By Abimbola Adelakun
Senator Shehu Sani’s exposé of the jumbo remunerations Nigerian senators award themselves is supposed to be a big thing but, honestly, it is nothing new. We have been through this before. In 2009, the defunct NEXT newspaper reported that lawmakers were not only being overpaid, they were also — and to use the mildest of language — thieves as well. In the same year, Prof. Olusola Adeyeye, (now a Senator but then a House of Representatives’ member) also gave a ground-shattering interview where he revealed that not only were lawmakers given an official licence to rob, they had virtually institutionalised means by which the money they parcelled out to themselves would evade accountability. Lawmakers’ mindless thieving from the public is, in short, legally sanctioned and constitutionally protected.
Two years later, the current Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, who was the then Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, raked muck about lawmakers’ emoluments when he stated that 25 per cent of the overhead in the Nigerian budget was expended on the National Assembly alone. The issue was very controversial then; it generated fierce reactions from Nigerians across different party affiliations. The lawmakers threw a fit and asked Sanusi to appear before their Committee on Appropriation and Finance, to take back his claim and apologise to Nigerians for painting the lawmakers in their true colours. Sanusi remained adamant and continued to back his claims with more facts until they let him be. Aside from all those episodes, the lawmakers have also been taken up on their furniture allowance, wardrobe allowance, expensive car purchases, and all the inordinate amounts of money they rake into their bottomless pockets.
In summary, Nigerians are already fully aware that lawmakers earn humongous pay. The lawmakers, ashamed of the sizes of their package, will change the subject if you ask them what they earn. Sani disclosed that the members of the upper chamber of the National Assembly each get a running cost of N13.1m, in addition to a consolidated salary of N750,000 per month, and are also offered another N200m per annum to execute constituency projects. Senate spokesperson, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullah, confirmed what Sani said and then added that the news was not “new.” Abdullahi accepted their faults, but he did not commit to reforms. Merely mouthing all the right things suggests that the Senate thinks Sani is just stirring the pot for his benefit and that any reaction that accompanies his revelation is just another storm in the Nigerian glass cup. The cup is unlikely to break, but the breaking of the storm within the cup makes for a good distraction while it lasts.
The issue might not be novel, but that should not mean it should be allowed to recur in the same unevolved manner perpetually. Between the legislature, the executive, and the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, reforms are quite possible if only they would take the initiative. Instead, each side points to the other and asks them to go first. In the end, almost nobody moves except for those who want to use the controversy for public posturing and to demonstrate their hypocrisy. At some point, something has to give. Nigeria is haemorrhaging, and the poorer people should not be the only one making sacrifices; our leaders have to make as many sacrifices as possible too. Challenging themselves to reduce their emoluments should not be mere showboating but creating fiscal responsibility and the institution of accountability in our social and political life. In another one year or so, many candidates who are currently governors in their home states will be angling to make it to the National Assembly, and particularly to the upper chambers where the pay is higher. (The Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, has already accorded himself that fantasy long before he leaves office next year). They will carry over the undemocratic habits they have turned into a culture in their home states to Abuja thus maintaining the cycle of corruption, incompetence, and irresponsibility. If we do not institute better democratic practices, we will circle this mountain forever.
Although Abdullahi claimed that it was becoming harder to steal constituency project allowance these days since there are NGOs and civil society groups that track every allocation to ensure they are being used appropriately, the fact remains that the legislature is found wanting in its duty of instituting better democratic practices for itself and other Nigerians. They are reluctant to challenge Nigeria on our culture of accountability because doing so means they will have to come to terms with their own private habits. They will have to confront the questions that have been put to them gazillion times: Does Nigeria need lawmakers that supposedly work full time? Can we afford a bicameral legislature? In 2012, Senegal voted to do away with their Senate so they could save up to $15m in government spending. Until Nigerian leaders get to the stage where they would rather do a lot of good for the people than pay supposed servant leaders whose appetites remain insatiable, these topics will be coming and going every season like an abiku. The blurring of ideological lines between political parties in Nigeria makes it harder to deal with issues from the standpoint of what is ideal. Once upon a time, a party called Action Congress of Nigeria made us believe that they were the “progressives.” Today, they and their non-progressive counterparts are ruled by a singular ideology: Money.
Senator Sani said he chose to speak up because his conscience was pricked. What suddenly activated his conscience after he has been paid the sum for almost three years? The same Sani who bragged that he gave bigger alms to the poor during 2015 Ramadan than his opponents did? Sani boasted that some gave out rams and goats, but he went further to distribute camels. A man who is allocated N200m as the allowance for constituency projects and turns around to give out camels to the impoverished folks in his district is hardly a Robin Hood. He is still a privileged landowner who is merely buying fealty through the paths of his people’s greedy and hungry throats. Nevertheless, I agree with those who have said that Sani should be supported for daring to speak out and at such a crucial time too. Yet, it is hard to shake off cynicism about Sani and his intentions.
Where was his voice in November when Senator Adeyeye was shouted down in their so-called hallowed chambers for his recommendation that lawmakers and other politicians should slash their allowances in the face of the reality of dwindling national revenues? If Sani and the “common-sense Senator,” Ben Murray-Bruce, had stood up with Adeyeye and the three had challenged their colleagues, maybe, it would have encouraged one more person to stand up, and another, and then another. Murray-Bruce is another critic whose status as an internal rebel in the Senate is not easily classifiable. In 2015, when the issue of wardrobe allowance arose, and he was shamed for not bringing the change he promised to the National Assembly, he jumped on another issue in Osun State to deflect from his own contradictions. He promised to donate his share of wardrobe allowance to Osun State workers who were going through hard times because their salaries had not been paid. After that peacocky show, has he been rejecting other payments? In 2016, there was an outrage over the lawmakers buying Toyota Land Cruiser as official cars and at grossly inflated prices, where was he?
The mass outrage that accompanied the Sanusi debacle should have been the decisive factor in this issue, but once it began to peter out and the focus on the lawmakers slackened, they relaxed their reforms. By a few days’ time, if this current episode blows away and Nigerians move on to other things they consider more pressing, the lawmakers would have scored another victory at the collective expense.