Lawmakers’ insatiable appetite for allowances

Casmir Igbokwe

I am upset. And I want you to be angry as well. Our collective anger may not stop what is going on in the National Assembly. But, at least, it may send some danger signals to our so-called representatives there.

Some of these Reps are agitating for an increase in their quarterly allocation. Call it better life for urban legislators if you like. They receive about N1.3m each as monthly salary. They also collect a quarterly allocation of N27.2m each.

According to media reports last Monday, the lawmakers want this quarterly allowance upped to N42m for each of the 360 Reps. The budget of the House cannot accommodate this increase. Hence, the agitating legislators suggested collapsing the N6.2bn capital budget of the House to take care of that.

Some of the lawmakers are said to be threatening to cause confusion if their demand was not met. And since campaigns for the 2011 elections will soon start, they reportedly need the money badly so as to be able to foot their campaign bills.

No doubt, democracy is an expensive project be it in Europe, America, Asia or Africa. However, what governments in some countries do is to find ways of reducing the cost of running this democracy. This is to ensure that the majority of the citizens do not suffer unnecessarily.

Currently, there is economic hardship in different parts of the world. Some countries in Europe and elsewhere are adopting varied forms of austerity measures. In Spain, the government of Prime Minister Jose Zapatero approved a $19bn austerity plan to check public deficit. Essentially, the plan involves a five per cent cut to public sector salaries.

In the United Kingdom, the new government of Prime Minister David Cameron has just outlined measures to cut wasteful spending. The target is £6.2bn. Part of the plan, according to Chancellor George Osborne, is that public servants will no longer be allowed to travel first class. Besides, ministers will not have dedicated cars and drivers, but will rather walk, use public transport or pooled cars. In Wales, the budget will be cut by £162.5m as part of the spending reductions.   

In Nigeria, what have we seen? Profligacy of the highest order. In a bid to emulate the members of the House, some senators, media reports indicated, sent text messages to one another demanding their own increase to nothing less than N100m per senator.

Apparently to woo their staff and clear their heart of any jealousy, the Senate approved a 100 per cent increase in the salaries of the National Assembly staff. The reason for this, we were told, was to attract and retain high calibre of staff  in the National Assembly.

This is happening when our foreign reserves and excess crude account are dwindling. The national minimum wage is still N7, 500. On top of this, the Federal Government has proposed a 100 per cent increase in Value Added Tax and a hike in electricity bills. The poor worker who collects N7, 500 a month will enter the same market with the multi-millionaire legislator who is supposed to be representing his interests.

To many of the legislators, the masses hardly matter. Penultimate week, the Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, challenged national lawmakers from the state to account for the allocations to their constituencies. He further accused a Rep member in his state of squandering the allocation meant for road construction in his constituency. Although some Peoples Democratic Party lawmakers from the state dismissed Oshiomhole’s statement with a wave of the hand, there is no doubt that our lawmakers need some form of deliverance from their greed.

But do you really blame them? To get to any elective post in Nigeria, you spend a lot of money to sponsor your campaigns. Or you get a godfather who bankrolls the expenses and demands returns on his investment.

 The other day, the operatives of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency apprehended one Eme Ayortor at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. The man, who swallowed a 2.120kg of cocaine, was on his way out of the country before the bubble burst. According to reports, he went into the drug business to recoup what he spent in his failed bid to win a House of Assembly seat in Edo State.

It is sad that our lawmakers are too sensitive to personal money matters but too lackadaisical when it comes to public service. There is a pending Freedom of Information Bill, which if passed, ensures that each time there is a surreptitious move to siphon public funds, citizens can, as a matter of rights, ask questions and demand immediate answers. A legislature with public interest at heart has no reason delaying the passage of that bill.       

Last Saturday, we marked 11 years of uninterrupted democracy. Within these years, a lot of oil dollars came our way. What have we achieved with this money? Poor infrastructure. Dying industries. Comatose hospitals. Malnourished children who die at the stroke of a cane. Abject poverty. Mass unemployment. Threats to security of lives and property. Dilapidated schools. Inflated contracts.

Pathetic! Last week, the Presidential Committee on the Assessment of Federal Government Projects discovered that the N63.8bn contract for the construction of the second runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja was over 30 per cent higher than the actual rate. The committee has renegotiated the job and saved the nation N13bn. Happily, the Federal Executive Council has approved the constitution of an inter-ministerial committee on high cost of contracts in Nigeria said to be the highest in West Africa.  

Unless we curb the influence of money in our politics; unless we see elective offices as a call to serve rather than to be served, we may never get out of our self-inflicted mess. As the new British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, put it, “If we don’t bring sense to the public finances, we can’t do any of the good things that we want to do.”

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