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National Assembly, jumbo allocation and lawmaking

By Samson Ezea
26 May 2017   |   4:20 am
It is therefore not surprising that the lawmakers allocated to themselves, N125 billion in the current 2017 budget, which they raised from N7.28 trillion proposed by Buhari to N7.44 trillion.

National Assembly Complex Abuja.

Despite the huge yearly budgetary allocation that it always approved for itself, the bulk of which is allegedly spent on emoluments of lawmakers, the National Assembly has been haunted by several scandals linked to corrupt enrichment of members, making critics to conclude that the legislators may be showing more interests in personal rather than national development.

Since the commencement of the current democratic dispensation in 1999, the federal legislature has recorded many low moments including the Faruk Lawan saga, Professor Fabian Osuji bribe-for-budget passage and Mallam Nasir El-Rufai bribe-for-ministerial clearance scandals.

For more than 17 years, the budget of National Assembly was shrouded in secrecy and in 2010, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, now Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, alleged that 25 percent of the overhead cost of the Federal Government goes to the National Assembly.

Sanusi’s claim is not far from the 2012 London-based Economist magazine publication which revealed that Nigerian lawmakers earned the second highest pay globally, higher than what their counterparts earn in Canada, Brazil, Britain, China, Russia, France and Italy.

It will be recalled that the 7th National Assembly, between 2011-2015, had a budget of N150 billion yearly. Within this period, 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives passed a total of 108 bills into law, out of the 1,068 bills sponsored and brought to their attention.

The executive however sponsored majority of the bills, 67 of which were passed by the Senate while the House of Representatives passed the rest. According to an official report allegedly released on the order of the then Speaker and incumbent Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, out of the 360 members in the House, 191 did not sponsor any bill within the four years.

According to the report, a total of 755 bills were introduced to the House out of which private members initiated 679, six sent from the Senate and 70 from the executive arm of government. But the House passed 123 of them, including the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which was passed before their tenure expired on June 6, 2015.

In spite of the alleged low representations by some lawmakers, many of them still won elections back into the lower chamber in 2015, a development that many analysts pointed to as reflective of the failure of Nigeria’s democratic system.

But with the emergence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) government and its change mantra, it was expected that things would change in the areas of budget and emoluments of the lawmakers especially with the sudden fall in the price of crude oil, Nigeria’s major source of revenue.

However, in the face of these economic challenges and attendant hardships on Nigerians, the National Assembly took a budget of N115 billion in 2016. This was despite the fact that in July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo announced the reduction of their salaries by fifty percent.

Even the Chairman of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), Elias Mbam, had after a meeting with Buhari, said that a new pay package, reflecting cuts in the remuneration of public service officers would be released last year.

He specifically mentioned the National Assembly as an arm of the public service that would be affected in the planned pay cut. “Presently, we are reviewing the subsisting remuneration package and it is going to reflect the socio-economic realities of today,” he said.

The review was done but the lawmakers have not approved it. A staff of RMAFC in Abuja who pleaded anonymity told The Guardian, “It would be a difficult task to reduce the salaries and allowances of National Assembly members because such review must be taken to them for approval before it can become a legal document.

“In this case, they are like judges in their own cases. That is the frustration our commission is facing and the leadership of the Assembly is taking advantages of this situation. They know this as the impediment. The only way out is for the constitution to be amended and the Act that established our commission reviewed. That is if majority of the National Assembly members will agree to this.”

It is therefore not surprising that the lawmakers allocated to themselves, N125 billion in the current 2017 budget, which they raised from N7.28 trillion proposed by Buhari to N7.44 trillion.

The leadership of the 8th Assembly had promised before the passage that it would make it’s budget public for the first time in 17 years.  The breakdown of the estimates showed that N23.7 billion would go for personnel cost, N85.8 billion for overhead and N14.9 billion for financing capital projects. The Assembly management has N14.9 billion with the Senate taking N31.3 billion and the House of Representatives N49 billion, while the National Assembly Service Commission gets N2.4 billion. The budget provides N9.6 billion for legislative aides, while the Senate Public Accounts Committee takes N118.9 million and that of lower chamber Reps, N142.7 million. N12.5 billion has been earmarked for general services; N4.3 billion for the National Assembly Legislative Institute and N391.3 million was earmarked for service wide vote.

