The pepper soup legislature

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By Josef Omoriotionmwan
EVERY beginning, no matter how small, is difficult. That explains why our generation has aptly been described as the era of cruel and unusual punishment; and the age of torture. Everything we had came the hard way.

Today’s children would find it difficult to believe that every morning, we had to trek to the village stream, which was some three kilometres away, to fetch water before preparing for school, which was another one kilometre from home.

In our book-keeping class of latter years, we had to cast the Trial Balance (a foolscap page long of nerve-cracking figures) off head; whereas all you need now is to know the formula and at the touch of a button, the answer appears.

This phenomenal growth has been an all-round one, not just on the positive side alone. Lying and stealing, for instance, have become easy. Somebody can be next door to you in Benin City and he will be telling you that he is speaking from Abuja.

The few cashiers who embezzled their organisation’s money in those days arranged to have themselves severely bruised all over their bodies as a proof that they were attacked by armed robbers on their way to the bank and the money was taken from them.

Our legislatures are not yet equipped to carry out any oversight on the executive; until we are ready to put our money where our mouth is, it will continue to be corruption unlimited; and stealing unabated

A good part of the stolen money was recovered and they still went to prison for seven years. But today, people are stealing billions without lifting a finger and nothing is happening to them.

We have consistently tongue-lashed our legislators for their bogus salaries and allowances. That is because the figures have been standing alone. There has been no basis for actual comparison. In a more civilized clime, a central bank governor who complains that legislators are overpaid would start by telling the people how much he earns. He would tell them how much the President and his ministers earn. We do not have any of these. Meanwhile, our Central Bank has become a republic within a republic.

Until we accept that it takes at least two to tango, we shall continue to scratch corruption on the surface. How does somebody steal N50 billion? Does he haul it in a trailer or in a tipper or simply on his head?  Or is it by telegraphic or telephonic transfer? Who does the paper work? All those who aided the stealing must not go unpunished.

And this foolish oil money is apparently inexhaustible. Otherwise, in a local government setting, for instance, anytime the chairman steals, you must look downwards to find how much the council secretary, accountant, treasurer and internal auditor have stolen. The practice of holding the politician and leaving the officials who aided and participated in the crime simply begs the question.

The truth is that we don’t have a system yet. Until we have a system, this rot continues. At the end of a maximum stay of eight years in Government House, the Governor goes to jail while the legislators who gave him his annual appropriations walk home in full freedom. There is something wrong.

A system is a chain which can only be as strong as its weakest link. The approval of this year’s budget presupposes that the legislators are satisfied with what the governor did with last year’s appropriations. That is the essence of the legislative oversight of the executive, so called.

Essentially, the once a year jamboree which our legislators currently undertake is more of a visit or legislative tour than an oversight. For the purpose of oversight, what we have now could, at best, only qualify for pepper soup legislatures. Our legislatures are not yet equipped to carry out any oversight on the executive. Until we are ready to put our money where our mouth is, it will continue to be corruption unlimited; and stealing unabated. The watchdog cannot be less sophisticated than the thief.

By nature’s arrangement, the legislature is supposed to be the eldest son in the government family because it makes the law which the executive implements and it is when there is question on interpretation that the Judiciary intervenes. The incessant intervention of the military has destroyed all that. The legislature has been reduced to the weakest son in the family. Each time the military intervened, the Legislature was dissolved while the Executive and Judiciary remained in place. Whereas the two other branches of government have gone ahead to acquire their Masters degree and PhD, over time, the legislature has remained stunted at the level of BA (Begin Again) each time the military returned to the barracks.

Whereas in the US, for instance, some senators and congressmen have retained their seats for upwards of 30 years, with the expertise and experience that go with such long periods, our National Assembly members are, by comparison, all freshmen.

Again, to catch a monkey, you must behave like a monkey. To be able to carry out real oversight on the Executive, the Legislature must be equipped with equally qualified and experienced staff. In the US, each senator has close to 100 staff and there is no way they can be outwitted by the Executive.  This is in addition to the committees that are also equipped to the teeth with men and materials.

But in Nigeria, a senator has a budget provision for five staff and there is no control over how many he actually engages and their competence. The committees are virtually zero on equipment and personnel. A lucky committee may have one functional car attached to it. When the committee members go for the so-called oversight, they must rely on the organisation they are visiting to provide them transport and that is the very beginning of compromise.

In all this, we have a clear choice between spending real money, building a virile legislature that can truly carry out proper oversight that will in turn minimize corruption; and remaining in the dark alley, where dubiety, corruption and confusion shall continue to reign supreme. Which way, Nigeria?

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