Nigerian lawmakers and the corruption stigma

After their inauguration last month and the election of principal officers to pilot the affairs of their respective assemblies, the National and State Houses of Assembly are set for work, having just resumed from their first recess. The parliament is one of the symbols of democracy as it is populated by the representatives of the people.

Quite unfortunately, it is the most vilified among the three arms of government. For the 29 years that Nigerians endured military rule, the parliament was the main casualty. It was always scrapped by the military after every successful coup. The junta often constituted itself into both the executive and the legislative arms with formation of ruling councils be it Armed Forces Ruling Council or Supreme Military Council. These councils rule by decrees at the centre and edicts at the state level.

Even after the restoration of civil rule, the parliament is still treated as an extension of the Presidency or Government Houses. It took a while for the National Assembly to be granted financial and administrative autonomy, while that of the State Houses of Assembly did not come until June 2018. This lack of independence has rubbed off negatively on the performance of Nigeria’s parliament.

The legislative assemblies, be it federal, state or local, are saddled with some major functions, namely, lawmaking, appropriation (power to approve budgets); oversight  and approval of the President’s and the governors’ key nominations, such as those of ministers, ambassadors, heads of some departments and agencies of government, et cetera. Lawmakers pass resolutions on issues of public concern for the executive arm to implement. Unfortunately, many of the resolutions are largely ignored by the President or governors.

There is a near unanimity of views among the general public that Nigerian lawmakers are overpaid and underperformed. It is said that they rank among the highest paid among their peers globally. The perception that they collect jumbo pay led newly elected Senate President Ahmed Ibrahim Lawan to publicly declare recently that there is nothing of such as his salary is just N750,000, This claim was countered by the chairman of Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay who alleged that Lawan was speaking half-truth as the total emolument of a senator in a month is about N15m inclusive of allowances. This has not been rebutted by the Senate President.

It would have been okay if Nigerian lawmakers were contented with their jumbo salaries and allowances, but delivered on their constitutional mandates. Unfortunately, they are often enmeshed in all kinds of corruption scandals. In the last two decades of this Fourth Republic, there have been several allegations of bribe-for-budget, in which case the members of the National Assembly are alleged to demand hefty bribes in order for the budgets of ministries, departments and agencies, better known as MDAs, to pass as proposed by the President or governors or even get increased.

There have also been claims that Nigerian lawmakers demand bribes from nominees of the executive in order to be cleared by the NASS.  One of those who have made such a claim in the past is Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, when he was nominated for a ministerial job by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

It has also been severally claimed that Nigeria’s lawmakers at all levels use the opportunity of their oversight functions to corruptly enrich themselves. It is alleged that they do this by demanding financial inducements or other favours, such as contracts or employment opportunities for members of their families and cronies.

On Friday, March 29, 2019, the Director-General of the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control, Prof Mojisola Adeyeye, said she was once asked for bribe by the House of Representatives Committee on Healthcare Services. Speaking when she featured on a Channels TV programme, Adeyeye said members of the committee asked her for the bribe in the form of “money for welfare” when they visited her in December, 2017.

Earlier on May 28, 2018, a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega, accused the members of the National Assembly of bribe taking. He said chairmen of committees in the NASS were more notorious for bribe-taking antics. Jega made the allegation in Abuja, while delivering a lecture entitled, “Peace building and good governance for sustainable development in Nigeria,” as part of the activities organised to mark the 2018 Democracy Day event.

Even probe panels set up by National and State Houses of Assembly are avenues for corrupt enrichment. A good case in point was the infamous probe of petroleum subsidy in 2012 by an ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives. Recall that in that unsavoury episode, Farouk Lawan, then Chairman of the House Ad-hoc Committee on investigation into fuel subsidy regime demanded a $3m bribe, out of which he got $500,000 for the removal of Femi Otedola’s company’s name, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, from the list of firms indicted by his committee for allegedly abusing the fuel subsidy regime.

Obasanjo and the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari had raised several issues over the attitude of the National Assembly on budget matters. Obasanjo, on more than one occasion, had blatantly called members of the NASS thieves.

 In November 2014, the former president lampooned the National Assembly, describing it as largely an assemblage of looters and thieves. He was speaking at the public presentation of the autobiography of Justice Mustapha Akanbi, in Abuja. However, he said there were a few exceptions, people who stood out and would not succumb to the scourge of sleaze, even in the federal legislature.

President Buhari has at several times condemned the National Assembly for passing un-implementable budgets due to several project insertions. Even, one of its own, a former chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the House of Reps in the Eighth National Assembly, Abdulmumini Jubrin,  took the leadership and principal officers of the House to cleaners for what he termed “budget padding”. Recall also that 11 members of the House of Representatives led by Dino Melaye, then member of House of Reps, were suspended in June 2010 after accusing Speaker Dimeji Bankole of grand theft involving N9bn between 2008 and 2009.

More often than not, the sacking of Speakers and other principal officers of State Houses of Assembly almost always border on allegations of corruption. What all of these accounts of allegations of sleaze against Nigerian lawmakers goes to show is that the institution has an image problem and it needs to have introspection.

Now that another legislative term of four years has commenced at all the States and National Assemblies, I enjoin our lawmakers to be mindful of public perception and try to comport themselves. They need to be accountable to their constituents at whose pleasure they are in parliament. It is for the purpose of accountable leadership that they are given money to set up constituency offices which are staffed and equipped by the government.

In the spirit of Open Government Partnership that Nigeria signed on to, there is need for the legislative houses not only to make their budgets known, but also they should make public the breakdown including how much they receive as emoluments, inclusive of allowances. The issues of arm-twisting MDAs for undue pecuniary benefits should stop forthwith, while incidences of “budget padding” should be discontinued. I also advocate for all anti-corruption bills that may be sponsored in parliament to be given expeditious hearing same way they pass the N30,000 minimum wage bill early this year.

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