Since the 2017 National Assembly budget detail was made public, mixed reactions have continued to trail it. While the lawmakers have tried to justify the allocation, many Nigerians have continued to query the rationale behind it in the face of glaring economic challenges.

Speaking to The Guardian a member representing Ikwuano Federal Constituency, Sam Onuigbo said that the allocation is not too much, “considering the enormity of the works the lawmakers do.

“Remember that this is the only arm of government that has the responsibility of making law, checkmating the excesses of the executive and others. Nigerians are having erroneous impressions about the Assembly because they are not well informed of the works and importance of the National Assembly in our democracy.”

Recently, a non-governmental organisation, The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, in an open letter to Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, expressed concern over the 2017 National Assembly budget.

The letter read: “We are concerned that of the N125 billion allocated to the National Assembly in the 2017 budget, N6.4 billion is to purchase official vehicles; N1.6 billion to insure the vehicles; N777 million to buy photocopiers; N55.623 million to buy souvenirs; N807 million to fuel generators; N11 billion for travels and transportation; N9 billion to pay legislative aides, and N750 million for medical supplies.”

The organisation urged Osinbajo to “assent to the budget only if it truly reflects national development priorities, and not serve as a tool to satisfy the lifestyle of our lawmakers.”

Also speaking on the issue, a human rights lawyer, Johnson Steve-Amadu said “while the call for the reduction of the allowances and salaries of the public office holders, especially members of the National Assembly is in order, it cannot be done outside due process.

“Nigerians should understand the frustration of the RMAFC in this regard. The former chairman of the commission Hamman Tukur once said that the issues are not only legal and financial but also constitutional. Nothing has changed now. Section 84 (3) of the 1999 Constitution, which says that the remuneration, salaries and allowances payable to the holders of the offices listed other than allowances “shall not be altered to their disadvantage after their appointment.

“The same provision is made in section 124(3) in respect of states of the federation. The implication is that there have to be very strong reasons why the salaries of listed officers can be touched though adjusting the allowances will be less problematic.

“Any letter from either the president or Nigerians to the commission asking for the reduction in the salaries of political office holders, can now be seen for what it is worth.  It belongs in the legislative dustbin, because it is those who earn these fat salaries and allowances that will have to effect the amendments that should make them earn less. Until they do so, it is illegal to reduce it.

“That is the fact of the matter. The political office holders, especially members of National Assembly know it. That is the defects of the 1999 constitution. And that is why the National Assembly members and their counterparts in the State Assemblies will never like to amend that section of the constitution. So we need a new people’s constitution, not an imposed constitution as we have now. We need urgent restructuring and true federalism.”

A university don and financial expert, Dr. James Uwauk suggested that rather than reducing the budget, salaries and allowances of members of National Assembly, the number of members should be reduced.

Uwauk said: “Instead of bicameral legislature, Nigeria should go back to unicameral legislature on part time basis. Presently, there is no accountability in the National Assembly as its accounts are never audited or published in detail. Traveling and retirement allowances are the largest single avenue for increasing income in the National Assembly.

“Accounting staff in the National Assembly should remain as employees of the Ministry of Finance rather than transfer to the National Assembly payroll where they co-operate in malfeasance. Since there are no audited or published accounts of the National Assembly it will not be possible for anyone to determine whether or not any directives from RMFAC are actually complied with.”

A former senior aide of a Senator from the Southeast in the 7th Assembly, who pleaded anonymity, said “despite the publication of the breakdown of the 2017 National Assembly budget, members have a way of cornering the lion share to themselves.

“I worked with a senator as a senior aide and was placed at level 16 because of my academic qualifications. My salary was around N300, 000. While I received my salaries through my account, my allowances were paid to my boss who usually approved them. I was told that I had a traveling allowance of N18, 000 everyday, but I never received it for one day. It was the same thing for other aides who worked with me for four years.”

On the way forward, the aide said: “The country is in a mess. The National Assembly is just a conduit pipe for the members, not for the aides. Some of them who are former governors are receiving pension from their states and at the same time, collecting salaries and allowances as lawmakers. Some of them don’t even attend session and when they attend, they have nothing to contribute. Again, while the budgets of other sectors are usually implemented in breach, that of the National Assembly is always completely released. Sometime the leadership borrows huge money, knowing that the executive would be pressured to release all its allocations.”