On December 19, 2012, the National Assembly passed the 2013 budget, upping it by N63 billion from N4.924 trillion to N4.987 trillion. But the budget has not been signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan more than a month after its passage, for reasons that have now become obvious – the National Assembly, as usual, has needlessly increased its expenditure. A media report attributed to a presidential aide in Davos, Switzerland, where the President had gone for the World Economic Forum, revealed that the legislators allegedly enhanced their overhead cost by N93 billion, subsumed in a dubious constituency projects sub-head.
Over the years, the parliament has acquired notoriety for such predilection, thereby triggering avoidable stand-off between the Legislature and the Executive. The country cannot continue to tread this crooked path. All things considered, the action is tantamount to selfishness and abuse of legislative powers.
The report stated, "The National Assembly is asking for extra N93 billion as overhead expenses, which they have hidden under constituency projects. This is despite the fact that they had earlier budgeted N100 billion for constituency projects."
Regardless of the spurious claim to its legality, we do know for certain that the constituency project idea in Nigeria is steeped in obscene corruption. Since 1999, our scandal-plagued legislature has held every President hostage over budget implementation, especially the constituency projects component. The Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency, as gritty as it was, almost crashed for failing to do the lawmakers’ bidding in this regard. The lower legislative chambers had raked up 36 "impeachable offences" against him in response to his resistance to the lawmakers' greed. The late Umaru Yar'Adua suffered a similar threat.
"Constituency projects" idea is one of the evils weakening the country’s federal structure. How can the Federal Government in Abuja be involved in digging water boreholes, installing electric poles, repairing roads in rural communities or building town halls across the country? These are contracts that do not go through public tender and technical designs, in line with due process requirements, before being awarded. The N100 billion involved is absolutely not a two-penny.
Contract awards determined by rule of the thumb and subversion of best practices, ultimately, add to the existing stock of abandoned projects scattered nation-wide, requiring over N7 trillion to complete. Instead of stirring up controversy every year with constituency projects, the lawmakers' interests would be best served by making the 774 local government areas work through legislative activism or engineering. The so-called constituency projects fall within the competence of efficient and effective councils.
This is not the only area where the national parliament has consistently failed the nation. Since 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy, it has been unable to truly exercise its function of maintaining checks and balances in government, especially in curbing corruption. Its story, rather, has been a harvest of criminal corruption scandals – the bribe-for-budget scam, alleged scummy pension fund deals, etc. Nowhere is the fact that our lawmakers are corrupt and ineffective more evident than in the $620,000 fuel subsidy scandal, a.k.a. Faroukgate, and the ongoing Herman Hembe trial. In spite of the breadth of evidence against Lawan Farouk, he still sits pretty in the "hallowed" chamber. This is deplorable. If nothing is done, our legislature may soon be turned into a gallery of rogues.
The National Assembly has a long and sordid history of corruption and waste. Without putting its oversight powers into an effective use for the common good, the National Assembly has watched conspiratorially as the country’s oil wealth is being despoiled by a rapacious cabal; it neither knows how much is made from oil nor ensures that what is made is transparently accounted for by managers of the economy. No wonder, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, described the legislative arm of government as "hydropus", his coinage from "hydra" and "octopus".
The only thing our "gobbling" lawmakers do well is fattening their paycheques by awarding themselves outrageous allowances. Nigerian parliamentarians are reputed to be the highest paid in the world, earning more than even their British and American counterparts, for doing too little. Eminent lawyer, Prof. Itse Sagay, alleged three years ago that the Senate President’s office collected a mouth-watering sum of N88 million per month. A senator, according to Sagay, took home about N45 million, while his counterpart in the House of Representatives earned N28 million per quarter.
Even this amount is hardly considered enough by the lawmakers. This insatiability pushed the House, under Dimeji Bankole as Speaker, to borrow about N40 billion from banks in order to pay the members more, far above recommended perks by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. It is a shame, a big one for that matter, that our legislators collect hefty allowances, live in luxury without qualms in a country where the minimum wage is N18, 000 per month and basic infrastructure and service delivery are alien to governance.
It is a travesty that the National Assembly has not thought it fit to review the archaic laws that allow corrupt officials to escape justice with a slap on the wrist. The Nigerian Railways Amendment Bill, Petroleum Industry Bill and others that will make a difference in the economy have not been passed into law. Though it has oversight powers, the country’s refineries are comatose, just as the air space has metamorphosed into a "Bermuda Triangle" as planes are plucked from the sky due to the cutting of corners in the aviation sector; our road networks have become death traps, while electricity has become a rarity. Therefore, the National Assembly has failed Nigerians; and nothing provides eloquent testament to this than the infrastructural ruins that blotch our national landscape.
But we see no evidence that the Senate President, David Mark, and the House Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, are ready to use their leadership positions to reverse the ugly trend. Like the stunning failures of its predecessors, the Seventh National Assembly has little to be proud of. Though it is said that every legislative session ends with notable achievements and glaring disappointments, Nigeria’s parliament always ends in shame. This legislative session will also be remembered more for its failures.
Nigerians must be ready to end this aberration. We need a complete systemic transformation of the legislative arm of government. As the arm of government that defines democracy, the people themselves should ensure that the legislature is made effective and responsive. It is time the leadership of the Senate and its counterpart in the House were told that the country would no longer continue to bear the raft of waste that emoluments of the 109 senators and 360 lawmakers in the lower chamber symbolise. It is this kind of self-indulgence that has inspired calls from some quarters for the country to adopt a part-time unicameral legislature.
Since corruption is Nigeria's greatest and most enduring challenge, our parliament must be truly seen to be a hallowed chamber, peopled by men and women of integrity. This is a sure way to win the battle against the raging sleaze.