OF BUDGET CUT, NATIONAL ASSEMBLY AND INSTITUTIONAL BLACKMAIL
There is no shortcut to economic redemption for a nation caught up in a downturn already foretold. Certainly, there is no cut-and-paste approach to economic recovery and good governance; there cannot be quick fixes without well thought-out plans. For decades, we have carried on with an undefined pattern of governance and walked our way into operating an over-bloated system of government without checks. Today, while we are trapped in the limitations that come with oil wealth, and fast dwindling oil revenue, there appears to be a general consensus in the country on the need to cut the cost of governance, which is fundamental.
But the current approach by the executive in reducing the cost of governance has been somewhat cosmetic, thus limiting what should have been a well-considered holistic intervention, with far-reaching reforms, to a mere cut in salaries and allowances of members of the executive and the legislature. This arrangement, so far, is the least strategic method in reducing the huge cost of governance in Nigeria. Sadly, the burden of this haphazard approach is more on the legislature which survives only on salary and allowances. The National Assembly has, from the outset of the current Fourth Republic democratic dispensation, become the target of institutional blackmail deliberately orchestrated against it by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Unfortunately, many Nigerians have erroneously tagged along without asking probing questions. This is not blindly defending the legislature as not having some bad eggs within its ranks, who will always try to cut corners and circumvent the system. We also have some good Nigerians in the executive arm that will, at any cost, ensure judicial use of public resources. We have good Nigerians all over – that is given. However, the undue public pressure on the National Assembly is becoming somehow misplaced in reducing the cost of governance. It has attained a ridiculous and alarming level to the extent that some individuals have ignorantly narrowed the huge cost of governance to the spending of the National Assembly. Over the last five or six years, the annual budget of the National Assembly had hovered around N150 billion. Significantly, annually, the allocation has always represented about 3.3 percent of the total federal budget. But the wrong assumption in several quarters is that the money is shared by 469 members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
In response to advocacy and pressure on it to consider making some sacrifice in the area of bringing down the cost of governance, the National Assembly in the 2015 budget slashed its budget from N150 billion to N120 billion. The 2015 budget is N4.3 trillion. I am waiting to confirm how much the executive arm is willing to shave off from its over N4 trillion allocation. Now, for those alleging that each lawmaker gets as much as N250 million yearly, if this amount is multiplied by 469 federal lawmakers, the total will be N117.2 billion. The implication of this is that, according to their fancied view, all the institutions under the National Assembly such as the bureaucracy, National Legislative Institute (NILS), the National Assembly Service Commission (NASC), aides, ongoing projects and other parliamentary exigencies will make do with less than N3 billion. This is not correct.
The correct position is: 7,200 individuals draw salaries and allowances from the National Assembly and these include 109 Senators, 360 members of the House of Representatives, 13 commissioners in the National Assembly Service Commission, 3,208 members of staff of the commission and 337 members of the management staff, 3,024 legislative aides, seven members of board of the National Institute of Legislative Studies with 115 staff members of the institute.
Besides, funds are allocated to servicing the 54 Senate standing committees and 91 House standing committees; the legislative institution also fulfills its financial obligations to bodies like the inter-Parliamentary Union, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Pan African Parliament, ECOWAS Parliament, African, Carribean and Pacific- EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, Shoora/Arab Parliament and National Conference of State Legislatures.
The truth is that all over the world, the cost of maintaining the legislative arm is usually very high. Unfortunately for the Nigerian lawmakers, critics have nearly succeeded in coming up with wrong figures to malign it image. Indeed, the National Assembly, being the bastion of democracy here, as it is anywhere it is the form of government, needs more allocations than the N120 billion which it has committed itself to.
However, I expect that the 20-man Independent NEEDs Assessment Committee set up by the Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara, will eventually try to set the record straight. This committee is largely made up of people in the civil society organisations who have, at one point or the other, taken position against the lawmakers. But feelers from the House had even suggested that, when the breakdown of activities of the lawmakers and their financial commitments to others agencies within the National Assembly are made known to the public, Nigerians will eventually know that the legislative arm even needs more money to perform other numerous tasks to meet public expectations.
Truth is the National Assembly may be walking a tightrope very soon in meeting its constitutional obligations. But let me say this for emphasis: that there is no harm in adjusting to prevailing circumstances in the country by reducing the cost of doing government business if it is based on holistic intervention. Going forward, if we must interrogate the prevailing development vis- a-vis the raging issue of cutting cost, we must sincerely bear in mind the level of political exposure of the lawmakers to their constituencies in terms of meeting communal and personal needs. This reality is with us and we cannot feign ignorance or live in self denial of it.
In addition, we should address the huge cost of winning party primaries and the elections proper. We should also be sensitive to the lawmakers who have during campaigns and elections invested heavily in the processes. If we must tell ourselves the truth in the context of our country, the executives have the opportunity to make up with certain needs through contracts by cronies. Yet, none is available to the lawmakers. This is talking within the context of legitimate deals. In essence, in reforming governance to reduce cost, we should include a reorientation package, for the people to understand the constitutional responsibility of a lawmaker, limited to just making laws. The pressures from within and without are just too much for the lawmakers to bear sometimes.
So in seriously addressing the issue of high cost of governance in Nigeria, we must review and reform the entire process, which should include: reducing cost of doing contracts and executing projects; decreasing the number of personnel for appointive offices; restructuring the bureaucracy; cutting down on regional and foreign commitments; general review of salaries and allowances across all tiers of government and, most fundamentally, a complete overhaul of the electoral process to make public offices less expensive. We can, as well, in the spirit of total reform make public offices attractive to only those who are willing to make sacrifices. But it must be holistic and not at the expense of an arm of government which is underfunded ab-initio.
By implication, cutting the cost of governance, indeed, requires a strategic roadmap and not this piecemeal approach where the president or a governor will just announce a 50 percent pay-cut and the people will clap. It is elementary in nature and diversionary in approach. So far, the body language of the President and his approach hardly suggest a government willing to cut costs. What are the public exigencies that suggest, for instance, the splitting of the Media office in the Presidency into two, namely Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity and Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity? In the past administrations, only one person occupied the position of Special Adviser Media and Publicity. Splitting the office, this time round, implies adding cost.
As I round off, I will like to make two points: one, getting the president and governors to heavily reduce or even scrap security votes will be a good way to start cutting cost. Reducing their salary by 50 percent is just cosmetic. Two, even if we scrap the budgetary allocation to the National Assembly, and we are able to save N120 billion, the fact is, the amount involved cannot solve one percent of our problems as a nation.
What does this then tell us? It simply tells us that contrary to the thinking in some quarters that the federal lawmakers are the ones milking the nation dry and depriving it of development, the executive arm is the guilty party. Going by the allegations of graft in the media against some ministers in the immediate past administration and against some former governors, it is appropriate for Nigerians to look elsewhere (not the National Assembly) for the goats eating their yams.
Written by Sufuyan Ojeifo, Editor-in-Chief of The Congresswatch magazine.