The self in Nigerian politics
The arrogant nerve of it grates on the nerves. The 24 members of the Bayelsa State house of assembly last week passed a life pension bill to benefit them for life. A former speaker of the house would receive N500,000; his former deputy, N200,000 and the floor members, N100,000. Looks modest for a small oil state like Bayelsa. Oil states are awash in Naira. The problem is how to spend it.
We are used to the strange ways of our politicians but this must be the strangest so far. It is foolish. It is selfish. It is the principle of legislation that a law must not be seen to be self-serving or to singularly serve the interests of its makers. This bill fails on that account alone.
I am relieved that the state governor, Seriake Dickson, has refused to sign it into law. I would have been shocked if he did. It would have done him and his administration no good because the proper place for the bill such as this is the dust bin or the shredder in his office.
The bill has died on arrival but we should do more than chuckle at its demise. Its rationale, more than the bill itself, is worth examining in the context of our big man politics and the self-interest that attends it.
Dickson disagreed with the bill because, according to him, “the provisions of this bill granting pension to members of Bayelsa State House of Assembly and the extension of same to former members of the assembly and Bayelsa indigenes who served in the old Rivers State house of assembly is inconsistent with section 124 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
He relied on section 124 subsection (5) of the constitution which says: “Provisions may be made by a law of a state house of assembly for the grant of a pension or gratuity to or in respect of a person who had held office as governor or deputy governor and was not removed from office as a result of impeachment.”
Dickson does not want to be the first state governor to allow the state house of assembly to expand “the categories of pensionable public officers to include lawmakers.” The lawmakers ought to have known that Bayelsa “is coping with all the myriads of issues and challenges, with our low internally generated revenue base and the unpredictable oil economy.” Should it “be the first to initiate this” legislation that would only compound its financial woes and deepen the misery of the people?
It would be uncharitable to think that these honourable men and women put there by the people to make laws for the good governance of Bayelsa State are blissfully ignorant of the fact that in their wisdom, the framers of the constitution made no room for state legislators to include themselves in the provisions of section 124 (5) of the constitution. That, if you would excuse an old saying, would boggle the mind. But they have a good reason for what they did. And, believe me, it is found in that same section of the constitution that is silent about their right to make a law to grant themselves a pension.
Their rationale for the bill is simple. They wanted to do for themselves something similar to federal and state laws “applicable to former presidents, vice-presidents, governors and deputy governors across the country.” On the strength of the said section under discussion, each state of the federation has a law granting generous pensions to former state governors and their former deputies. In some states, the law provides that two expensive official cars be bought for a departing governor. These cars are changed every four years. They are also entitled to full medicals for themselves and their families overseas for life. These are then topped off with a stately mansion built for them at public expense at a choice location in the state or Abuja. I think the Bayelsa lawmakers feel like a paying clerk who pays out so much each day and goes home after on okada.
You could not blame the man who introduced the bill. My guess is that he wanted his state to be the first to wake up to the elementary fact that it is just not right that its former lawmakers are cynically treated like nobodies. This would put the pin – and not so gently – in the balloon of their ego. A former big man with a deflated ego looks like a sack emptied of white gari. His colleagues readily agreed with him and passed the bill into law in record time. Only for the bill to meet at obstacle in the shape of a towering barrister governor.
A few fundamental facts flow from this failed attempt by the Bayelsa State law-makers to obey the first law in nature, to wit, self-interest. One, however we may sugar coat this, the truth is that most of our legislators are not really on top of it when you talk of their competence in existing laws, such as the constitution. The Bayelsa lawmakers did not set out to breach the constitution. They set out to do what they believe the constitution empowers them to do, to wit, make laws. I do not think the constitution denies lawmakers the right to make such law or laws as they deem necessary to advance or sustain their interests in and out of office.
There is no denying that our lawmakers at federal and state levels resorted to this to pay themselves much more than the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission prescribed for them. Remember that revelation by the radical Senator Shehu Sani of Kaduna State? A senator takes home a piddling monthly allowance of N13.5 million.
Two, our politicians, being the big and very important personalities that they are, think there is no limit to their power to do as they wish. The president does not; the state governors do not; and the law-makers at federal and state levels do not. Quite often they act in total defiance of the constitution as if the constitution was put there as a matter of occasional convenience. The Bayelsa lawmakers are actually sauntering down the beaten path. Yes, we can, they told themselves.
Three, we have never really stopped to think of it but my educated guess is that what we spend on our lawmakers is disproportionate to their usefulness to the republic. My reason is that in our country, laws are made useless because the rule of law is an inconvenience for the big men and their acolytes. If we cannot obey the law, why make the law? It is not the absence of the law that makes the jungle a jungle; rather it is the culture of the survival of the strongest. It is no different from our culture which exempts the rich and the powerful from the inconvenience of living by and acting in accordance with the law.
Four, I dispute the effectiveness of the legislatures in performing their oversight functions. The apparent lawlessness and criminal wastage in the executive arm of government would not have been possible if the lawmakers remember that they are also the law watchers. Here is a typical fall out. The management of our economy is characterised by extra-constitutional spending. The constitution empowers the legislature to authorise the annual expenditure of governments at all levels through the various appropriation acts.
The problem is that the president and the governors do not feel bound by this. In 2005, President Obasanjo set up the political reform conference. Parliament refused to appropriate money for it. No problem, said the big man. He found the money, not from his pocket but from the fiscal resources of the federation. Spending outside the budget is an impeachable offence. Still, every state governor spends more than his state budget because of the extra-constitutional expenditures that have become a way of life among our rulers. These expenditures have nothing to do with the people, really. Just ego-tripping at our collective expense.
My point is that it is easy to condemn laws such as the dead Bayelsa bill but we choose to forget that politics being a game of self-interest, with or without laws, those interests will always be protected, enhanced and advanced. Our condemnation is actually an exercise, to borrow from Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, in mandibular peregrination.