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National Assembly: You are so primitive; only primitive people do this type of thing – Engr Tukur

By Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief & Oscar Onwuemenyi

The controversy over the jumbo pay at the legislative arm of the federal government has refused to die down, despite explanations by the law makers that they got 9 per cent and not  25 per cent of the overhead  budget in the 2010 fiscal year.  The legislators have even agreed to cut their pay in the 2011 budget but still remain under fire.

In this interview with the former Chairman of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, Engr. Hamman Tukur, he said legislators must not act as if they are contractors whose only interest is to maximize profit. He also condemned what he termed “primitive wealth acquisition” by public officers.

Excerpts:

The Federal legislature has been in the news lately for self-allocation of huge funds. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, pulled the lead off the finances of the National Assembly when he said the legislature takes 25 per cent of the Federal Government’s overhead costs. But the legislators insist they got only 9 per cent. What is your view on the matter?

Why should the statement by Sanusi bring about any controversy at all? It is not the percentage that matters, whether it is 25, 10 or 9 per cent is not important. The issue at stake, in my opinion, is: can the National Assembly justify the amount of money being spent on them?

Engr. Tukur

It is also not a matter of spending on overhead or recurrent or whatever, the question is: what is the total package that Nigerians are paying their legislators?  Are they worth it, did they earn it? If a Senator or a member of the House is taking more than is within the rule of law, it is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether it is one naira or ten naira, it is still theft!

Why should they overreact over a simple statement by the Governor of the Central Bank, unless they are feeling guilty. As they say, the guilty are always afraid. At any rate, Nigerians should be asking questions of the Clerk of the National Assembly, who is the Chief Accounting Officer of the legislative arm of government.

He is the one to account for every single suspected money being paid to the National Assembly, if it is correct or…he must produce authority – who asked him to pay such money? There is a report in the papers saying that the Speaker, Bankole was forced to increase payment of the members to N42 million quarterly.

Who gave the Speaker the authority to approve anything for anybody? Nigerians should remember that the Speaker is just one member of the House of Representatives who happened to have been elected by his colleagues; there is never an election for the position of the speaker, and the person can be changed every week if they so demand.

So, under what circumstances would the Speaker approve all that money, under what law or authority did he approve the said sum of money? In my view, the Clerk should be held responsible for such a misapplication of national resources.

Coming back to the Sanusi issue, in my view, it is not the percentage that matters. The amount of money being taken by these people, is it justified? Is it within the rule of law? If the answer is yes, then Sanusi would be wrong, but if the answer is no, then, of course, the National Assembly members are guilty and the CBN governor is right.

We should not stop at saying they are wrong, but insist that there should be proper restitication. Nigerians trusted these people, especially the Senators.  Many of whom held big public offices before they were elected into the Senate.

In fact, at their level, they should serve Nigeria free of charge; they should all be ready to offer free service to the country as happens in other climes, especially in Europe. I am saying that Senators should offer Nigerians free service, then we can look up to them for guidance. And not for them to be involved in these fishy things, and then get over-suspicious by a simple comment from the CBN governor: what’s the big deal about what he said?

It is clearly stated in Section 70 of the constitution that the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission shall determine the salaries and any other allowances of members of the state and National Assembly legislatures. Note that even after the salaries, every other imaginable allowance has been included in the package they are supposed to take.

Therefore, no other naira can be earned by any legislator in Nigeria outside of this package, but it is obvious that this is not really the case today. According to the latest reviewed package, the annual basic salary for a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is N2,026,400. On a monthly basis, the basic salary of a Senator is N168, 866.66. We have included outside of the basic salary any imaginable allowance such as motor vehicle allowance, fuelling allowance.

We can only give them maintenance allowance for their vehicles as under the monetisation policy of government, no legislator should be given a car; he or she should take a loan just like civil servants, and pay over the period of your tenure as a legislator. When some time ago, the House of Representatives bought about 400 vehicles, claiming they were for committees in the House, we asked who authorised that, and for what committees?

