Saraki’s token gesture
It may appear to be a token but it is a gesture that is commendable all the same. The forfeiture by Senate President Bukola Saraki’s pension and other entitlements from Kwara State where he served as two-term governor and his refund of payment of same from 2007 when he ceased to be governor, has put him in the forefront of those honourable Nigerians who can be counted as the true and authentic apostles of probity and accountability in public office.
Except that this gesture – a rarity in this part of the world – was both voluntary and forced. But it is a good gesture all the same. In a society like ours where public officials have enthroned the ugly phenomenon of impunity, Saraki could have given a cold shudder to all his critics and say loudly, as others are wont to do, that he could not give a damn. But he didn’t.
Let’s put the story in a much clearer perspective. Senate President Saraki is in the cozy company of former governors who are now senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Their election into this hallowed chamber was, if you like, a reward for their excellent performance when they served in their various states as executive governors. Their impressive political trajectory from government houses to the Senate was seamless. There was no hassle – the slot was theirs for a picking.
But since the inception of the current administration led by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Senate, the upper legislative chamber of the second arm of government, has not been in the best book of the public. Many of the distinguished senators, no matter their political affiliation, are seen as an impediment and a cog in the wheel of the administration. Some people, in fact, think that this set of distinguished senators invented the word corruption, even though in these lean times, there is really no Ghana- must- go bags to smoothen the process of legislation and the passing of bills as was done in years gone by.
It is an unfortunate perception which seems to have got stuck in the minds of the people. This sordid picture – that this Senate is up to no good – is a product of many factors, principal among them is the manner in which the current leadership of the legislature emerged. From the start, Saraki defied his party, the APC, which had zoned the position of Senate President to the North East. While the party hierarchy was meeting with President Buhari to sort out the zoning formula, Saraki outsmarted the party big shots and got himself elected as Senate president. He thus openly declared himself the man to watch, if not an outright enemy of the system.
There are many political watchers today who would swear that his political travails – the trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the failed attempt to arraign him for forgery of Senate procedure – really had nothing to do with corruption. They both smack of a miserable attempt to get back at him.
But like an old fox, he seems to be learning fast – doing it in a way that seems to keep him a step or two ahead of his traducers. In a way, fate and destiny have smiled on him. He is lucky, as some pundits have pointed out, that he was not a product of the era of banana peels in the Senate. He could not have gotten away with blue murder in that era which was characterised by brusque militarism.
President Buhari’s hands were tied from day one by his sheer determination to transform from the aforesaid brusque militarism of his predecessors to a polished and, even if not so much of, sophisticated nuances of modern democracy whose true dividends include genuine rule of law as opposed to the rule of the lawlessness, civil liberties and freedom of expression and freedom of association – and a freewheeling political shenanigan that some people have assumed to be a licence.
I see Saraki’s pension hullabaloo in that light. There has been, in my view, a justifiable outcry against ex-governors in the Senate, or in public office as ministers, receiving pension from their former service as well as receiving salaries in their present positions.
In the current Senate, you have 15 former governors now serving as law makers. And their take home pay from the Senate is jumbo, if you permit the use of the word that is now so commonplace, it has become trite. Various state houses of assembly had passed laws with varying degrees of application that have fixed sumptuous pension and other generous allowances for their ex-governors and their deputies some, it is alleged, with houses in their state capitals and in Abuja. There is also some allowance for a coterie of personal staff; brand new cars replaceable every four years – a reward for their selfless service to the people.
There is a law to back this immorality. But this law does not seem to understand the meaning of this highly subjective word and its awesome connotation. If it did, perhaps it would not have been said to be an ass. The immorality of the law, granting this life pension and the accompanying allowances, is underlined by the incestuous manner in which it was promulgated. The potential beneficiaries of the law – their excellences and the deputy excellences – without exception, instigated the promulgation of the law and the houses of assembly which were habitually at their beck and call, were so glad to ingratiate themselves with the governors, they had no difficulty whatsoever in passing the law and in giving effect to it.
But the critical segments of the civil society saw the corruption involved in this and had cried out loudly. The Socio-Economic and Accountability Projects (SERAP), created in 2004, took up this as a project to be pursued with a single-minded commitment. It punched numerous holes into the argument that double pension was backed by the laws passed by the various state governments and the beneficiaries had violated no law. And Femi Falana, the iconoclastic legal luminary, not to be outperformed, was unsparing in his attacks. He called those ex-governors and any other public office holder who feels comfortable taking two salaries, receiving two allowances all at the same time to publicly denounce this gross immorality and refund the money.
It is against this background that the Senate President openly took a patriotic stand by stopping the payment of his pension from Kwara State. Saraki also decided to make a refund of the pension he had received from 2007 to date. Testifying to this gesture, the Secretary to the Government of Kwara State, Sola Isiaka, said the Senate President on his own free volition “considered the morality of the situation in which the pension would put him since he is still a serving senator and chose to abandon his legal rights.” The statement was, however, silent on the Abuja house allegedly built for him.
What the Senate President did is a good public relations gesture that is certain to buy him some good will. But can he move beyond this and persuade his colleagues who are in a similar situation – untenable on grounds of morality? Some of them have denied receiving any pensions and other benefits from their state governments.
Saraki may not be vicariously responsible or liable for the conduct of other senators but he should be worried if their actions of omission and commission attract generous public odium to the august body. Currently, some senators are enmeshed in apparent double dealing and conflicts of interest and the public is waiting to see what the Senate will do on resumption from recess.
Not too long ago, the Senate President was prompt to bring the allegation of importation of an armoured vehicle for his use as well as the certificate palava of another senator before the ethics committee of the Senate. The resolution of the two issues appeared untidy and has left some dent on the image of the Senate.
In this current house cleaning exercise, Saraki has led by example. Adherence to the principle of probity and accountability makes it mandatory for him to go the whole hog by persuading, nay by directing his colleagues, who have oversight responsibilities, to behave like Caesar’s wife and stay scrupulously above reproach.
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