The Shehu Sani Revelation and the Right Price of Democracy, By Majeed Dahiru
While it is not in doubt that there is an urgent need to reduce the cost of governance, it will be a danger to democracy to whittle the current pay structure of members of the National Assembly without a corresponding drastic reduction in executive control of the public purse and patronage.
The high cost of running Nigeria’s legislative arm of government, the National Assembly has always been closely scrutinised and criticised by most Nigerians. At the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, a massive public outcry welcomed the privileged perks of office and other financial provisions for members of the National Assembly. These included the provision of accommodation in three bedroom duplexes for each member in the luxurious housing estate known as the Legislative Quarters in Apo, Abuja, with senators (109 of them) and members of the House of Representatives (360 of them) receiving N3.5 million and N2.5 million respectively as furniture allowances. It was also revealed that members of chambers would receive N15,000 (the Senate) and N14,000 (House of Representatives) as seating allowances for each plenary session. Brand new Peugeot 505 saloon (ST) edition cars were procured for the senators, while brand new Peugeot 504 cars (2000) edition were handed over to members of the House of Representatives to ease their mobility.
Coming at the end of a prolonged corrupt and ruthless military rule that left the majority of Nigerians in poverty, the loud outcry against these mouth-watering packages for National Assembly members effectively supplanted the official whispering over other financial remunerations such as basic salaries, allowances and running costs. Members of the National Assembly, the majority of who were drawn from struggling working class and outrightly poor backgrounds, and whose elections were made possible by communal solidarity, became instantly wealthy by virtue of their new statuses as lawmakers. And vain profligacy set in as the new exposure to money and power brought out the beast in man. Completely disregarding the social contract upon which they were elected, most members of the National Assembly covetously converted all monies accruable to their offices to personal use, while the vast majority of their constituents remained in abject poverty.
Realising that the National Assembly had become an avenue to instant money and power, the fourth assembly (2003 to 2007) was invaded by businessmen politicians, who successfully used their personal resources to procure seats from willing constituents who had become disenchanted with the futility of selfless solidarity. With each succeeding assembly proving to be worse than the previous, the political process progressively became heavily monetised and was on sale to the highest bidder. The primitive acquisition of wealth made members of Nigeria’s political class extremely greedy, with a heightened insatiability for funds, thereby leaving the people with little or nothing. Gradually, with the avarice for excessive money in order to sustain political relevance for the main purpose of self-service, some members of the National Assembly, clearly dissatisfied with their legitimate pay, resorted to corrupt collaboration with the executive arm of government to criminally convert public funds to personal use, with this laundered through the process of budgeting. The stage was then set for a prolonged animosity and mistrust between the people and the National Assembly members, whichhave been deepened by monumental corruption scandals that have rocked the legislature since 1999. Members of National Assembly, probably out of the fear of excessive demands, have learnt to conceal their earnings from the people. The true earnings of individual members have been a subject of mystery until recently when Shehu Sani, a senator from Kaduna State, blew open the lid on the amount he earns.
According to Shehu Sani, senators earn a consolidated salary of seven hundred thousand naira each monthly, while having running costs of N13.5 million accruing to them within the same period. Sani also revealed that the sum of N200 million is allocated to each senator as constituency project fund. Expectedly, there has been an upsurge in the public outcry against this unholy sums, with many people calling for a cutting down in the financial privileges of the National Assembly members. Some others have questioned the wisdom behind a bi-cameral legislature with a humongous cost to public resources. In extreme cases, a number of people have equally called for the outright proscription of the national legislature. In all these reactions, it is pertinent to sieve issues from emotions.
The current cost of running the legislature is the right price to pay for democratic governance. And, the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, which culminates in the relatively high financial privileges enjoyed by its members, is largely responsible for the independence of the legislative arm of government from the all-powerful executive. The independence of the Assembly is a condition precedent for the activation of the democratic practices…
The institution of the National Assembly, which is the indicator of Nigeria’s constitutional democracy, must be separated from the conduct of its individual members. The current cost of running the legislature is the right price to pay for democratic governance. And, the financial autonomy of the National Assembly, which culminates in the relatively high financial privileges enjoyed by its members, is largely responsible for the independence of the legislative arm of government from the all-powerful executive. The independence of the Assembly is a condition precedent for the activation of the democratic practices of checks and balances between the three arms of government. While members of National Assembly may not have lived up to full expectation, going down memory lane, they have, on some important occasions, risen up to activate the best side of their legislative duties in patriotic service to the nation.
