From the judgement of a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos which orders President Muhammadu Buhari to “urgently instruct security and anti-corruption agencies to forward to him reports of their investigations into allegations of padding and stealing of some N481 billion from the 2016 budget by some principal officers of the National Assembly” to damaging allegations by both former Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, the spotlight is now on our federal lawmakers who are being perceived as no more than cheap bribe-takers.
The situation is not helped by the widespread knowledge that the National Assembly has become the watering hole of high-maintenance ex-governors, semi-literate political contractors, wanted international criminal suspects and some yesterday’s men who are now in desperate need of economic empowerment. Yet, in a situation where lawmakers behave like gangsters, the various executive bodies like ministries and agencies will begin to see their assignments in transactional terms as oversight becomes a ritual of appeasement of the greed of committee members and the budgeting process, which ordinarily should be a serious assignment, degenerates into an annual bazaar.
The whole controversy started with Okonjo-Iweala’s latest book titled, ‘Fighting corruption is dangerous: The story behind the headlines’, where she revealed how the National Assembly was given an additional vote of N17 billion to secure the passage of the 2015 appropriation bill. “In the case of the N17 billion, the book does not talk of bribe. It indicates that lawmakers increased the budget by N17 billion and we had to accept that to move on; hence, the term ‘price to pay’. The reason for discussing what happened is that this approach needs to change” Okonjo-Iweala clarified, in response to sensational newspaper headlines that did not accurately reflect what she wrote in the book that I have also read.
While the public was still digesting that furore, Jega added fuel to the fire by accusing National Assembly members of engaging in corrupt practices in their oversight responsibility. More striking is the fact that he made the accusation in the presence of the entire leadership of the three arms of government in Nigeria: President Buhari, Senate President Bukola Saraki, House of Representatives Speaker, Yakubu Dogara and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. Members of the National Assembly, according to Jega, “engage in bribe taking when they pursue committee works and oversight…Some chairmen of the committees in the National Assembly have become notorious on this issue of demanding bribes with impunity. I have passed through the university system. I have heard so many stories of many vice-chancellors about the horror that they go through on question of budget and so-called oversight assignments.”
Taken together, the Federal High Court decision and the revelations by both Okonjo-Iweala and Jega speak to the lack of transparency and accountability in the budgeting process. But if we point fingers only in the direction of the National Assembly members we will be missing the point and would never get any solution to a problem that has festered for years. If we must be honest, both the executive and the legislature are guilty when it comes to promoting private interests in budgets since they all insert and locate projects in their various communities or that of their spouses, friends or political benefactors.
First, let us deal with Okonjo-Iweala’s allegation. I recall that in July 2012, the then Finance Minister had a similar confrontation with the lawmakers over the budget for that year. Co-incidentally, it was Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila (then in his capacity as House Minority Leader) who also responded by accusing Okonjo-Iweala of double standards. “N6 billion was allocated for water projects. N1.3 Billion of the N6 billion was for the Finance Minister’s village, another N1.5 billion for the president’s place and N3 billion for the rest of the country. Yet she (Okonjo-Iweala) is not elected but you say those elected should not bring development through the budget to their areas” said Gbajabiamila in July 2012 while defending the National Assembly.
Indeed, the indiscriminate siting of projects based on questionable criteria is one of the biggest forms of corruption in the country aside the fact that it is responsible for the waste with which the national landscape is strewn and this is not restricted to the federal government. It is in fact worse in the states where many of the universities are located in the villages of the governors who initiated them. At the federal level, the location of projects also has more to do with where powerful politicians and civil servants hail from than the requirements of national priority and value for money. That, for instance, explains why the federal government would build a Helipad in Daura, Katsina State at huge public expense!
Meanwhile, in defending the water project in her village for which N1.3 billion was allocated in the 2012 budget, Okonjo-Iweala had argued that it was initiated in 2006 by the lawmaker representing her Federal constituency. “The project in question, a dam, was not brought to Ogwashi Uku by me but by a former colleague of the honourable members who was representing the community in the House. But it’s not right to distort facts just to make a point,” she said.
While the lawmakers have been up in arms against Okonjo-Iweala, the antics of some of them neither help their cause nor give any ‘Assurance’ that they are sensitive to public mood. When, for instance, you hear that a principal officer of the National Assembly is competing with Davido on which G Wagon is more expensive to dash a spouse/girlfriend celebrating her birthday, you can only begin to question the source of such wealth that could be spent so recklessly, especially at a period like this in the nation.
Now to Jega’s accusation: Demanding gratifications from heads of federal government agencies, for which a serving minister was once removed and tried, has for long been a recurrent allegation in the National Assembly. Yet, not a single lawmaker has been made to suffer any consequence. That actually is the problem because while the National Assembly is ever quick to suspend members who make accusations that they consider unsavoury to their collective integrity, they never punish those whose conduct also bring shame on the institution. Rather, in almost all the instances, they would do everything to protect such members. Two cases bear out this contrasting posture.
In 2005, a member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Haruna Yerima, publicly accused many of his colleagues of demanding (and receiving) bribes from ministers and heads of government agencies as well as corporate bodies. “Whoever tells you there is no corruption in the House is in fact corrupt. Ministers and heads of parastatals are often asked to bring money by some honourable members so that their budgets can be passed. Most of us are contractors. Most of us come here to make money. Most of our debates are beer parlour debates. No research. We argue like ordinary people on the streets. Our debate is shallow” said Yerima.
