvious that the National Assembly is becoming more interested in making laws that favour its members. At a time when a considerable number of members of both chambers were undergoing various investigations and litigations spearheaded by EFCC, Senator Nwaboshi introduced a controversial bill to amend the anti-corruption law. The bill sought to stop the trial of corrupt public officials with the Administration of Criminal Justice Act by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Whereas, at the same time, the highly applauded Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), since 2007 has been left unattended to. Interestingly, Senator Nwaboshi’s Bill scaled second reading within 48 hours. It is the same Senator Nwaboshi who is the current chairman Senate Committee on NDDC and at the center of the alleged atrocities in the Commission.
It is not that the National Assembly has not been carrying out probes in the past hitherto; their conclusions have not been useful for obvious reasons. What was the outcome of the protracted probe of the privatisation process that dished out national assets to individuals at giveaway prices? What was the outcome of the Hon Farouk Lawan-led probe of petroleum subsidy? What was the outcome of the power sector probe by the Lower Chamber? What will become of the ongoing explosions in NDDC and others? Will the assembly be the judge in alleged crimes where some of its members are reported to be bona fide suspects and accomplices? Can we say with all honesty that the legislators are really representing the voters?
The growing corruption at the National Assembly has been fed by conflict of interest, nepotism and cronyism. Legislators have become totally influenced by personal considerations when carrying out their duties; they make all the decisions for the wrong reasons to favour personal desires – and also societal and partisan pressures. We see them making decisions that are damaging to the reputation of the country, eroding public trust and they often seem perturbed.
I happened to read through Thailand’s 1997 Constitution stating unequivocally that a Member of the House of Representatives shall not “hold any position or have any duty in any State agency or State enterprise, or hold a position of member of a local assembly, local administrator or local government official except other political official other than Minister; “receive any concession from the State, a State agency or State enterprise, or become a party to a contract of the nature of economic monopoly with the State, a State agency or State enterprise, or become a partner or shareholder in a partnership or company receiving such concession or becoming a party to the contract of that nature; or “receive any special money or benefit from any State agency or State enterprise apart from that given by the State agency or State enterprise to other persons in the ordinary course of business.” And then the provision stating “A Member of the House of Representatives shall not, through the status or position of Member of the House of Representatives, interfere or intervene in the recruitment, appointment, reshuffle, transfer, promotion and elevation of the salary scale of a Government official holding a permanent position or receiving salary and not being a political official, an official or employee of a State agency, State enterprise or local government organisation, or cause such persons to be removed from office.” As pervasive as corruption is, why can’t we have such law or provision? Or we so choose to exercise ostrichism – ignoring the path of righteousness and national development.
At this point, we need to consider stepping back to the point where the right process has to be taken; whether it is in the legislative chambers or in the streets of Nigeria. We need to accept the fact that credible, optimal deliverables and results are functions of our collective depositions and inputs; and resolve to allow systems and institutions to function according to the books.
At that point, Nigeria legislature must realise that its primary function is to decide extensively what needs to be changed; and/or put in place, both to guarantee smooth running of processes in the country as well as to make life easier for the citizens. And to meet up with these national expectations, it must, with concerted effort, restructure its internal mechanisms as they relate to accessibility of an experienced and competent workforce. This has to be deliberately engineered.
We should begin to see the increased empowerment of the National Assembly Service Commission that would lead a robust pool of trained, competitive legislative aides for the picks of the legislatures – including at the state level. It then would be legislated that every legislator must pick at least one aid from the pool and retrain permanent aides to anchor their various legislative agenda.
If the aforementioned could be imbibed as a culture of the National Assembly, and inclusive of all state assembly, we will begin to see the era of responsive and effective legislation in the country.
But achieving that and other good reforms will be near impossible until we first undertake a holistic review of the financial privileges and remunerations of the Nigeria legislators to reflect global realities as well as the prevailing economy of the nation. For as long as we continue to allow the unwholesome and repressive regime where a lawmaker, elected by the citizens, earn approximately N1.2 million daily, when you factored in as earnings, the unaccounted N200 million annual constituency allowances that the public believed are never expended on constituency projects; in the same country where the minimum wage is a mere N33,000, that is, an average civil servant earns approximately N3,000 a day. Thus, you have a very strong incentive as a legislator in the country to not serve but to amass unmerited earnings – even by cooptation – which will ever be on the increase.
