National Assembly as drain on nation’s resources: The way out
Against the backdrop of calls for the scrapping of the Senate to conserve funds for infrastructural development, some eminent Nigerians provide options available to the country.
After 20 years of democratic governance, Nigerians appear to be in agreement that the country’s democracy isn’t working as it ought to. And at the root of it is the high cost of running the government, which they say unless it is drastically reduced, the developmental dreams of the country would remain a mirage. They point out that despite the fact that the country has been borrowing to finance its budget for many years now, the larger percentage of the money goes into recurrent expenditure while the developmental needs of the nation are relegated to the background.
A case in point is the N10.33 trillion 2020 budget presented to the National Assembly on October 8, by President Muhammadu Buhari. Of that amount, only N2.14 trillion or 20 per cent of the total amount is earmarked for capital expenditure while recurrent expenditure will gulp N4.8 trillion or 71 per cent with other allocations going to debt serving, statutory transfer and sinking fund.
Five days before the President laid the budget before the lawmakers, senator representing Imo West Senatorial District and immediate past governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, had told his colleagues during plenary that they needed to do something different by putting the country on a development pedestal in terms of cutting the cost of running government. And he wanted the process to start with the lawmakers themselves by reducing the size of the National Assembly.
Okorocha, who spoke in response to the concerns raised by the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, that Nigeria needs to have an economy that provides jobs and creates opportunities for the citizens to thrive, argued that the country does not need 109 senators and 360 House of Representatives members.
“What (are) three senators doing that one senator cannot do? Here, we have three senators per state. Over there (House of Representatives), we have 360 eligible human beings. This country must begin to make sacrifices and cut down the cost of governance. And if what we are doing today is similar to what we did in the 8th Senate, be rest assured the product will be the same,” he added.
Speaking at the 25th edition of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group conference in Abuja, recently, Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, also backed calls for the scrapping of the Senate in order to save costs.
“We do need to look at the size of government in Nigeria and I am an advocate of a unicameral legislature. What we really need is the House of Representatives because that is what represents. You have three senators from little Ekiti and you have three senators from Lagos State. It’s a no-brainer that it’s unequal. I guess the principle is not proportionality but that if you are a state, you get it automatically. But I think that we can do away with that,” he noted.
Some Nigerians who spoke with The Guardian on the matter agreed with the duo on the need to contract the size of government and free more money for capital development. They however differ on the approach to adopt. To a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Robert Clarke, returning to the parliamentary system of government would save a lot of money for the country. “I believe we will save a lot of money if we jettison the presidential system and go into a parliamentary system. Do we really need a bicameral legislature or one House of Representatives? What does the Senate do?” he queried.
Prof. Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, noted that even though the National Assembly has not done enough in terms of legislative output, the two chambers should be retained but should be down sized while lawmakers should work on part time basis.
His words: “Nigeria is also in dire straits financially now, running a deficit budget year in year out. That means that we need to save resources by cutting cost as much as we can. So, having two houses of parliament gulping a lot of money from the national purse is not advisable at this point. “We do know that the second house, the Senate, in the Nigerian case is actually made for equality of states. But the point is whether in restructuring the national parliament, we can have the House of Representatives also restructured in ways that they can both reflect equality of states. But to retain that structure as it now, for me is a waste of resources. And we have seen in terms of legislative output that they have not really done anything. The executive has run the affairs of the country as though we are under a military dictatorship.”
He suggested that all the parliamentarians should be paid on part time basis. “Doing that, we will still be able to achieve the very goal of cutting the cost of governance. I think that is the way to go, not unicameral.“Those who argue for a unicameral legislature can also have their formula because there are so many possibilities to it. You can’t for instance say you will elect one member of the House of Representatives from the constituency on the basis of the equality of states, which means you will have 36 of them from the states and one from the FCT, making 37 members of the House of Representatives. So, there are so many possibilities to it but the first thing is that the national legislature has become a drain on the national purse. So, by putting them on part time basis, then we would have achieved some measure of reduction and down sizing in terms of the cost of running the national parliament.”
But a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Dr Cairo Ojougboh, said the country should not only adopt a unicameral legislature but also make law making a part time affair. He said: “One of the ways to bring down the cost is to reduce the size of the legislature at the federal level that is presently bicameral. We can just scrap the Senate and leave the House of Representatives; we can even go further to make the House of Representatives part time. They don’t need to sit every day; what are they doing?
“For the oversight functions, we can create other structures that can do oversight functions. For instance, the Bureau for Public Procurement is virtually doing what the National assembly should do. So, what we can do is to reinforce due process, compliance, the anti-corruption agencies and then reduce the size of the National Assembly.”
But would the National Assembly members be patriotic enough to amend the constitution and sack themselves from office?Clarke believes that, “the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who have been enjoying emoluments that you and I have never seen in our lives, will not want to change this constitution.” He noted that the only way to achieve that is for President Buhari to set up a constitutional panel drawn from all the local councils in the country and backed by a law passed by the National Assembly to do that.
Ojougboh although thinks it’s an uphill task. His words: “This is similar to the calls for restructuring. When people shout restructuring, they forget that the people who coined the constitution have recommended how this country can be restructured. The power lies in the National Assembly. The executive cannot do it by fiat. It is only the National Assembly that can sit down and say, ‘okay, we agree to restructuring’. You have to alter the constitution before you can conduct a plebiscite or referendum on constitutional reform or restructuring.
“So, the country must get serious and approach the National Assembly with issues that are germane, issues that must be decided. But on this one, there is a bottleneck. One, for you to reduce the size of the National Assembly, you have to go to the same institution for them to agree to constitutional amendment. In restructuring, you have to pass through the NASS for them to also agree. If we don’t do that, we are just beating about the bush.
“So, groups have to meet and sponsor bills through members of the National Assembly. It is like taking their case to their own court; so you are now going to meet them to say, ‘you people you are enjoying too much here. We want you to sack yourselves.’ In that case, you have to convince them on why they should sack themselves.”
Akhaine, on his part, said the goal could be achieved but requires the building up of the critical mass. “We ask those questions sometimes because we are not historical about political developments globally. For instance, Italians just did theirs; you didn’t need somebody to persuade them and they are saving about two billion euros or thereabout by cutting off one arm of the national legislature in Italy. Then Senegal did the same thing about 13 years ago. Of course, they are also saving money. And you ask yourself who did that?
“The elite there are goal oriented; they have a national objective. But the elite in Nigeria is not a homogenous elite. They don’t have a consensus. Even within that consensus, you have to look at it as a struggle between the social forces who want change and those who want the status quo to remain. It is when the balance of forces is weighted in favour of those who want reform that you can have your way. So, it is not going to be something that somebody will just wake up and achieve like that. Some of the beneficiaries will resist attempts to restructure the parliament, but there are those who will also support the move. So, you have to build up the critical mass to do that,” he said.