The Hub

August 8, 2013

Legislators, cats of nine lives

Legislators, cats of nine lives

File Photo: Cross section of House of Representatives members at the National Assembly in Abuja Photo : Gbemiga Olamikan

By Josef Omorotionmwan
PEOPLE asking for Sovereign National Conference for the purpose of giving this country a Constitution certainly know what they are talking about. There is no way serving legislators can amend the Constitution without amending themselves into it.

But each time the suggestion is made, our legislators quickly see it as an indictment on them. Can they now see how they have turned the National Assembly to the theatre of the absurd? There are those who want adulthood defined by their appetite for infant wives.

Do we still have a Constitution now? Has that instrument not been amended beyond recognition? As a prelude to the 2011 general elections, they amended some 400 clauses in that Constitution and preparatory to the 2015 elections, they are in the process of amending some 87 clauses. Who still knows what is where in that patch-patch Constitution? Yet, since 1791 the US whose Constitution we lifted almost wholesale has altered only 14 clauses in its Constitution!

Suddenly, the Senate President and his Deputy as well as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and his Deputy have been awarded life pensions and these must be pushed into the Constitution. This does immense violence to the dictionary definition of pension as an amount of money paid regularly as retirement benefit by government or company to somebody who is considered too old or too ill to work.

While it makes no sense to bestow pension rights on a member simply because he was a presiding officer, it also makes no sense to deny pension rights to any member who stays long enough in the legislature, whether he was a presiding officer or not. After all, no member contested an election as a presiding officer from his constituency.

On this issue, we intend to call only two witnesses; but before doing so, we must quickly mention that the question of who gets pension and who does not should not be enshrined in the Constitution. It should be left for subsidiary legislation so that it can be amended whenever necessary.

We invite Senator David Bonaventure Alechenu Mark: Distinguished, today, you occupy the third highest office in Nigeria. Congratulations.

But deep down, you are aware that you have never decisively won any election that got you to the National Assembly. We are not too sure, as we speak, that some of your election cases may not still be hanging somewhere in the judicial maze. But that is not at issue here.

Early in life, you went into the Nigerian Army, where you served meritoriously. You also retired without blemish and this country put you on life pension. Much as you may be unwilling, your colleagues are in the process of foisting another life pension on you.

We think you should resist them before they inaugurate you into the cat of nine lives. Your political star has not dimmed. By the time you may become the President of Nigeria, you will also get a third life pension. The question is: How many life pension points can one man have in one life time? There are many legislators in this category.

Enter Farouk Muhammad Lawan (Bagwai/Shanono-Kano State): You are a fourth-time member of the House of Representatives. You enrolled in politics soon after graduating from the university. At the time you opted for politics, some of your friends went into the Civil Service and other endeavours. At retirement, your friends will be entitled to pensions.

It will be grossly unfair to deny you pension rights simply because you opted for politics where you could not rise to Speakership. It is immaterial that you may now be collecting “paje” (small-small chops) from the legislature. Those are the spoils of office. After all, those Customs officers who have mansions in major capitals of the world are not denied pension on retirement.

Many career politicians like Abdul Ahmed Ningi (Bauchi State), Samson Raphael Osagie (Edo State), etc., some of whom started from their states, belong to this category. We expect this to engage the attention of the National Assembly.

When it comes to playing to the gallery, the House of Representatives is certainly smarter than the Senate. This is what the much-touted idea of autonomy for the local governments has shown.

The Reps know that the State Houses of Assembly – where the Governors hold sway – are waiting. On issues affecting the Governors, all of them are on the same page: they will soon show that Governors Amaechi and Jang could be the best of friends.

They will not watch helplessly as you drive a sharp knife across their throats. In the months ahead, we shall see how issues of interest to the Governors will go.

Have we really noticed how inextricably Section 7 of the Constitution tied the local governments to the apron strings of the states? One mistaken impression is that local government autonomy starts and ends with direct allocation from the federation account. Full autonomy recognises, in its entire ramification, that whatever is good for the first and second tiers is also good for the third tier.

This is where the House of Representatives has flunked the first test of its seriousness on local government autonomy: They bestowed life pensions on Presidents and Vice Presidents; Governors and their Deputies, but remained stoically silent on LG Chairmen and their Vice.

Essentially, Section 7 of our 1999 Constitution and actual autonomy for local governments are incongruent. By seeking to transfer the issue of local government elections to INEC, the Reps have violated the provisions of the aforementioned Section 7, which stipulates, “…every State Government shall ensure the existence of the Local Government Council under a Law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such Councils”.

Under this section, it is the duty of each state government to decide whether to retain its Electoral Commission, handover to INEC or even invite the United Nations to conduct its local government elections.