Why should they buy so many vehicles, or any vehicle for that matter? We also told the legislators not to stay in houses above the standard of Apo Village in the FCT, for two reasons: one is so they can remain close to the people they are supposed to be representing in order to have the true picture of things and appreciate their daily problems. The second reason was for security reasons in case of a coup d’etat.

This is in order to ensure their own security, as well as to safeguard our democracy and our nation. Under those circumstances, we agreed to give them an allowance for them to rent a place, in case they are outside. Therefore, we included domestic allowance, utilities allowance and entertainment allowance. We also gave them security allowance to cover for their guards. Note that legislative aides are to be provided for by the Bureaucracy of the National Assembly, not by the legislators. Every single chairman of a committee  and their vice are given an allowance, therefore there is no excuse for him or her to take anything else.

There is even an allowance to cover for their newspapers and periodicals! Now, the issue of constituency projects is a warped one. The purpose of constituency is not to include constituency projects in the budget. We noted that as politicians representing specific areas, they would require offices to host people from these constituencies who bring their complaints, and an allowance was made for the maintenance of this office, including hiring an office clerk and a secretary to sort their mails and other constituency-related business.

Tukur

We discussed these issues with them before the allowances were fixed. The sum total of these allowances, for Senators comes to about N683,910. 12. We also give them handsome severance packages at the expiration of their tenure to enable them earn a living after serving the people. This package is very generous and amounts to about 300 per cent of their basic salary. What are they complaining about?

The legislature gave themselves  N159 billion in this year’s budget and it appears that beyond their salaries and allowances, the money could have been too large that they are tempted to create ways of spending it. Apparently, they are not satisfied with the package and have continued to explore and exploit every possible avenue of taking money out of the national purse.

In this year’s budget alone, the National Assembly has over 159 billion, to do what? And of course, by the time their salaries and allowances are covered, they find a way to push the balance into ‘overheads’, including travels and the like. But, unfortunately, why should legislators charge money for ‘travels’ when they have cars that are fuelled and maintained by government?

They have to pay for hotel accommodation and have to feed

My problem is that these legislators have not addressed the main issues. Nigerians elected them to represent their interests so that there would be development in the country. They are supposed to act as the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. Let them provide the leadership, for goodness’ sake, so that every single Nigerian will enjoy better quality of life. They should not just keep accumulating money, to do what with it?

If you are giving over N40 million every quarter, what will you do with it? How could a responsible legislator receive N10 million every month in Nigeria, giving the circumstances we are in” no schools, no hospitals, no roads, no rail, no power supply, no jobs for hundreds of thousands of youths, haba!

Given the huge cost of maintaining our legislators at every level of government, some people have advocated making service in the legislature a part-time job. Some have even suggested that members be paid only for the number of times they come to plenary, given that a lot of them rarely show up for plenary sessions. What do you think of that?

When I was at RMAFC, we thought it is a minimum of about 180 days in a year that they members sit and considered paying them for just the number of days they work. However, we went to the Constitution and discovered that it specified that they be paid ‘salary’ and ‘other allowances.’

You see, a salary cannot be a part- time payment. Salaries are being paid to legislators in Nigeria only because the word ‘salary’ appeared in the Constitution, otherwise, we would have paid them for only the 180 days they come in to work, or depending on the number of days a representative attends. In that situation, the RMAFC would have undertaken to monitor all the sessions of all the 36 legislatures across the country. But, we have to abide by what the constitution says.

Does that mean if any change is to be made on the wage structure of the National Assembly, we would have to amend the Constitution?

Definitely! It is there in Section 70 of the Constitution. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that it is a very expensive legislature. Maybe, the question is: should we have gone ahead with the Presidential system of government knowing it would become very expensive? I mean, how can you justify the fact that such an amount is spent on a National Assembly that can only boasts of passing 13 bills out of a possible 199 in a year?

