Aziken, Adeniran, Onigbinde
Continued from yesterday
When anger piles up, anything can happen, but we don’t pray that anything untoward will happen but what we are saying is that the legislature must look at these things clearly so that what is fair, just and responsible in the context of the Nigerian economy prevails.
Onigbinde — Sincerely, the issue of National Assembly pay has been fundamental in the campaign that we started with EiE and SERAP was also involved. It started with what we called Our NASS and later when we saw that the message was not getting through, we started OPEN NASS.
And our campaign was that over the years, the National Assembly budget was always stuck in secrecy. The details were published before but former Senate President David Mark stopped publishing the details and it was so until this current fiscal year that the National Assembly published its budget.
This was a rigorous campaign and we also met the Senate President (Senator Bukola Saraki) and I am happy that they have taken it forward. By law, it is RMAFC that sets their salary, I think the salary that is being given to the National Assembly members is something that we can even deal with because if you look at the total amount of money that they will need for payment of salary in a year, it is not more than N9 billion for all the 469 legislators.
Now if you add another N10 billion because they have staff, aides, personnel and other overhead, the National Assembly would not need more than N20 billion in a year because a whole university that has over eight colleges, professors, research institutions does not get more than N13 billion in a year from the federal government and maybe another N1 billion from TETFUND. So how is the National Assembly with a single building be getting 10 times of what a university gets or more than 15 times what a teaching hospital gets from the Federal Government? And that has always been the bane of this country.
Another thing is that the National Assembly does not respect itself and does not recognize how important it is within the Nigerian framework. A lot of people say we are always on the National Assembly, we have to watch them because they are supposed to be the highest arm of government with the best accountability in a democracy. So they themselves must be accountable because he who comes to equity must come with clean hands and that has always been the argument.
If you look at the budget that was released this year, over 60% of the budget was overhead, another 20% was for administrative cost, like to buy cars, computers, equipment and sitting allowances and the rest. The entire civil service in the National Assembly, the National Assembly Civil Service Commission did not get more than N2 billion to N3 billion. The aides got almost N10 billion and I am wondering how many aides does a member of a National Assembly need? How is an aide in a National Assembly better paid than a professor in a University? Because the aides in the National Assembly get N9.6 billion and the personnel cost of most universities in Nigeria is not up to N9billion naira!
So why? All of these are tied to something they are not telling us and these are rigorous questions we have been trying to ask.
What could the National Assembly possibly do with N130 billion naira? The Nigeria Army does not get more than N140 billion for a whole year and this includes all the operations across the country.
The Nigerian Police that manages security across the entire country, their budget is about N300 billion for a whole year. A whole university gets about N13 billion and a teaching hospital in Nigeria gets about N12 billion. When you look at the figures, you will definitely agree something is wrong.
So, the question will always be there, what is the National Assembly doing with a N130 billion budget? And that’s why we need to continue to ask them these questions because this country just got out of recession recently with about 0.6% growth rate. I do not know where that will take us to. The issue is that we got out of recession but standard practice all over the world is that anytime the economy is nose-diving, the government is supposed to adopt some belt-tightening measures, so you can free up resources for the capital budget, free up resources for the private sector to expand growth. What you have seen in Nigeria is that they have just been topping the capital part of the budget, they keep the current budget rising as far as they can.
We have never seen the National Assembly even saying let us cut down on the number of our aides, there is nothing to show that we are in a time of want. Even the budget of state houses of Assemblies is around N15 billion naira or less. The judiciary has over 24 High courts in the country, they have the Court of Appeal in over 12 places in the country, the judiciary has their own staff and all the judges of the Supreme Court, their budget was about N70 billion for years and it was until recently their budget was raised to about N100 billion naira. So that’s is the problem because we do not have the details of how the money (National Assembly) get is spent.
But you have a single entity getting N130 billion, it is a travesty of justice and there needs to be more anger because beyond the budget that was published, they should give us a statement of account to say this is what exactly how our money is being spent on. That is where we need to move to.
