By Tonnie Iredia
At the opening of a 2-day retreat for our 36 incoming ministers last Thursday, President Muhammadu Buhari made the point again that his administration would run a lean government at all levels, to avoid wastage of public funds. The president therefore charged the participants to key into the change agenda of government, as they constitute the main vehicle that would administer the change to Nigerians adding that the administration would be assessed based on the number of Nigerians it is able to lift out of poverty. The President could not have put it better.
But will the ministers follow both the letter and the spirit of the charge for the betterment of the people? On the basis of precedence, not many Nigerians believe that the charge will be so handled. But bearing in mind that Buhari is a no nonsense leader, the ministers have no option but to obey because they can get fired for non-performance. Thus, some of us are hopeful that things may soon change. However, if the executive branch becomes sane as a result of purposeful leadership; can the same happen in the other 2 arms of government especially the legislature? This is the core issue which Nigeria’s development faces today.
Corruption which is the main complaint against the Judiciary can easily be solved because corrupt judges are few compared to the numerous men and women of integrity in that arm. But the case of the legislature is a different ball game; and if we must call a spade by its name, our law making arm is not just a problem of some greedy members. Rather it is a systemic problem in which the institution itself through its instruments of rules, resolution and debates creates conducive room for business as usual making it impossible for that arm to be part of the change agenda Nigerians voted for in the last set of elections in the country.
This year however we were all relieved to hear that the National Assembly on its own was reviewing downwards the huge resources it used to garner. In addition, our legislators started to canvass people oriented issues; a case in point being its stance against the crazy idea of paying a whooping sum of N2.7bn severance package to some members of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).
All of a sudden, the nation stared hearing about the fight by some legislators to get appointed into what is now popularly called “juicy” committees where they can become wealthy over night by exhorting favours from government ministries, departments and agencies which fall under their oversight functions.
At first, the rumour of a likely return of that unacceptable old order looked like a joke more so as some legislators dismissed the rumour. Indeed, Sani Zoro, a federal legislator and an evidently progressive former President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) warned that the alleged lobbying or scrambling would encourage business as usual and thwart “the change mantra of the All Progressives Congress-led administration.” Some analysts may have believed that no such thing would happen following the speech of the new speaker while presenting his Legislative Agenda where he proposed to merge, streamline or scrap committees with duplicating functions. Painfully, the committees have increased from 89 to 97. In the Senate, the same pressure moved the figure from 57 to 65.
How can an organization of 109 members divide itself into 65 groups-will each group have up to two members? It is disheartening that the committees increased against the run of play. First, in the United States of America, from where we reportedly got our Presidential system of government, the Senate has 16 Standing Committees while there are 21 in the House of Representatives.
Second, our legislature now has a proliferation of committees as existing committees have been split so as to have more chairmen and vice. For example, the existing committee on Education was split into Basic Education Services and Tertiary Education Committees. The one on Health was cut into 2 to get the committee on Health Institutions different from the one on Healthcare Services. Similarly, the existing committee on Agriculture was split into one committee on agricultural colleges and institutions and another on agricultural production and services. Now, there is also a committee on Niger Delta Affairs different from the one on the Niger Delta Development Commission.
Third, there is in fact a phenomenon like “juicy” committees. For instance, Appropriations Committee where budgets can be manipulated is regarded as the juiciest. For this reason, any member of the Committee can now not chair another committee. Also, a member of that Committee cannot belong to other juicy Committees like Public Accounts, Finance and House Services.
This notwithstanding, many legislators are aggrieved. While one showed his displeasure by rejecting what he got right on the floor of the House, another member, Garba Chede who represents Bali/Gassol Federal Constituency of Taraba State used the media to call for a reversal of the selection process which according to him gave all the juicy Committees, to the minority PDP.
The situation in the Senate is not different as some members accused their embattled President, Senator Saraki of sharing the juicy committees between his major loyalists and the arrow heads of his rival group. Senators Ahmed Lawan, George Akume and eleven others in their group were reportedly given juicy committees to calm frayed nerves. At the same time, some PDP supporters of Saraki got the juicy committees on Public Accounts, Air Force, Downstream, Finance, Interior, Privatizations and Environment among others.
Considering that the nation cannot sustain the cost of running these unwieldy committees, this is the time for well meaning Nigerians and civil society groups to counsel the national assembly to reverse itself and follow the executive in its resolve to do away with large expensive frameworks. A committee on Defence for example, can handle the entire military. Splitting committees for gain in the legislature should change because it is as wrong as splitting contracts in the executive. We therefore call on our legislators to lead by example.