APPARENTLY indifferent to the unfolding economic crisis in the country, the Senate has embarked on another extravagant mission. This time, the national outrage is because the Bukola Saraki-led legislative chamber has ordered 109 Sport Utility Vehicles as “operational cars,” or in “Senate-speak,” “committee cars” for members to carry out oversight functions.
The SUVs will cost the taxpayers billions of naira. At a time revenue from oil has nosedived, governments owe workers’ salaries and the naira is in a free fall, it is selfish and wasteful of the lawmakers to embark on such a vain project.
At issue is the deceit involved in the disingenuous plan to buy an SUV for each senator. Normally, each senator is entitled to a car loan of over N8 million, which, by law, is monetised. But, obviously, this is mere pittance to the lawmakers, who will now profit from the extravaganza worth almost thrice their car allowance. According to some estimates, the cars will cost N4.7 billion, although the Senate has a lower figure. This money could have been used to build functional community health centres in all the 36 states of the country, and thus reduce Nigeria’s record-breaking infant and maternal mortality rates. We have been accustomed to profligacy by the lawmakers since the dawn of the Fourth Republic in 1999, but this is unjustifiable at a time the economy is standing on thin ice.
Senate has been self-serving for long. A tip that this was not about to stop emerged when Saraki suddenly multiplied the number of committees in the 109-member Senate from 56 in the Seventh Assembly to 65 in the Eighth Assembly. But, apparently, the Senate President will stop at nothing to sustain the notoriously high cash rain in the National Assembly, which The Economist of London, put at $189,500 per lawmaker in 2013, describing it as the highest in the world. At that time, this was 116 times Nigeria’s GDP per person at $1,160.
Through this racket, each senator – excluding Saraki and his deputy who are entitled to juicier perquisites – became a chairman or deputy chairman of a committee and is entitled to an SUV, which they erroneously and deceitfully call “pool cars.” The Senate President and his deputy are beneficiaries of a large convoy of vehicles, with Saraki entitled to as many as 10 cars. There is not much difference in the Green Chamber. The Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, increased the number of committees from 89 (Seventh Assembly) to 96 for the 360 members of the House of Representatives. The high number of committees in the parliament spells economic sabotage. In the halcyon days of the Second Republic, which had 95 senators, there were just 17 standing committees, while the House, with 469 members, had just 26 committees.
So, what has changed? For one, Nigeria has become a dysfunctional state, where the leadership is not accountable to the people. The climate of opacity is astounding, so much that the remuneration of lawmakers is a subject of litigation because of lack of transparency. The greed of our parliamentarians is another prickly subject, as they have appropriated so much of state resources to themselves. In 2014, the National Assembly had a budget of N150 billion; it was N120 billion in 2015 and N115 billion proposed for 2016.
In spite of these mouth-watering allowances, the National Assembly repeatedly swims in oceans of financial scandals with regards to its oversight functions. Some lawmakers were accused of demanding or accepting illegal payments from firms or agencies their committees oversaw. The National Assembly has been suffused with bribe-for-budget scandals, as testified to by Nasir el-Rufai, the Kaduna State governor, in his memoirs –The Accidental Public Servant – when he was to be confirmed as a minister in 2003.
As a result, the lawmakers have been ineffective, leaving Nigerians feeling betrayed, thinking that democracy is not working because of our insatiable legislators. This has to stop. Why can’t senators use buses for committee assignments? Why must they ride in state-of-the-art SUVs when Nigerians are dying daily on decrepit roads? The Nigerian people must rise to the occasion by mounting pressure on the National Assembly to roll back its culture of waste, ostentation and impunity through protests and litigation.
In contrast to our gluttonous legislators, parliamentarians in established democracies do not surrender their work to their personal whims and caprices of the few. In the United States, a federal system like Nigeria, with a GDP of $17.9 trillion, the senate has 20 committees, with 100 members. In Australia, another federal system with a GDP of $1.2 trillion, there are 20 committees in the senate, and 17 in the House. The French parliament, comprising 348 senators and 577 deputies, in a $2.4 trillion economy, has six committees. The committees in Germany’s parliament (GDP of $3.3 trillion) –21 –are tied to the number of federal ministries. Now that Nigeria, GDP $565 billion, has 25 federal ministries, what would 65 Senate and 96 House committees be doing?
The Senate should not be oblivious to the economic troubles that lie ahead. The only way Saraki can demonstrate that he is in tune with the unravelling economy is to cancel this obscene car order, and cut down on other excessive perks. A conscionable parliament makes laws for good governance; it is not engrossed in personal rewards for members at the expense of the downtrodden Nigerians, who are discomfited by the greed of the political elite.