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Accountability at the senate


FILE PHOTO: Nigeria’s Senate President Bukola Saraki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Abuja, Nigeria May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Paul Carsten/File Photo

The contradictions in Nigeria’s governance framework become more pronounced every day.

On the one hand, our constitution suggests that we are a liberal democracy with the powers of government properly separated; on the other hand, we have the Attorney-General of the Federation – a senior advocate, no less – turning the Rule of Law on its head, with his recent pronouncement that government is free to decide when to obey court orders.

On the one hand, the President has always been lauded for supposedly being a man of integrity; on the other, his integrity has apparently been stunned into silence on the matter of whether his minister of finance has partaken in forgery or not.

And then there’s the senate. On the one hand, the senate is a beacon of light to state houses of assembly across the country that have been turned into nothing more than their executives’ rubber stamps; on the other hand, it is they who have ensured that every single appropriation bill to date has been inflated and every budget benchmark price altered.

Again, on the one hand, their recent defections show them as little more than power-hungry politicians with allegiance to no creed, never mind the fundamental question of whether any of the defectors can retain their seats by law; on the other hand, they publish a report of their three years in office and the problems they have tried to tackle with some of the bills they have passed.

The senate’s report is titled, “Reviving the Economy: Creating Opportunities for Nigerians” and it appraises the senate’s legislative agenda under five broad headings – Economy, Infrastructure, Education, Health and Social welfare.

My personal bias is pro private sector, and bills like the Companies and Allied Matters Act (“CAMA”) Amendment Bill of 2018 and the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection (“FCCP”) Bill of 2015 were quite welcome.

The CAMA amendment Bill looks to simplify the process of company registration and ease the burden of regulatory compliance for smaller companies.

When it was passed, I extensively reviewed the FCCP Bill with the conclusion that it would level the playing field and force producers to compete for market share on the bases of quality and price, rather than through protectionism, collusion and artificial barriers to market entry.

The Economy section attempts to celebrate the passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, but with the signature bill still weighed down by lobbying and questionable political will, that may be one of the senate’s more pyrrhic victories.

The Infrastructure section highlights include the National Inland Waterways Bill, the Federal Roads Authority Bill, the Nigeria Infrastructure Fund Bill and the Nigerian Ports and Harbours Bill.

They all purport to facilitate regulation that is sustainable, conducive to private sector participation and develop local capacity.

The key legislation passed for education reform, according to the senate’s report, is the Universal Basic Education Act (Amendment) Bill, the significant parts of which are increasing the Commission’s budgetary allocation from 2% to 3% and reducing states’ counterpart funding requirement downwards from 50% to 10% (acknowledging that this still falls well short of the UNESCO recommended budgetary threshold of 25% of the total budget).

The report states that the 2018 Appropriation Bill sets aside 1% of the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the Basic Healthcare Provision Fund, and the evidence of the senate’s Social Welfare focus include the Poverty Eradication Bill, the North East Development Commission Act, the National Child Protection and Enforcement Agency (Establishment) Bill and the Drug Control Bill.

Now, I am a cynic and I think we should all be cynics, at least until we start to see the basics of good governance being delivered as the norm.

There is so much work to be done that no responsible arm of government should be giving itself accolades.

Furthermore, the timing of the report, a few months to electioneering, might lead some people to conclude that it is more propaganda than accountability.

Nonetheless, the report from the senate makes a lot of the right noises, presenting the strategic considerations underpinning the legislation.

In my opinion though, a great deal of it is superficial, sidestepping the larger, inevitable task of restructuring that must take place sooner or later.

Retaining the Federal Government’s exclusive powers over rail and waterways, for example, and not relinquishing significant portions of it to state governments, to my mind, limits the potential for reforms in those sectors. And how about judicial reform?

The number of days it takes to enforce contracts is also a contributor to Nigeria’s relatively poor Ease of Doing Business ranking.

There is also the question of transparency. Sectoral reforms that do not mandate much more transparency and accountability over how the public purse is spent, will do very little.

The senate itself is a bastion of secrecy, shrouding its finances with an NNPC-esque cloak of secrecy, such that the taxpayer does not know exactly how much the people’s representatives earn and what else they spend taxpayers’ money on.

This is a fundamental issue that must change, for all this motion to translate to movement.

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