In the United Kingdom, there is what is called Independent Parliamentary Standard Authority, they fix the salary of every legislator in the UK, so if you are a legislator in London or a legislator in Sunderland, your salaries are different, your constituency allowances are also different. Constituency allowance is a reflection of the average payout within the place you represent. In the United States, when you go to www.disbursement.house.gov you can see that every single member of the House of Representatives in the United States publishes his expenses online, every single expense even up to telephone call. In such places, aides work on the basis of the current work that is at hand, not aides that are permanent with you just like we have in Nigeria. Over there, they get aides based on the context of the job at hand, if they are dealing with energy, they get expert aides on energy that can give you expertise on energy and they are paid based on the number of hours they clock with you.
But here we just created another civil service and that is how we are. We spend more than almost four times of what the South African parliament spends and that is a country that has three times the size of our country’s federal budget. So, we have not sat back to ask ourselves what really is the problem? Let’s even forget about the budget because Nigeria’s budget is a huge joke. You are going to spend almost N2 billion on cars alone, you are going to spend almost N3 billion on committee meetings. We believe when you spend money, there is an audited account or a statement of account to show how you spent public money. I think they should allow Nigerians have access to how the money is spent, that is what we are saying.
Aziken: You led the campaign that the National Assembly should open up its National Assembly should open up its budget, how far has that campaign gone?
Mumuni: Let me tell you, the reason why that thing came out was that Professor Sagay raised the matter. He came out with a certain specific figure. What we simply did in our organization was to ask the National Assembly whether is it true and they should tell Nigerians. That was what happened. When we wrote the Senate President, he said he wanted to clarify it for us. I was out of the country but the deputy executive of SERAP was with them at that meeting with the Senate President. And the feedback that we got was that, what we are asking for is on their website. Somebody raised specific allegations and even quoted figures, you said you wanted to clarify it and you invited us to a meeting, you now asked us to go to your website. When we got to the website, what we got from the website was simply the budget of the National Assembly and that does not address the specifics of what Prof Sagay brought to the public. So, we never received any help directly from the Senate President.
Aziken: What is your reaction to this culture of secrecy concerning the budget of the National Assembly?
Adeniran: The culture of secrecy did not start just yesterday, it has always been there right from the military to the civilian governments. In the military days, the reason why you did not know the extent or the magnitude of corruption that took place was because of secrecy, they didn’t allow you to know anything.
But now that we are in the global village, we have the technology that could guide us, but we have an administrative system that can keep the technology at bay. As a matter of fact, instead of them to open up, they keep closing all the channels which you know. Before we got the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Bill passed, it was herculean, it took several years, several legislative regimes and all that. But when we eventually got it passed, it was a watered down Freedom of Information bill.
So, if you need any information from any public official, you need to be very patient and be deep-pocketed because you will have to go to court on every item that you ask them. They don’t care! Why? Because they can afford the cost of litigation from the government coffers and that is why you cannot keep on going to court and they know that our judicial system is such that you can take for granted and you are not likely to get to the end of that case. So, the culture of secrecy is entrenched by the extant laws that guide the operation of our public offices.
For example, we have the offices of accountant general and auditor general and even within the National Assembly management level, there are internal accountants and auditors, what are they doing? There is nobody playing oversight role over them and if any worker is not closely supervised, he is most likely to slack down and slacking is what all the controlling regulatory authorities over the expenditure of all the government organisation have done.
They are not being supervised and because the law is not operating the way it has been stated, nobody is being punished for not making information about expenditure public. If every month, the office of Auditor General brings out the report of the audited accounts, Nigerians will see what each legislator has spent.
It is the government that pays them all allowances, it is the state that buys them cars, gives them houses, their families use the best hospitals provided for by the government, so there is nothing they use their salaries on. When they travel, they get ecstacode, when they do anything outside their immediate environment, they get allowances.
They call something hardship allowance and you wonder what kind of hardship they go through in making laws, in amending laws and doing oversight functions.
For oversight functions, they have buses and despite that, they still bought several SUV’s that will take them to places they don’t have to go. They don’t use all of this equipment for the benefit of the people.
They know it is scandalous to show Nigerian people what they spend money on and that is why they keep it secret. If the Nigerian people know, when they get back to their constituencies, they will be stoned. And that is why we are campaigning that until when we begin to ostracize these people, who refused to deliver on the dividends of democracy upon which they were elected, they will not take necessary precautions in the way they live a reckless life.
