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Senate and burden of N5.5B luxury vehicles

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The plan to purchase of Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) by the Senate has continued to elicit mixed reactions from Nigerians. Indeed, the issue of procurement of four-wheel automobiles has become a recurring source of public antagonism. In 2017, at the height of the sustained attack on the President of Eighth Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, Nigerians were taken aback, when an SUV, allegedly imported by the then Senate President was impounded by the Nigeria Customs Services (NCS). 
   
Not that alone, right from 1999 when Nigeria regained the path of multi-party presidential democracy, procurement has constituted a nagging problem for the National Assembly. The late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo was impeached from office as the second President of Senate in the fourth republic based on allegations of fraud bordering on anticipated approval of funds for Sallah gifts to some eminent Muslim leaders.
 
But, none of the above instances attracted national outrage as the current moves by the Ninth Senate to spend a whopping N5.5b for the importation of 109 SUVs for the Senators.
 
Following critical comments and litigations bordering on the rational for the expensive procurement of these luxurious operational vehicles as the lawmakers described them, the Senate leadership came out boldly to justify the plan, stressing that it was reflected in the 2019 budget.
   
Senate Leader, Yahaya Abdullahi, recently lashed out at those upbraiding the federal lawmakers for their decision to spend N5.5b to purchase foreign SUVs for each of the 109 members.
   
While describing opponents of the plan as ‘simply ignorant’, Senator Abdullahi said it was insulting and demeaning that some otherwise enlightened commentators should kick against the procurement plan.He compared Senators to ministers that move around in convoys of four SUVs each, saying that since the public raised no eyebrows, there was nothing to cry over as far as the plan was concerned.
 
The Senate Leader said: “The N5.5b is from the National Assembly fund and not money being sought from any other source. Besides, the scheme as it has always been with previous Assemblies, is a monetised one, requiring each of the lawmakers to pay back the cost of whatever vehicle given to them.
   
“The outcry over it is very unnecessary and insulting to the Institution of the National Assembly and status of the federal lawmakers. When I was a Permanent Secretary, I know what ministers get; we cannot even compare ourselves with ministers, because we are higher than the ministers.
 
“The work that we do is more than that of ministers and as representatives of the people, the money we spend on a daily basis to all forms of indigent people, far outweighs whatever ministers or executive officers spend.” He maintained that the Senators’ operations and spendings are in line with the principles of accountability and transparency the 9th National Assembly stands for.
   
A member of the 7th Senate, Anthony Agbo expressed the view that based on series of assignments undertaken by lawmakers such caliber of vehicles are usually preferred to withstand wear and tear.He decried the mistaken notion that operational vehicles are for luxury or status, stressing that Nigerians are yet to fully understand the duties and responsibilities of lawmakers.

Rage Over Cost
IN March 2017, after much hullaballoo, the Senate through its Media and Publicity Secretary, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, conceded that it bought a bullet proof Range Rover Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) as widely reported.However, the Senator declared that contrary to media speculation that the vehicle was imported at the cost of N298m, it was actually procured at the cost of $298, 000 (N49.1m).
   
Although the spokesman of the 8th Senate noted that the vehicle purchase order was placed in 2015, when the exchange rate was N165 to a dollar, there are indications that the current estimate of N5.5b might be wrong after all as the calculation was computed along the N49.1million threshold, that is approximately N50m.
   
The cost of importing the luxury vehicles at a time of the nation’s socio-economic travails is at the root of the uproar and opposition. However, a former Speaker of House of Representatives, Alhaji Ghali Umar Na’Abba, argued that the “cost of governance must always be looked at or juxtaposed against the needs and the requirements of the country.”
   
In an interview with The Guardian, the former Speaker said: “We have a country that is diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally and people complain about two chambers at the federal level.“We have the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The House of Representatives is contemplated for on the basis of population of the state. You find out therefore that states like Lagos or Kano have 23 and 24 members, whereas states like Bayelsa, Gombe and Zamfara have about five, six or seven members respectively.“That is why the Senate was created for the system to provide for equality so when you want to balance, there must be some cost attached to that balance so everything is opportunity cost.”

SUVs Versus Opportunity Cost
The argument about cost of running government was recently taken to another level when the Senate announced its intention to purchase brand new Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) for its 109 members.Part of the reason most Nigerians cried out in opposition to the purchase plan revolved around the issue of opportunity cost, which Na’Abba placed side by side with the need to balance ethnic and other geopolitical considerations in the make up of the federal legislature.
   