In the 2006 constitutional amendment exercise, the majority of members of the National Assembly resisted multimillion naira bribes from the executive arm of government and voted in line with the popular choice against the third term agenda for heads of the executive arm in the three tiers of government. Similarly, the National Assembly rose up in 2010 to save the nation from anarchy as a result of a constitutional crisis evolving from the inability of the then barely alive President Umar Musa Yar’Adua to hand over authority to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, before embarking on a prolonged medical vacation overseas. By inventing the doctrine of necessity, the bulk of National Assembly members resisted pressure and patronage from the cabal of inner members of the Yar’Adua administration, that was believed to be ruling Nigeria by proxy and put Nigeria first by unanimously granting a conveyance of legislative approval for Vice President Jonathan to act as president.
By 2011, the House of Representatives resisted executive interference by electing Aminu Waziri Tambuwal as speaker, against Aso Villa’s anointed candidate, Adeola Akande. That historic event had far-reaching consequences in the 2015 elections, which saw an incumbent president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan losing to an opposition figure, Muhammadu Buhari, and serving as an indication of a maturing democracy. In the build up to the 2015 general election, Speaker Waziri Tambuwal led about thirty other members in an unprecedented mass exodus from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) into the then fledging opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). Nine senators also crossed from the PDP into APC. And, this was in addition to regular cases of the close scrutiny of executive policies, programmes and spending. Hence, the independence of the National Assembly enables it to challenge executive recklessness and bullying, by rejecting executive nominees, adjusting financial estimates with recommendations in line with public interests, etc.
If Shehu Sani was a member of the Kaduna State House of Assembly, his human rights activism would have been reduced to dormancy… Because state legislatures are dependent on the executive for breakfast, lunch and dinner, governors have become despots in civilian attires. The situation has been so bad that state assemblies have voted against their own independence and financial autonomy with just the stern look of their governors.
All these may not have been possible with a National Assembly without financial autonomy, and whose members are poorly remunerated in relation to a powerful executive. The current vibrancy in the polity, whereby the National Assembly does not rubber stamp every decision of the executive is very healthy for Nigerian democracy. That Shehu Sani’s has successfully transformed his human rights activism into legislative vibrancy is largely premised on the atmosphere of freedom he enjoys as a member of a legislature that is financially and politically independent of the executive. To his credit, Shehu Sani has the distinction of speaking truth to power and was responsible for exposing corruption in high places, including cases such as the grass cutting scandal that led to the sacking of former SGF Babachir Lawal. Thanks to his N13.5 million a month running cost, he is able to resist bribes that may have compromised his principled stands. Comparatively, the opposite of what obtains in the federal level is responsible for the weak democratic institutions at the subnational level, in the State Houses of Assembly. If Shehu Sani was a member of the Kaduna State House of Assembly, his human rights activism would have been reduced to dormancy or he would have gone on indefinite suspension throughout his four year tenure. Because state legislatures are dependent on the executive for breakfast, lunch and dinner, governors have become despots in civilian attires. The situation has been so bad that state assemblies have voted against their own independence and financial autonomy with just the stern look of their governors.
While it is not in doubt that there is an urgent need to reduce the cost of governance, it will be a danger to democracy to whittle the current pay structure of members of the National Assembly without a corresponding drastic reduction in executive control of the public purse and patronage. There is even a more urgent need to instil fiscal responsibility in the executive to such an extent that not a kobo can be spent without appropriation, while security votes are completely eliminated. Otherwise, Nigeria’s democracy will be greatly undermined if not eroded at the federal level under the pressure of executive bullying, as currently obtainable at the state level.
Conclusively, Nigerians from the 109 senatorial districts and 360 federal constituencies should collectively ensure a better selection process for occupants of National Assembly seats. Political parties should mobilise the people to align their democratic choices of prospective candidates to occupy seats at National Assembly, away from primordial sentiments such as religion, ethnicity and clannish considerations for pragmatic economic issues, such as community development, environmental concerns, trade, taxation and immigration. This will throw up quality law makers who will use the privileges and powers of their positions as incentives to take up the responsibilities of legislating Nigeria unto the path of peace, progress and prosperity.