So, to stop the regime of secrecy, we still have to go back to the laws, we have to ensure that all officials including auditor general and accountant general do their work the way they are supposed to do it. The Nigerian populace have to organise themselves towards ensuring adequate service delivery.
Onigbinde: The Holy Bible says if your work is good, you will bring it out for everybody to see. There is nothing much behind these problems more than corruption. That is why people like me find it difficult when people say this administration is fighting corruption when on certain issues, you don’t want to be transparent. The National Assembly intentionally does this because they understand that the lifestyle of its members is not in consonance with the prevailing economic condition in this country. I always tell my staff that a legislator will get a billion naira within the period of four years in the National Assembly. Can you explain to me how the National Assembly has spent over N1.3 trillion in the last 18 years since we started this democracy? So, the conversation would look at how much a Senator is earning. If what they earn is N29 million a month that is probably over a billion naira in four years. So, the transparency has to be there in terms of what they earn.
My mum retired from public service last month as a primary school teacher, her salary was N113,000 and she is even being owed two months salary and this is someone who worked for 35 years in government. But if you come as a politician, you will live large and we need to query this.
The issue of secrecy comes with the issue of corruption. But we are basically talking about people who come to work three times a week, who basically would be on recess at least for four months within a calendar year and besides budgets that are being passed, bills like PIB have been lingering and are yet to be passed, they have audit bill that has been lingering , we have strong punitive laws that have to do with corruption, they have not moved a motion on those things.
So we don’t understand what it is. Their case calls for retrospection because I believe they are the biggest organ of the government, they are people’s parliament and they represent every interest across Nigeria.
If they understand how important that institution is, they will not treat it with levity. The United States President will defer a lot of issues to the Congress and that shows you how powerful the Congress is and the National Assembly should recognize its role. And they should think about their institution alone getting N130 billion when a University of Ibadan or Obafemi Awolowo gets about N15 billion.
And we should not forget that the National Assembly allowances are statutory. Even if we sell 10,000 barrels of oil today, National Assembly will get its own money. We are doing all these to ensure we get an independent National Assembly so that you don’t wait for the executive anytime they need to work. They need to be autonomous and I support that as well, unlike the State Houses of Assembly that has to wait on the Governor before they do anything. So we need them to sit up and be more open with Nigerians.
Ambakaderemo: My friend here (Ndujihe) said the National Assembly has been the most vilified and most blackmailed. Debo also said the most demonized. Yes it is because of the culture of secrecy and I think they have forgotten that they form the first layer of democracy anywhere.
And they are the ones who are supposed to operate an open government but rather, they are the ones now blocking access to information. We recall what they were trying to do on the NGO bill, social media bill and all that. They are trying to gag the Nigerian people and it is quite unfortunate to find ourselves in this situation and to get out of it will be very difficult. The only way I think I can propose for us to get out of it is the continued engagement of these people. Right now, there is nothing we can even propose because they are the beneficiaries of what they are doing. What do you expect from somebody who is already enjoying largesse, how do you expect him to sit down and allow you remove sugar from his mouth? It is very difficult. Over time we have found ourselves in this mess, and we always want to blame the military, is it not enough time for us to have woken up and set a path for ourselves? The National Assembly is supposed to create a pathway for this country to develop, they are the ones who will do it. These people have amassed so much money for themselves to stand against anybody, they can buy anybody, cause disaffection in your community and it’s a hazard we will continue to live with until God knows when. Though to some of us, it is a sad development that we find ourselves in this situation and we don’t even know how to address it. For me, there is no time these people are ready to sit and talk to anybody that concerns their welfare, they are just interested in their own pockets alone and we have not heard any sacrifice from the National Assembly since the beginning of this administration.
NDUJIHE: I am happy when I see NGOs that have things to do with the National Assembly. We have to help them to grow and get policies that will keep them on their toes. I think from there; there is hope going forward.
