Of all three arms of government, the legislature does not necessarily fare well when it comes to approval ratings. This image problem is not peculiar to Nigeria. There are so few countries in the world where the legislature as an institution enjoys good popularity; including the United States of America which we often hail as the most ideal democracy. A Gallup poll shows that only 20% of Americans approve of Congress. In fact, in over 10 years, the Congress has not enjoyed up to a 30% approval rating and according to the Pew Research Center, only 17% of Americans currently trust their government always or most of the time. It is therefore, not hard to imagine that for a developing state like Nigeria, our legislature enjoys considerably less than 20% approval rating.
While it is understandable that the legislature, being the closest arm of government to the people has to bear the brunt of their frustrations at the executive arm of government, we must take care that our bias against the legislature does not become a grand act of self-sabotage.
The fulcrum of any democratic government is the legislature- the assembly of the elected representatives of the people. Its presence is the key identifier of a democracy. Such an institution where representatives from all parts of Nigeria sit on a daily basis to deliberate on the affairs of the nation and make laws for the benefit of the country should be cherished, preserved and accorded all tools necessary (including the benefit of doubt) to serve the nation.
A few days ago, news broke that SERAP was suing the House of Representatives for plans to spend N5.04bn on “exotic” cars. In view of the brouhaha on the purchase of official vehicles, I decided to give my two cents before the house is properly served closing any window to address a matter before the court;
1. OFFICIAL VEHICLES ARE A LUXURY FOR LEGISLATORS (MISCONCEPTION)
I will try to avoid stressing the discriminatory nature of this misconception which deliberately overlooks the fact that all the honourable ministers, permanent secretaries, directors, assistant directors and management level staff of the 42 ministries and 400 parastatals of the executive arm, with its over 15,000 nationwide offices are routinely given official vehicles; not to mention the 180 judges and justices of the federal judiciary along with their senior level staff who are entitled to official vehicles including SUVs. But instead, I will focus on the fact that for legislators, these official vehicles are a matter of necessity.
We too easily lose sight of the importance and utilitarian value of the legislature whenever we relish that red-hot chilli stew of sweet outrage at government. The legislature carries out an important duty of oversight as mandated by sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution. This singular duty routinely exposes the corruption and inefficiencies of the executive often amounting to trillions of naira, the very inefficiencies which create the dissatisfaction of Nigerians with government.
A look in recent history shows how in 2013, National Assembly uncovered a theft of N195 billion pension funds by the Pension Reform Task Force (PRTF), as well as a N255million fraud by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Agency (NCAA) and a N2 trillion fraud in the executive. In the current assembly, the House has investigated several instances of inefficiency and corruption, including extra budgetary spending by NDDC. For example, barely a week after its inauguration, the House had gone to work investigating the underuse of the Warri, Onne, Calabar, Port Harcourt and Onitsha seaport complexes as well as the loss of over N600bn monthly revenue from the Apapa Gridlock/Congestion.
The course of carrying out this good work frequently takes legislators on investigative trips around the country, often requiring them to access remote locations of Nigeria via bad roads. It would interest Nigerians to know that in several of the oversight investigations undertaken by this 9th Assembly, it was the vehicles of the very Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) which were under investigation that picked the visiting legislators from the airport and commuted them to the various locations throughout their investigations. By this very reason, is not the report of that investigative committee already tainted in the eyes of any rational person? How is a legislator expected to ask the hard-hitting questions during an investigation when they are not sure of their ride back to the hotel, or even their accommodation and safety for the night? Did you know that in many cases, it is even the MDA under investigation who provides the security escort and accommodation for visiting legislators? I digress, but this is a point I shall revisit later.
Now, considering this from a purely utilitarian perspective, is it not wise to ensure that legislators have their own vehicular transportation, if only to preserve the integrity of the work they do for Nigerians? Moreover, considering the undesirable nature of the roads in most parts of Nigeria, is it not prudent to see that the official vehicles approved for these legislators are efficient enough to grant them unhindered ingress and egress to all locations in the country to enable them do their job without incurring the costs of maintenance due to frequent breakdown?
I posit that our outrage as Nigerians because legislators approved Toyota Camrys for themselves is misplaced and better directed at the over 400 parastatals of the executive. I would also go further as to say that considering the state of Nigerian roads (which the executive is responsible for fixing by the way) SUVs and not saloon cars or Camrys, should be approved for use by legislators in their official duties.
