A senator’s disclosure and debate on cost of governance

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Senator Shehu Sani PHOTO: TWITTER/ NIGERIAN SENATE

Fresh revelation about alleged huge remuneration for members of Nigeria’s National Assembly has once again sparked controversy over continued existence of an expensive legislature in a country with a myriad of socio-economic and political challenges.

Although salaries and allowances of legislators at the federal level have been a subject of public scrutiny over the years, the actual amount of their take-home pay had been kept a closely-guided secret until last week when Shehu Sani, a radical activist representing Kaduna Central at the upper legislative chamber, disclosed that every senator gets N13.5 million monthly as running cost apart from their N750,000 monthly salary.

Since Sani’s disclosure, which looked like a betrayal of his colleagues’ unwritten but collective decision to keep mute on their emoluments, an atmosphere of uncertainty has pervaded the Senate Chamber as most senators refused to confirm or deny his assertion.Apart from casting the entire legislature in the mold of an insensitive and inconsiderate lot, considering the economic challenges of the average Nigerian, the disclosure has also led to a debate over whether the country should review the cost of its expensive governance system.

It was however clear that the leadership of the Senate was not happy about the disclosure raising fears that the Kaduna Senator may be sanctioned, one way or the other, for not only unveiling the secret but also for alleging that the current Senate was anything but transparent in its financial dealings.Spokesman of Senate, Aliu Sabi Abdullahi, who preferred a no comment stance on the matter had said at the weekend that he would only speak if the Senate as an institution takes a position.

With Sani’s disclosure, all 109 Senators get approximately N1.5 billion per month as running cost. This amounts to N18 billion annually. However, it was learnt that there are slight variations in the running cost allocations of senators as principal officers get a little more than their colleagues while the two presiding officers (The President and Deputy) get the highest allocation. The Senate has eight principal officers aside the Senate President and Deputy Senate President.

In the 2017 budget, the National Assembly as a whole got N115 billion allocation. The Senate, House of Representatives and National Assembly Management shared the money.In a brief reaction, Abdullahi told The Guardian that “Senate has not said anything with regard to what Senator Shehu Sani was quoted to have said and as such there is nothing or any information for me to pass in that regard. If Senate decides to react, I’ll pass it down to you, but for now there’s nothing for me to tell you.”

But a senator who did not want to be quoted, ruled out the possibility of Senate punishing Sani for his disclosure saying, “If there should be any reaction, a senator should have moved a motion on it, subjected it to a debate before a resolution is made.

“Even if there would be later, I don’t think Senator Sani would be punished because Senate chamber cannot be turned to slaughtering slab against every offender irrespective of the magnitude of the offence. I don’t think this has violated any of our rules in any case.” Throwing more light on the disclosure, Sani had explained that every senator is made to provide receipts to support the expenses made with the N13.5 million he gets every month as running cost adding, “What I am saying is that that money must be receipted for what you do with it. But what you are given to go and spend without any accountability is N750,000.

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“The constituency project itself is given on a zonal basis and almost every Senator will go with a constituency fund of about N200 million, but it is not the cash that is given to you. You will be told that you have N200 million with an agency of government for which you will now submit projects equivalent to that amount. And it is that agency of government that will go and do those projects for you.

“Now, the corruption comes when the projects are not done and the money is taken. But right now, it is difficult to do that because NGOs and transparency groups have come into it. They track every allocation made to you and where they are being used. So, it’s becoming difficult for what used to happen in the past to happen now.” The senator however said he preferred “a situation where we do away with running costs, constituency projects and leave senators and members of House of Representatives with only their salaries.”

Expectedly, Sani’s disclosure has opened a floodgate of reactions most of which are against the senators “for being insensitive” to the plight of Nigerians in a depressed economy.Commenting through his twitter handle, former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili said, “Senator Shehu Sani has in a rare moment of penance for the financial rascality of our NASS Nigeria done partial disclosure on their good life at the expense of the poor. He disclosed some of what we- citizens – have long asked Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara to do. More remains.”

According to human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) “The revelations by Senator Sani should provide an opportunity for the Nigerian people to review the entire costs of governance under the rickety democratic dispensation.“The Buhari administration owes the nation a duty to ensure that no political officer is paid salaries and allowances that have not been approved by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation Fiscal Commission (RMAFC)

“The members of the RMAFC empowered by Section 70 of the Constitution to approve the salaries and allowances of the legislators have always washed off their hands like Pontius Pilate while the Budget Office has never questioned the payment of unauthorised salaries and allowances to federal legislators.”Another Senior Advocate, Yusuf Ali, while reacting to the issue, described the senators’ allowance as insensitive and inconsiderate, especially when Nigeria’s minimum wage is considered.