The erstwhile Speaker justified the expenditure in the belief “that in every job, mobility is very necessary and since the members cannot afford to buy cars, I think that the system must provide facilities with which they can engage in their jobs. 
 
“Transportation is necessary for any meaningful job to be executed, so I have no problem with legislators being bought vehicles in order for them to carry out their functions.”But, the ugly side was that the revelation that the ad hoc Welfare Committee set up by the President of the ninth Senate, Ahmad Lawan, overlooked local content consideration of Sports Utility Vehicles assembled by local firms when it recommended the purchase of the so-called operational vehicles for the lawmakers.
 
It was gathered that the welfare committee led by Senator Abubakar did not factor in the propositions from some members that local vehicle manufacturing companies be approached for the procurement.Sources within the committee confided in The Guardian that virtually all the members of the welfare committee contended that the quality of locally produced SUVs cannot be guaranteed.
 
A particular senator from the northern part of the country said the committee settled for the foreign vehicles based on the fact that the vehicles are in form of loan to the members.
 
Although the Senators would conclude plans for the procurement when they resume next week, part of the considerations is that the cost of the brand new SUVs (Toyota Land Cruiser) to be imported would be borne by the Senators and deducted from their emoluments.Going by the conservative market price of N50million of the Japanese made vehicles, if the final purchase plan sails through, the sum of N5.5b would have been taken out of the country’s economy.

Uproar, Litigations
STUNG by the cold reality of the likely impact of such a humongous expenditure, some rights groups and good governance advocates berated the upper legislative chamber for giving prime consideration to luxurious and ostentatious display at a time of great economic hardship in the country.For instance, groups like the Socio+Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL) not only described the vehicle purchase budget as unjust and unfair, but also decided to drag the lawmakers to court.
   
CACOL argued that the planned expenditure “negates the constitutional oath of office sworn to by members to perform their functions in the interest of the well-being and prosperity of Nigeria and its citizens, as contained in the Seventh Schedule of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended).”
 
While calling on Nigerians to rise in unison to denounce the plan, CACOL declared: “In a country that has various economic challenges, the oversight function of the lawmakers shouldn’t be based on purchasing luxury cars, where other things are lying down, such amount of money can help in fixing the health and the education sectors in the country.”
 
On its part, SERAP and other groups, including BugIT and Enough is Enough (EiE) in a suit FHC/L/CS/1511/2019 filed at the Federal High Court, sought an order restraining the lawmakers from going ahead with the plan to spend N5.5b on luxurious four wheel drive vehicles.
 
The plaintiffs are also asking the court for an order to have the cost pruned down, claiming among other grounds: “That the proposed spending by the ninth Senate raises pertinent questions: What is the economic value and contribution of the vehicles sought to be purchased to the grand scheme of Nigeria’s economy? What are the parameters used to arrive at cost efficiency and value for money in the decision to purchase the vehicles?  Where are the vehicles purchased by the 8th Senate?

“The failure or refusal by the Senate to comply with legal and constitutional provisions is nothing but an act of arbitrariness. The money could be better allocated to more important sectors of the National Assembly expenditure, especially like constituency projects.”

But the Senate, apart from dismissing the litigation as the handiwork of detractors, said there was no such plan to spend N5.5billion on SUVs adding, “if the Senate is going to spend that (amount); if it is budgeted for, then it means it is purely legal.”
 
Senate spokesman, Senator Adedayo Adeyeye, who spoke to journalists on the matter, wondered; “why the National Assembly is different? Why are they focusing on the National Assembly and not looking at the Executive, Judiciary arms of government? All of these people are entitled to official cars and do use official cars.
 
“Directors of agencies, even minor officials in agencies use official cars. So why will the National Assembly be different? Why should it be a problem that the National Assembly is entitled to cars, to use official cars?”Yet, a former President of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) Segun Ajibola, said the development was disturbing, given that the government was resorting to borrowing to fund the budget.

 
Ajibola, who is also a professor of Economics, wondered how the Senators would feel comfortable to spend such a huge amount when the payment of salaries, especially the minimum wage is causing some hiccups for the government.
 
Decrying the rising cost of governance, Ajibola stated: “There should be cheaper ways to take care of the transportation needs of lawmakers…Why import, aren’t there ways of domesticating this, rather than allowing another leakage from the economy? The economy at large is the ultimate loser, because the gain of the exporter becomes Nigeria’s loss.”
   
No matter how the Senate tries to justify the planned expenditure, the SUV purchase plan would form part of the challenges it would face from a very disturbed electorate that have been served short shrift by the current presidential democracy.


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Ahmad Ibrahim LawanSenate
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