The trouble with our lawmakers

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 11 May 2008

LAST week, we got the information that members of the Rivers State House of Assembly were in Australia for a capacity-building retreat. Perhaps, the retreat was to enhance their legislative duties. It ought to be so. But from media reports, we got to know that some of them not only built their capacity to fight, but also enhanced the capacity of their libido to function optimally.

Simply put, they allegedly engaged in a free-for-all. According to reports, a principal officer of the House purportedly abandoned two of his female colleagues for a younger and more beautiful lady, who travelled with them. The abandoned women got angry. And, like a wounded lion, they reportedly pounced on their male colleague and almost stripped him. They have also vowed to initiate the removal of some principal officers of the House as soon as they return this week. What is not certain is the charge the House will slam on those officers. Could it be dereliction of duty? Or jilting of lovers? Or disruption of capacity-building assignment?

In Ekiti State, the fight is of a different hue. Lawmakers in that state had some misunderstanding about the appointment of some members of the State Independent Electoral Commission. The quarrel led to the disappearance of the mace, the symbol of authority of the House. Last Monday, the Action Congress members of the House allegedly marched to the Speaker‘s office to search for the mace. That action generated some disquiet in the state. Tension is still high.

As Ekiti legislators continue to flex muscles, Osun State Assembly members bicker over the N150m constituency allowance graciously made available by the governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola. The money is part of the N600m earmarked for constituency projects this year. Each of the lawmakers, whose constituency comprises two local government councils, got N10m. Those with one local government council received N5m. This, ostensibly, was to provide dividends of democracy to the constituencies.

But the AC members of the House feel that paying the money into their private accounts amounts to corrupt enrichment. They petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission over the issue. The Speaker, Adejare Bello, reportedly defended the allowance. He said he utilised the N60m he got in the last four years to build edifices in his constituency, which outweighed whatever any contractor would have put up. In 2004, Bello had enthused that 110 blocks of classrooms were constructed in 2003 as constituency projects by the lawmakers.

Oyo State lawmakers are not divided over their own constituency largesse. They are probably full of gratitude for the N20m Governor Adebayo Alao-Akala promised each of them as constituency allowance. Besides, the governor has reportedly arranged a 10-day foreign trip for the House members between May 19 and 29. Six days shall be for capacity building. The remaining four days shall be for relaxation, or satisfying the libido if you like.

Delta State lawmakers got a similar treatment late last year. As some reports put it, they travelled to the United States to enable them to relax after 100 days of hectic legislative duties. However, the state government said the trip was to enhance legislative business. In October 2006, the immediate past governor of the state, James Ibori, gave 29 Prado jeeps to the lawmakers to also enhance legislative business.

When shall we learn our lesson as a nation? Nigeria is a rich country. The Niger Delta states in particular, derive resources from federal monthly allocation, derivation fund, ecological account and excess crude oil account. In spite of this, life is short and brutish in that region. Endemic conflict, social deprivation, abject poverty and poor and greedy leadership define the region.

In most states of the federation, armed robbers have made life unbearable for citizens. Roads are death traps. Public hospitals are comatose. Power generation has fallen to below 1,000 megawatts. Corruption is endemic. Unemployment is high. And some people have resorted to selling their babies because of poverty. Amid these problems, the legislators enjoy lining their pockets under the guise of capacity-building trips and constituency project allowances.

It is this same capacity-building trip that has put Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello into trouble. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, she allegedly supervised the disbursement of N10m they got from the Ministry of Health. The House of Representatives Committee quickly returned its own share when it learnt that the money was part of the N300m unspent budget of the ministry, which President Umaru Yar‘Adua had ordered returned to the treasury. But members of the Senate committee decided to spend their own on capacity-building trip to Ghana.

Our lawmakers seem to be guided by selfishness. The game plan, I suspect, is to create some avenues that will make it look as if they are working and then use that as an opportunity to make money for themselves. These legislators should realise that they are not contractors. Their main duties are to make laws, to effectively represent their constituencies and to perform oversight functions. They seem to have abandoned these responsibilities. They seem to have abandoned their constituents to serve themselves.

If they so love their people that they want to attract amenities to them, what they should do is to sit down with the executive and agree on the relevant projects to be sited. Execution of such projects should be left for the executive. In other words, legislators can attract the building of primary schools in their constituencies but not to collect money to build the schools themselves. As things are now, can the Oyo lawmakers impeach their governor if he does any wrong? Can the Peoples Democratic Party members of the Osun Assembly support any move to remove the governor for corruption?

Anti-graft agencies should be interested in those who have abandoned their legislative duties to become contractors. Every money collected must be properly accounted for. Constituency project should not be another security vote that leaders could embezzle without proper account.

Lawmakers should be contented with their legitimate salaries and allowances, which the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission generously beefed up earlier in the year. For instance, a Senator‘s annual basic salary is N2m. He also receives N4m as accommodation allowance and N6m as furniture allowance. Each lawmaker is also entitled to a car loan, vehicle maintenance allowance, domestic allowance, entertainment and utilities allowances and so on.

The legislature is the backbone of any democracy. That is why any military junta that comes to power suspends it immediately and assumes that role. If the legislature fails, our democracy is doomed. This is why Nigerians must always hold their elected representatives to account. Like the Nigerian Labour Congress that staged a protest march against corruption in Abuja last Thursday, people should rise up against those legislators, who enjoy looting our common wealth and going abroad to quarrel over the loot with their concubines.

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