Cleaning the peculiar mess in the legislature

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 4 Nov 2007

There is an email circulating in Nigeria about the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mrs Patricia Etteh. I am not sure of the origin. But it is about Etteh and her use of English language. The writer likens her English to that of an Ibadan politician in the 50s and 60s, Chief Adegoke Adelabu, and former Kano State governor, Alhaji Barkin Zuwo. Adelabu, you will recall, reportedly called peculiar mess, penkelemes. Zuwo, on his part, was popular for listing Coke, Fanta, Pepsi, Sprite and Mirinda as the mineral resources available in his state.

Similarly, Etteh allegedly asked a member, after a motion had been tabled, if he was “in support of favour.” She purportedly wasted no time in announcing that the “ayes has it” anytime the ayes carried the day on the floor of the House. In response to the David Idoko Panel that investigated the N628m contract scandal involving her, Etteh reportedly said that she asked the management of the National Assembly if due process was followed and each person “answered in the affirmative action.”

The former Speaker was also said to have once announced that the first place she visited as a young parliamentarian “was a German,” and that when officials of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency visited the House, she urged them to urgently “make our roads habitable.” She had purportedly called social vices, “social devices,” and comity of nations, “international countries.” Etteh’s House, the writer noted, became a hollow chamber rather than a hallowed chamber. There are other alleged grammatical blunders.

The phenomenon symbolises the quality of representation in Etteh’s House. For almost five months, the legislators did nothing but quarrel over the house renovation scandal. Their major achievement was collection of jumbo salaries and allowances. Etteh had stayed put on the seat in spite of several calls on her to quit. When she finally bowed out, she said it was in deference to the counsel from family members, friends and colleagues.

Her mum, Mrs Atoke Alabi, was reported to have attributed her daughter’s fate to an act of God. As she put it, “When I had her pregnancy, I never knew she could ever become Speaker. She was not given birth to as a Speaker. Let Nigerians choose anyone they want. God will reveal the truth.”

God has since revealed this truth. That truth is that Etteh took the Speaker’s position as her birthright. She did not advertise the contract for the renovation of her house and that of her deputy, Alhaji Babangida Nguroje. She did not, as the Idoko panel noted, follow the provisions of the Public Procurement Act 2007. And there was no specific budgetary provision either for the house renovation or for the purchase of vehicles.

Painfully, there is no positive signal from some state assemblies as well. Late last month, members of the Delta State House of Assembly embarked on a foreign trip. The state government allegedly approved N400m for the trip so that the honourable lawmakers could relax after 100 days of hectic legislative duties. Apparently to appreciate that gesture, the legislators reportedly raised the supplementary budget of the state from N32.6bn to N33.6bn in September.

The Delta State Commissioner for Information, Mr Oma Djebah, said it wasn’t N400m that the state governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan, approved for the trip, but some amount. It was the Chief Press Secretary to the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Grey Alumona, who put the amount at N77.9m. The purpose, Djebah had noted, was to enhance legislative business. He stressed that the trip was a well-known practice everywhere in the world.

Ordinarily, there should be no problem if any member of the House wishes to update his legislative knowledge. Or to visit any tourist site abroad. The point is that some of these legislators have been in the House since 1999. So what new thing will they learn from their foreign trip? And do they even need a foreign trip to know how to make good laws for their state?

Recall that it was in this same Delta that the immediate past government of Chief James Ibori gave Prado Jeeps to 29 lawmakers. That was in October last year. And this is a state whose citizens are suffering from abject poverty, unemployment, poor infrastructure and other social deprivations. Ironically, the state receives resources from federal monthly allocations, derivation fund, excess crude oil account and the ecological fund.

In some other state legislatures, the story is almost the same. No serious attempt to pass progressive bills. No attempt to check the excesses of the executive arm of government. It is rub my back, I rub your own. In states where legislators challenge the executive, it is often not on matters that impact on the welfare of the people. It is usually for the selfish interest of the lawmakers. In Anambra State, for instance, the Governor, Mr Peter Obi, is a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance. The legislators all belong to the Peoples Democratic Party. Today, the lawmakers are flexing muscles with Obi. And they want Nigerians to believe that some people are after their lives for wanting to discharge their duties without fear or favour. I seriously doubt if the lawmakers’ current overt and covert actions are in pursuit of good governance and accountability.

Nevertheless, there is hope for our democracy. That Nigerians rose in unison to kick Etteh out should serve as a lesson to other leaders in the country. What remains is for the Federal Government to fulfil its promise of trying all public officers indicted by the National Assembly. The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Michael Aondoakaa, recently warned that nobody would be spared in the fight against corruption. In his words, “We are not going to target war on corruption on governors alone but on everybody that is indicted by bodies authorised by law. And where criminal charges are clearly demonstrated in the report, we are going to carry out prosecution.”

In the same token, President Umaru Yar’Adua stated during his 100 days in office that the FG would take action against any person found to have committed any wrongdoing in the House contract award scandal. This action should start with Etteh. It is not enough for her to resign. She should pay for her sins.

With the emergence of Mr Dimeji Bankole as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, there is hope that the era of etekete will soon give way for dynamism in the House. The new Speaker said it all when he noted, in his maiden address, that “from this hallowed chamber shall flow robust debates, exciting motions, timely bills, and quality legislation that will significantly impact on the standard and quality of lives of our expectant people.” May this dream bear good fruits. May it never fall into any hollow chamber again.

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