That is where the inefficiency of the Nigeria National Assembly began, and until we find a way to take away the financial lush associated with the institution, it is unlikely to get anything good out of it. If we are able to reflect the remuneration and benefit of lawmakers’ reforms, then we will begin to witness the scenario where members stay longer in the chamber gaining wealth of experience over time for the benefits of the institution and the nation.
The administration of the National Assembly has over the years constituted a major deal of the dwindling fortune and inefficiency of the nation’s legislature. Getting the administrative responsibility right is beyond installation of a new clerk. A much bold desire to tour a new path is needed. If we want our legislature to function by modern parliamentary standards, which is beyond physical infrastructure, then we must take the path of a standardised, controlled practice.
What the National Assembly needs and expected of the new clerk recently installed is to recognise the challenge of resources at their disposal which are inadequate. He has to begin from institutionalising a participatory administrative system for NASS, requiring the creation of a strong channel of communication that allows free flow of information, exchange of contributory ideas and other inputs; and a regime of personnel training involving both internal and external stakeholders that will enhance legislative and allied functions such as the legislative reporting function. The Administration must also endeavor to acclimatise journalists and reporters with the nature, structure and pattern of global legislative reporting in the interest of the National Assembly and Nigerians.
Considering accountability and transparency of the administration of the National Assembly, for as long as loopholes that allow corruption and corrupt acts are allowed to flourish in the system, realisation of positive reforms would remain mere dreams. Winning the war against long term institutionalised corruption would require the administration to embrace and embark on a total reform of its procurement structure to reflect transparency and accountability.
Another infraction that must be corrected if the National Assembly is serious about reforms will be the perennial and recurring anomalies in the nation’s yearly appropriation bill. The only institution that can contain if not totally end the era of budget padding is the National Assembly Service Commission. The establishment of an independent inhouse department under the Commission to be referred to as the National Assembly Budget Office is the way out. The concept of a totally independent office handling the budget processes and accounting for the integrity of the processes and the resulting budget document will go a long way to halt the inglorious practice of flooding the budget with ghost projects and inflating figures.
Altogether, the National Assembly Service Commission must be the arrow head of the changes that need to be effected to turn around the hallowed chambers. The extent to which the new clerk would make this happen is what we all have to wait to see.
Furthermore, the National Assembly Service Commission will require mass restructuring to offset its inability to carry out its core functions and to uphold its values, which is grossly responsible for the bickering and expanding inefficiency of the Commission over the years till date. The Commission must begin to inculcate the virtues of accountability, efficient service delivery, and total insulation from all external control and corruption.
NASS, when properly reformed, will no doubt trigger genuine development all over the nation. The only reason successive executives have toyed with our common wealth and get away with it, including undermining the judiciary is because the past legislature has been compromised.
We need to bring that to an end. We must from now, prevent the entrance of non-credible elements into our hallowed chambers as legislators. The political parties as part of their responsibilities to Nigerians on one hand and Nigerians on the other, should both directly and indirectly devote more energy to thorough screening of candidates for elections into the National Assembly. The screening should become more vigorous. Individuals with questionable characters, records of past indictments and ongoing criminal and corruption investigations shouldn’t have a place in the hallowed chambers.
It is an aberration to present a legislature where a sizable number of its members are facing investigations and prosecutions for various degrees of corruption, to the extent of bagging jail terms. If the nation’s political parties would not do the needful for Nigeria, then it behooves of us as citizens to use the ballots rightly.
Because of the neglects from the nation’s legislature, over the years, the entire ruling elites of the country have consistently demonstrated their lack of respect for the laws, rules and regulations governing the nation; allowing and promoting structural and institutional decay, corruption and impunity in all the sectors within Nigeria’s sociopolitical and economic environment. This consequently has resulted in a diminished capacity of the country to uphold rule of law and command orderliness that are sine qua non of proper growth and development. This aberrancy will continue to plague Nigeria until and unless we allow the reforms that are needed to take root in our legislative systems.
Then, the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will proudly begin to make laws that punish and deter corruption; laws that contribute to robust administration; and a social environment in which corrupt acts are less likely to take place.
This piece is motivated by a burning patriotic desire to yet prick our conscience and to motivate us towards cleansing the Augean stable in the place that matters most; this is achievable in our generation.
GOD BLESS THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA!