Legislators’ pay and OBJ’s home truth

By Adebolu Arowolo, aarowolo@punchontheweb.com

Former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, is no doubt a controversial figure. But I think he was bang on the nail when he recently spoke on the unacceptably jumbo remunerations of members of the National Assembly. He simply added his weight to the voice of many powerless Nigerians who had previously written or spoken in vain about the unjust and obscenely bloated salaries and emoluments which our lawmakers have been ‘legislating‘ for themselves since 1999.

Speaking at a retreat, the civil war hero had rightly called on the nation to ”look closely at the legislature so that they can be more open and transparent in the way they do their work. Nobody knows in details how much it costs us to maintain a senator. I believe it is more than N250 million (per annum). Compare what it cost in 1999 and 2000, it cost about $1.7 million compared to a quarter of a million in America… Now let us talk truly and seriously to ourselves; we can‘t continue to have a National Assembly that is consuming a disproportional part of our resources and then expect that we would be able to make progress. They pass budget that can‘t be implemented because it has to be beefed up to satisfy their (legislators‘) whims and caprices. Even what the ministries did not ask for, they add (in the budget).”

I have not read anything about the official response of the legislature to Obasanjo‘s statement. And I think it is not good for the National Assembly to continue to keep quiet and not have an official stand on the raging issue of legislators‘ unsustainably high remunerations. Some legislators that have reacted to Obasanjo‘s speech have spoken with anger. The messenger has been mercilessly vilified, leaving the message unaddressed. I saw Senator Roland Owie‘s response. It was a direct and virulent attack on the former leader. The ex-Senate Chief Whip said, ”How can the pot call the kettle black? He was the creator of corruption. Obasanjo introduced Ghana-Must-Go in 1999 into the National Assembly when he was calling senators into the villa to appeal to us to vote Enwerem instead of Okadigbo. It was the beginning of Ghana-Must-Go.”

Though acerbic, the response of the minority members of the House of Representatives also failed to address the issue of prohibitive cost of running the National Assembly which Obasanjo tried to bring afresh to public domain. Addressing the press on the issue the leader of the caucus, Mr. Alli Ndume of ANPP, said, ”Obasanjo is our father and grandfather in corruption. I cannot sit here and tell you that we are not corrupt… But was it not Obasanjo that bribed every member of the House in 2006 with N50 million to support his failed third term agenda? I want the Press to go and find out what was the asset and bank account of Obasanjo in 1999. Then go and check his bank account now and his assets, then you will understand what I am saying. Obasanjo should have said that all politicians are corrupt.”

These allegations of graft against Obasanjo are quite weighty. But I am sure the ageing statesman is very capable of defending himself. What I must note here is that the altercation between Obasanjo and the legislators has again brought to the fore the issue of worsening venality and its consequences in the nation‘s development. The legislators have not denied the allegation that the Assembly is stinking. What they seem to be saying is that all arms of government are wallowing in the cesspool of official graft and that nobody should single out the lawmakers for blame. Though there are specific issues in the allegations and counter allegations that should attract the attention of anti-graft agencies, the acceptance by all parties to the argument that the monster of corruption is ravaging the system reminds us of the urgent need of a freedom of information law.

We know that cleaner societies that have progressed with good governance have done so by promoting an open society through a FOI legislation which enables the public to peruse government files. Why has it been impossible, for 11 years, to have this important piece of legislation? Has its passage been deliberately frustrated so that access to the till by looters will remain wide and unrestrained?

The attack on Obasanjo should not be allowed to bury or obfuscate the important issue of legislators‘ unjust compensation. The response to Obasanjo‘s statement has been understandably acerbic because truth is bitter. Remember that he is not the only prominent Nigerian to have condemned the jumbo pay of law makers in recent times. At a recent book launch, eminent lawyer and elder statesman, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, reportedly dismissed the legislature as ”House of thieves” and then called for a bloody revolution to sanitise the system. He said his first hand knowledge of the rot in the legislature came from his privileged position as a member of GJ‘s Presidential Advisory Council.

Prof. Itse Sagay even went further at a recent public event to compare our legislators‘ pay with that of their colleagues in richer nations and concluded just like Obasanjo that our lawmakers‘ pay was unacceptably high. In that well-researched paper, Sagay had stunned his listeners when he alleged that the Senate President ”earns N250 million quarterly or N83 million per month whilst his deputy earns N50 million monthly and that while N1.024bn was allocated as quarterly allowance to the 10 principal officers in the upper house collectively referred to as Senate Leadership, each of the other principal officers earns N78m every three months or N26m per month.

In other words, Sagay continued, ”Nigerian lawmakers in Abuja are the highest paid in the world. In 2009, a Senator earned N240m in salaries and allowances, whilst his House of Representatives counterpart earned N203m. A Senator earned $1.7m and a member of the House of Rep. $1.45m per annum.” He then compared Nigerian Senator‘s pay with that of his counterparts in America and Britain who earned $174,000 and $64,000 respectively during the same period.

While Obasanjo talked about the issue of constituency projects, Sagay spoke more forcefully about the issue of constituency allowance. In the past few months I have read the opinions of many prominent Nigerians expressed in interviews and public lectures. I have read the views of Prof. Anya O. Anya, Chief Philip Asiodu, Chief Tom Ikimi and many others. They all tally, more or less, with what Obasanjo said about the rot in the National Assembly. The consensus is that something must be done urgently about the legislators‘ bloated pay.

The National Assembly can no longer afford to keep quiet on the matter. The attacks on Obasanjo have so far failed to douse public interest on the issue. There should be an official statement on the controversial constituency allowances and what they are used for. Individual legislators should come out openly to tell the public what they know about the jumbo allowances and to clear their names. It is interesting that Obasanjo‘s allegation has now moved the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission to begin a probe on the alleged misuse of constituency projects funds and the alleged collection of huge sums of money illegally as constituency allowances. Nigerians are looking forward to the outcome of the probe. The simplest definition of corruption is the abuse of public office for private gains.

Still on $5bn question for Oniwon

It is gratifying that the issue of accountability in the management of the nation‘s oil and gas resources raised in this column last Monday has already attracted the attention of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. According to reports, the Halliburton scandal is now been revisited by the Ministry of Justice and five former officials involved in the case may soon be prosecuted. What remains disturbing is the silence of the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison Madueke, on the issue of $5bn LNG remittances to the NNPC, which the Speaker, Dimeji Bankole, said had not been properly accounted for. The various oil and gas committees of the National Assembly must not leave the matter hanging. Nigerians want to know why the huge sum of money has not been paid into the Federation Account as alleged by Bankole.



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