According to him, “Even if there were no mass unemployment and the economy were buoyant, such allowance is totally unrelated to our circumstances; it is very insensitive.”
Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption (PACAC) Prof. Itse Sagay who has always been criticizing the National Assembly and accusing members of corruption, said “I have always said they earn too much. This figure by Sani does not include constituency allowances, which is in billions of naira.

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“We still have budget padding from which millions are made by them. By the time you put all that together, you can see that these people are collecting a huge chunk of the Nigerian budget.”Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Monday Ubani, said a review of the lawmakers’ pay must be demanded by Nigerians adding, “It means that Nigerians have not been getting a fair deal from our legislators. If a single person will be earning that kind of money in a country where the minimum wage is N18, 000; something has to be done. We need to insist on a review of these jumbo allowances.”

Speaking in similar vein, another social critic and president of Campaign for Democracy (CD), Usman Abdul, disclosed that a senator’s monthly allowance would conveniently pay the tuition of 100 undergraduates.He said, “You can take good care of over 100 graduates from a senator’s salary. The legislature should deliberate on the abject poverty and unemployment in the country.”

National Chairman of National Conscience Party, Dr Yusuf Tanko said there was nothing new in Sani’s revelation about Nigerian lawmakers’ ‘jumbo pay’, which was a serious bone of contention against the Seventh National Assembly.

According to him, “Sani has just shed more lights on the volume of money our representatives in Abuja are collecting at the expense of the electorate that voted for them and this is part of the reasons election to the National Assembly had because a matter of life and death in the country.”The NCP chairman recalled he once raised the issue some years about lawmakers collecting more than expected the same way former President Olusegun Obasanjo would stop at nothing to criticize the legislators anytime he had the opportunity to make comments about what they earn.Said he, “Regrettably, what Sani said is also applicable to the Executive because they work hand in hand when it comes to arbitrary remunerations. For instance, the executive would always look away from what the lawmakers earn because the National Assembly on its part helps the executive to pass the Appropriation Bill into law. This is where the deal is sealed and the collaboration exists.”

Suggesting a way out, Tanko said Nigeria does not need permanent legislators, saying some of the lawmakers do not even make a single contribution throughout the four years and yet benefit from the humongous amount every month among other financial advantages open to them.

According to him, “What we need are part-time lawmakers who will go to Abuja whenever it is required and they get their sitting allowance.”Tanko also faulted the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) for failing in fulfilling its promises on anti-graft war “otherwise it was expected that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari would have looked critically into this matter with the aim to resolving it. I described what our lawmakers and members of the executive were collecting as r**e of democracy, insult to the Nigerian electorate and legalized corruption.”

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Two serving senators of the ruling party that were contacted to speak on the issue refused to talk. They simply appealed to The Guardian to excuse them from making comments.
One of them said, “You would do me a great favour if I am allowed to remain silent on what Sani said. It was his (Sani) problem let him face it alone.”

Describing Sani’s revelation as a rude shock and development that must not be allowed to go unattended, National Chairman, African Democratic Congress (ADC), Chief Ralph Nwosu said, “It is beginning to look as if our democracy has become a scam of which I hate to see the National Assembly in that light.“The revelation was scandalous but at the same time it is good that some activist patriots and people centered leaders are beginning to show up in our politics.”

Nwosu therefore urged Nigerians to do what they needed to do by opening their eyes as another general election is fast approaching by first getting the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) to vote more of Sani into the National Assembly and the executive.A former senator who did not want his name in print said if what Sani revealed is true “the money is exorbitant and truly outrageous because I never collected up to that when I was in the Senate. As to the legality and illegality of the money, which has become a subject of debate, there is nothing any lawmaker is earning or entitled to as remuneration that are not captured and consolidated under the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). It is not as if anything is being done outside the law.”

He said that is not to say what the legislators and other government functionaries including ministers are entitled to is justified compared to the minimum wage of an average Nigerian worker.

According to him, “It is not proper to demonise the legislative arm of government over jumbo pay without necessarily looking at what goes into the executive arm. For instance, I make bold to say that what a minister that is not elected and is not also responsible to any constituency collects, is far more than what a lawmaker earns. Nigerians should beam their searchlight on the executive’s earnings.”

He warned of the danger in continuous demonization of the legislature because that is the only arm of government that defines democracy and it is also the fulcrum of democratic governance. If we all agreed that the cost of running this democracy is too much then we should be ready to cut the cost across board including what other arms of government earns and not that of the legislature alone. “First, we can prune the population of our lawmakers either by returning to bi-cameral legislature or reduce the number of legislators in both chambers. There is also the need to take a critical look at the cost of running the executive.”

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