As to be expected, Yerima was suspended despite explaining that he did not mean to impugn the integrity of the whole House but rather to expose some individuals who were giving the legislature a bad name. “I did not talk about institutional corruption but individuals and committees. I insist they are corrupt. If I am crucified over it, so be it,” said Yerima at the time. But in the usual ‘trial’ that followed on the floor of the House, the then Deputy House Speaker, Austin Opara recommended that Yerima be taken to “a psychiatric hospital for examination” before he added, “it was in the same manner he lost his job at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) Kaduna as a lecturer.”
In contrast to the manner in which Yerima was dealt with by his colleagues, the April 2012 public altercation between Hon Herman Hembe, then chair of the House committee on Capital Markets and Other Institutions and Ms Arunma Oteh, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) Director General at the time, provided a different outcome. This followed the decision by the House committee to hold a public hearing “to identify the manifest causes of the markets’ near collapse with a view to finding lasting solutions.”
Although the session began with members expressing genuine concerns over the manner in which private investors were being short-changed by the banks and the fact that some companies actually came on the stock exchange for a brief period, garnered considerable funds from investors and then disappeared, the hearing turned ugly when Hembe decided to attack the person of Oteh: “You stayed in a hotel for eight months and spent over N30 million. In one day you spent N85, 000 on food at the hotel. These are the things we should look at to see how you will regulate a market that is collapsing…”
Unprepared for such an attack, Oteh tried to deflect the question but when she came back the next day, she turned the table on her accuser: “Mr. Chairman, I question your credibility to preside over this probe. On 20th October last year (2011), you were given a cheque to travel to the Dominican Republic to attend a conference. Can you tell Nigerians that you returned the money when you did not travel? In asking the SEC to contribute N39 million for this public hearing, don’t you think that you are undermining your capacity to carry out your duties? You also requested that we should provide at least N5million; that was a day before this public hearing started…”
An apparently rattled Hembe tried to bully Oteh into facing what he said were the real issues but he failed miserably. “The issue of corruption or no corruption we should put it aside…I think we should concentrate on the major issue here. Let’s see how we can forge ahead with the hearing and achieve something before the end of the day. I will Chair this committee to the end of this public hearing” said Hembe who was removed from the assignment by the obviously embarrassed House leadership after that encounter. But predictably, he served no punishment.
In dealing with the Hembe issue on this page in March 2012, I wrote: “It should be clear to the National Assembly that the incestuous relationship between their committees and the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) on which they have oversight responsibilities cannot continue. It is an open secret that many of our law makers are the leading contractors in some of these MDAs where they deploy their oversight powers as a weapon of blackmail and intimidation.”
For sure, there are many honest members in the National Assembly just as it is to be expected that in a gathering of such large number, there would be all sorts of characters. But we should also not gloss over the allegation by Jega. The brazen manner in which some lawmakers demand bribes from agencies of government in the course of budget defence cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. The challenge is that because there are no sanctions for bad behaviour, these notorious members (most of who are known to their colleagues) are never checked and thus continue to give the legislature a bad name.
As guest speaker at the second anniversary of the 8th National Assembly on 9th June last year, I had the privilege of sharing with the House of Representatives members my thoughts on their negative image perception against the background that the legislature is the scaffolding that supports the polity and once that structure is contaminated, democracy is endangered. Although some members were uncomfortable with my presentation, Speaker Yakubu Dogara was very gracious afterwards and I believe it would serve the National Assembly well to reflect on some of what I said on that occasion: https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2017/06/09/image-perception-of-the-legislature-causes-and-possible-solutions/.
Meanwhile, I sympathise with the National Assembly because their situation is also peculiar. Their entire budget, as big as it may seem, is not even up to what a chief executive of just one agency under the federal ministry of transport controls and is but a tiny fraction of what the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) can play with in an environment where politics is dictated by patronage. Yet, their constituents expect them to build hospitals, erect schools and foot personal expenses, including the wedding ceremonies of their children. But while they deal with these existential challenges, it is also important for them to understand their critical role and why public attention is always on them.
The principle of separation of powers which defines the strength of our model of democracy demands a very strong and resourceful legislature. It also requires that legislators be above board, enlightened even, in the pursuit of their self-interest. In addition to carrying out routine oversight functions, the legislature is closer to the judiciary in that it is supposed to ensure that the executive maintains order in accordance with the laws it makes.
Given the foregoing, the various allegations of outright extortion, bribery and dubious financial racketeering by our legislators since 1999 have deepened the general negative perception of Nigeria in the eyes of the world. Even at home, the garish ostentation is not helped by the cultic secrecy around their actual emoluments. The public image of the National Assembly is therefore that of a conclave of glorified pick pockets and greedy hustlers. That then explains why there is an increasingly widespread view that what Nigeria needs is a part time legislature or a drastic reduction in the number of the lawmakers.
That is a growing vote of no confidence that should worry the National Assembly members.
Kunle Ajibade @ 60
When the news broke early in 1995 that Mr Kunle Ajibade, an editor with TheNews magazine, had been picked up by the late General Sani Abacha’s goons, no greater message was needed for all journalists in Nigeria to know that they were endangered. More a writer (and one of the finest at that) than a reporter, Ajibade was the least ‘dangerous’ in the newsroom at the time. Yet, he would go on to bag a life sentence for a story he didn’t write ‘as an accessary after the fact of treason’ along with Mr George Mbah, Senator Chris Anyanwu and Mr Ben Obi. As he therefore clocks 60, there can be no doubt that Ajibade has paid his dues both as a respected journalist and a Nigerian patriot. I wish him happy birthday.