MUMUNI: The constitution is structured in such a way that the National Assembly is the most important arm of government. If you look at the placement of the arms of government in Section 4 of the constitution, it will be seen that it was stated that legislative powers would be vested in the National Assembly, the executive powers shall be vested in the executive and judicial powers vested in the judiciary. Basically, it is an important arm of government.
The question is: Why the secrecy and how can we can get out of it? It is important that the National Assembly operates in the open. It is when they operate in the open that the citizens will have much trust in them. The reason people are not happy with them is because of the way they do their things. It is in the best interest of the National Assembly to be open in order to generate the desired confidence of Nigerians. Once, the National Assembly is open about its activities especially in budgeting, they would have the confidence of the people to harass other people into being accountable. In a democracy, there is no room for secrecy, everything must be transparent. There is no reason for the National Assembly to be opaque about its activities. It is even more in their interest to be open so that Nigerians will support whatever they are doing. That will help the lawmakers to do their work effectively.
Aziken: In the National Assembly, we have a number of legislators, who receive multiple flows of incomes from the federal treasury. Some receive pensions and other sorts of incomes. Is it proper? How do we address it?
MUMMUNI: When some governors were about quitting office, some state assemblies like Lagos, Rivers, Ekiti and Kano among others passed pension laws for their governors. The good faith behind such legislation is that since they are former governors, they are entitled to the pension from their states. Now, some of them are senators. In an economy that cannot pay regular salary, in an economy that is paying N18,000 as minimum wage which is not regular because of what we have now, is it justifiable to decree that public money should be used as pension for former governors?
It becomes a matter of overcompensation. And that is why our organisation is in court today. We have canvassed earlier that we should have Attorney General of the Federation separately and Minister of Justice separated.A Minister of Justice will be able to say that Attorney General is someone that is appointed to serve the public interest. When we have such, the Attorney General will able to act even against the interest of the government of the day.
Let us look at the original idea behind having pensions for civil servants. A civil servant, who spent a minimum of 30 and maximum of 35 years in public service is the person that should be entitled to a pension. The idea of pension has never been applicable to politicians, who were elected to serve a maximum of eight years. These people (civil servants) have spent all their productive lives for government. So, the idea that a retired governor should be entitled to pension is evil to us. It is never done anywhere in the world. It is also immoral and contrary to the economic state of Nigerians where a civil servant is not receiving his full salary and a former governor is receiving emolument as a senator, minister and he is also entitled to pension as was decreed by the State House of Assembly. And the state houses of Assembly cannot be touched because they are mere rubber stamps.
That is why we want to call to question their bonafides. When someone occupies public office it is because of the benefits of the office, but for the things that will be written about the person.
Aziken: When there is someone who was in the Army, who became a governor and who is now a senator, the person has three streams of income. Some of them were civil servants. For instance, Alhaji Bukar Abba Ibrahim was a civil servant, he became a governor and he is now a senator. I just want you to have that in view.
NJDUJIHE: Double pay should not even be entertained. That is where I will ask the lawmakers and even NGOs to see if we can get a law in place that will stop that. Some people are career politicians. Consider this: eight years as deputy governors, eight years as governors, eight years as Vice President and eight years as President. That is 32 years. Retired people from the military get their allowances or pensions from the Army or Navy and when they find themselves in the National Assembly, they get paid. Civil servants get their pension and when they get elected they get allowances from the new office they occupy.
Also, former governors, who get appointed as ministers or become senators get paid for those positions. Probably, there should be a law. If it is not in place we should get that law. Democracy is a work in progress and we have not had that experience. If we were talking about a country that has been practicing democracy for over 100 years, probably, we would have had that law. We should get the law in place and stop that. If someone is a pensioner and he gets elected, his pension should stop while he gets remunerated as an elected person. If the person is from the military earning pension, once the person is elected, his pension should stop. Whatever someone is getting before whichever is higher, the person should take the higher one and leave the lower one.
Ambakaderemo: Whatever we can do to move Nigeria forward, we all have to be sincere in doing government business. If we are to compare our private businesses with public business, I keep asking why people frown anytime they are asked to be open about what they do in office. They will forget that they are holding the office for the people. It is like an investor giving his money to a bank manager. That investor has the right to ask how his money is being used. And it behooves on the bank manager to give a report about the money to the investor.
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