2. A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF OFFICIAL VEHICLE ENTITLEMENTS PER ARM OF GOVERNMENT Despite an earlier promise to avoid this subject, in the matter of government spending on official vehicles, it is only fair compare the entitlement of legislators with other public servants in the same service cadre.
Recall that in the order of protocol in the National Order of Precedence Act, Senators and Members of the House of Representatives rank quite higher than Ministers, Ambassadors, SAs to the president, the SGF, the CBN governor, the service chiefs, the IGP, Court of Appeal Justices, Federal High Court Judges, Permanent Secretaries, Directors and Heads of Agencies etc. Yet, several of these persons have approved for them, up to 3 vehicles (including escort vehicles) to enable them conduct their official assignments. Where is the fairness or moral justification for us to complain when legislators get just one vehicle each?
If other arms of government routinely use SUVs as official vehicles, is it fair to reduce the entitlements of federal legislators who do more for the nation to less than what is obtainable at the same level of service cadre? How do we reconcile the fact that every year, legislators sit in Appropriation committees validating the purchase of SUVs for public servants who they oversight and yet cannot drive the same vehicles to visit them for investigations?
3. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES REJECTED A QUOTATION FROM NIGERIAN CAR MAKER
Following rumours swirling around the interwebs, a simple investigation into the validity of the allegations revealed that no quotation was offered to the House for consideration by any Nigerian car maker. However, if indeed there was, the public is invited to present proof of this in the interest of all Nigerians.
4. THE ALLOWANCES OF LEGISLATORS IS EXCESSIVE (MISCONCEPTION)
The argument that overseas, the legislative arm is less expensive is weak because a comparative analysis shows that except in a few isolated and extreme cases, the entitlement of legislators in Nigeria is at par or even less than those of their colleagues overseas.
For the sake of clarity, in standard parliamentary practice, legislators have two entitlements in terms of remuneration- their basic salary for personal use, and allowances for use in running their offices, research, stakeholder engagements, trainings, trips, constituency offices, constituency outreaches, security and others costs attendant to performing their law making, representative and oversight duties.
For example, in the United States, the current base salary for Senators and Representatives is $174,000 per year amounting to about N5.2m per month. Outside this, each legislator is allowed a Member’s Representational Allowance (MRA) of up to $1,268,520 (N456.6m) which is an allowance of about N38m per month. This is humongous compared the pittance salaries and allowances of Nigerian legislators; and is particularly discouraging to representatives who choose not to operate only in Abuja to the neglect of their constituents back home.
The legislature as an arm of government does enormous work. In addition to the demands of law making and effective representation, only 360 representatives are saddled with the responsibility of supervising and investigating the activities of all of 400 parastatals of government to uncover all manner of inefficiencies and fraudulent activities there. This entails the sacrifices of various committees who struggle to carry out this responsibility with limited funds.
CONCLUSION: FENNO’S PARADOX
One political phenomenon that strikes me is the Fenno’s Paradox- this is where we generally disapprove of the National Assembly as a whole, but support the senators and representatives from our own senatorial districts and constituencies. For instance, despite a 13% approval rating, 95% of incumbents in United States Congress were re-elected in 2014. In Nigeria, despite the National Assembly’s unpopularity, over 60% of incumbent legislators are re-elected every election.
If 60% of Nigerians are happy with their legislator but unhappy with the legislature, then there is a bias that begs consideration. What has caused this bias? Is it a result of deliberate misinformation by mischief makers or acute ignorance? If you wonder why Nigerians continually launch lopsided attacks on the only arm of government that directly represents their interest, the following excerpt from my address as the spokesperson of the House during the unveiling of the Green Chamber Magazine captures it very aptly;
“Several misconceptions about its [the legislature’s] operations, duties and achievements abound in the public domain propagated by mischief makers and fuelled by commercialized news reportage as well as acute ignorance of the workings of the legislature. The legislature is expected to exist in perpetual acrimony with the executive by the very same Nigerians who will be disadvantaged by such discordant governance. In addition, Nigerians have been conditioned to appraise the National Assembly with the same terms of reference as they would the Executive without regard to the distinctive nature of legislative duties under the 1999 Constitution, thereby engendering a deep-seated scepticism about the legislature’s commitment to national development.”
Of all public servants at the federal level, the legislator is the one closest to the grassroots and therefore it is understandable- logical even, to blame them for the failings of government. However, the question remains whether we are judging the National Assembly through a fair lens or allowing our appraisal to be biased by our frustrations.
Hon.Benjamin Okezie Kalu, Spokesperson House of Representatives, Abuja