It is a shame! come on, you spend all these billions when you are supposed to make laws and you just sit there, and you say people should not comment? I don’t know what is wrong with our country. You are not contractors to your own country.

We must not behave like contractors to maximize profit and then disappear. This is our country, who else is going to develop it? You are in authority, for goodness sake, and you have to be serious and get everything for Nigeria. You must be productive. What about the rampant insecurity and the cases of armed robbery all over the place? What about hundreds of thousands of youths that leave the universities every year and have no jobs?

What a country! Are we not ashamed of ourselves? And you sit there in those legislative houses and you think that you are running a democracy?

The CBN governor made a comment, is this how you are going to run a democracy, and you concentrate on what you earn. Come on, You are so primitive; only primitive people do this type of thing. Only primitiveness produce this kind of result. How can you? Development must get to the grassroots, every Nigerian must be in it and live comfortably. Do you see what is happening? We are closing down our industries, unemployment is increasing; no efficient rail system. C’mon, in 2010!

And we say we are running a democracy, we have resources, and we have oil money! Primitive people! It is so annoying, so frustrating, and all you hear in the media is politics and contesting elections; contesting elections to do what? Nigeria seems to be going backwards. It’s a shame!

A lot of people believe that as Chairman of the RMAFC,  you were instrumental to this jumbo pay they now receive. People opposed it but you said that you wanted to make them comfortable…

(Cuts in) No! Forget about that! Comfort? What do you mean? Believe me, we used the salaries of the civil servants as the benchmark to fix the basic salary of these legislators. The issue of jumbo pay is self-given. In this Presidential system of government, and because we are more or less operating outside the rule of law, the legislators will now insert various amounts of money in order to take care of themselves.

Who told them and under what rule? The Executive reserves the responsibility to prepare the budget and the judiciary and legislature must go to the executive to present their budgets in a single economy. If by the time the proposed budget goes to the National Assembly, they know where to just twist this or that, increase here or there.

I need to restate that whenever legislatures have issues with the budget they should only call upon the Governor in the state or the President in the National government; you cannot call on MDAs to defend what they did not give to you. Call the President who sent you the budget, so he in turn will send his representative or expert. You cannot call on people who did not send you anything.

This is why the whole saga around Oversight functions performed by the legislatures becomes another issue with transparency. According to the Constitution, this oversight function shall arise only if there is a problem about implementing a law or it is weak;

You find that in Nigeria, when these legislators go to the MDAs for this so-called oversight functions, that is where a lot of hanky-panky takes place.  You see, what kind of thing is this? Why do we do these in our own country, and everyday we talk about corruption, corruption!

My advice to the legislators is that if they are taking bribes they should return it!

You mentioned the Presidential system of government. Many people have argued that the Presidential system is very expensive for an emerging economy like Nigeria. Why not revert to the Cabinet system?

You see, I don’t even know why we adopted this system because we are not due for it, particularly, the American system we seemed to have copied hook, line and sinker! In my view, if you are coming out of several years of military dictatorship, you do not jump into a very expensive and unwieldy system as a Presidential system of government.

Besides, the Presidential system seems to lean more to the authoritarian or dictatorial style of governance that people are trying to run away from in the military regimes, with its President and Governors who possess almost autocratic powers of Chief Executives, and constitutions that give them powers to appoint and sack at will.

If you adopt the Parliamentary system, it is so directly opposite of a dictatorship because even the Ministers in a government are elected by the people, same as the Prime Minister, and they meet routinely to talk as peers, that way, they can tell one another the truth. That way, every one behaves. But what we often see with the Presidential system is one person ‘summoning’ another, in a very authoritative style to come and explain every statement!

It shows contempt, intimidation and verges on terrorism! I saw on TV that Sanusi was kept waiting for over two hours at the National Assembly. What kind of nonsense is that? This man is in charge of our national liquidity, and major economic policies, and he’s being made to wait for more than two hours while his work is suffering!

The Presidential system is far too expensive, and we have not matured enough to practise it.


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