By Hon Bimbo Daramola
The penultimate week was not the week of federal lawmakers. The endangered species had to come into fresh national prominence to face the rage of the Nigerian people who largely elected them as their representatives from the length and breadth of this country. The umbrage started from the perception of the Nigerian people that the national assembly, particularly the senate was in the process of passing into law Child marriage.
Not a few of those who drew their swords against the senate had the presence of mind to realise that much as they are entitled to their opinions, Senator Sanni Yerima was entitled to his, particularly with his legendary track record of not being afraid to stand alone in pursuit of contentious issues, remember his Sharia advocacy when he was Governor. Regardless of the perceived inapproprety of his line of thought, he is still entitled to share his opinion, just as those opposed to this proposition are entitled to theirs. Beyond this, law making process was reduced to the declaration of Senator Yerima or the Senate alone. The hoopla this generated almost came across as if the law will be passed next minute, without regard for the fact that it will take a longer process. Regardless, whenever parliamentarians are accosted, the retort question is “are you one of those people legalizing child marriage?” I bet that was the situation that the senator from Ondo was confronted with and he was overwhelmed and broke down in tears.
The second issue that drew the flak of the people was the constitution amendment process in the house of representatives, again a section of Nigerians drew their swords and went for blood of the representatives. Again, disregarding the fact that this is just one level in the spectrum of the law making or amendment process, and to be able to conclude the process, a whole lot more will still have their inputs either formally or informally, again regardless, the Federal law makers didn’t escape unscathed. The crown of this mob action against the legislators is the all time vexatious issue of the salaries and allowances of the federal lawmakers.
I was initially inclined to also adopt a siddon look attitude to this until three major incidencesdrew me out to at least offer a different shade of opinion on this sore issue, not as if Nigerians would be dispassionate when reading this, because already this reportage which I believe has gone viral, just got a renewed orchestrated impetus and choreographed in the past one week. In a space of one week, virtually all the newspapers in Nigeria had used the story fromdifferent sides and angles, either as a feature story or indeed an editorial under blistering captions and headings as usual; such as Legislators Jumbo Pay! How Legislators Loot Nigeria Blind, Nigerian Lawmakers are the highest paid in the world and all that.
I began to take a second look for a number of reasons, first is the experience I personally had at the Arik dedk, Ikeja GAT on the day The Nation Newspaper used the story as editorial after leadership or Daily Trust and others had variously used it. I was trying to get a ticket at the Arik Desk and was in line, after getting my ticket, I stepped aside to weigh my luggage, one of which is the famous Ghana must go bag. And behind me, somebody who I guess saw my identity card retorted “na so dem dey use Ghana must go to pack our money!” I turned back and he smiled wryly and said “Honourable mi o bu yin o (i’m not abusing you), this is what we read in the papers!”
Second reason, a Distinguished Senator told me he had only just got back from another tasking day in the office and barely slumped into a couch to rest when his 10 year old daughter came with a newspaper and asked, Daddy is it true that they said you are a thief stealing Nigeria’s money, initially, he said it didn’t make sense to him, until the daughter referred to another newspaper as the source! Now you will be a bad parent if you let this ride from a 10 year old girl.
Now with these two events in quick succession, I began to wonder if it will be a dignified silence if one decides to keep quiet as this largely over bloated and seriously embellished story so out of real context of our environment acquires unwholesome dimension and seen as the truth and nothing but the truth. I am inclined to comment on this issue basically because I am a parliamentarian at the house of representatives and one out of the 489 federal parliamentarians.
I know that Nigerians may not take my contribution with as much as a pinch of salt because an image of rapacious vampires had been created and very rife already, and my lone voice will definitely be drowned by the higher decibel of set positions already taken as well choreographed in the past week of dumping the stories by all major newspapers in this country and surprisingly and shockingly too, some of them quoted The Economist magazine as the source of the story! To me a foreign magazine belching an exclusive story for our print media to amplify says a lot.
Secondly, I am of the opinion that this appears like an organised attempt by some special interests that the activities of the federal legislators had ruffled and decided to fight back. In Nigeria today, the easiest way and the top of the chart item to attract national opprobrium is to accuse anybody of sleaze just as this story of legislators’ Jumbo pay is expected to attract or attracting. For me therefore, I feel its incumbent on me to at least educate the malevolent cynics and the deliberately ignorant to enlighten the open minded and shed light, and for those who are inclined to objectivity, it will be recorded that at least one of the 489 federal parliamentarianssaid a word rather than letting this story ride in the shape it is being dished out to innocent Nigerians. In making this attempt, I will dwell on some personal experiences and information available to me and will also try to contextualise my views in the believe that the tide of mobjudgement will be stymie the federal legislators dilemma could at best be properly evaluated.
At the take off of the 7th assembly House of Representatives, our beloved speaker, Right Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal (AWT) directed that an agenda be set for the 7th assembly house of representatives; the first time ever. Among several issues that came up for discussion by the20 man team. By the grace of God, I am one of the 20 working with some representatives of NGOs, CBO, etc was the then battered image of the parliament particularly the house of representatives as a result of the immeasurable scandals that characterised the 6th session, some bothering on malfeasance and sleaze. When we got to the item of ‘image management’ and public perception of the house, I recall that we all agreed that the image of the house had been so battered and seemingly at its lowest ebb. So it became very topical that we fashion out how to redeem the image if the house. The issue of salary and remuneration came up. At the end of the day, the present speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal decided that the renumeration of the parliamentarians be reduced by a third of what the previous house members earned to reflect the mood of Nigerians, and the present members at Executive session of the house ratified that position till date. This is a demonstration of the willingness of the parliamentarians to deal with sleaze.
Secondly, among the issues that the newspapers mentioned is the issue of official cars, well let me educate those who do not know that parliamentarians in as far back as 1959 were given Chevrolets. The best at the time. Alhaji Side Ali, parliamentarian from Kano told me. So giving official vehicles to the parlimentarians is not new, and besides, all major functionaries of government from councillors to local government chairmen, to commissioners, assistants and advisers, state assembly to the federal government functionaries all have official cars, the parliamentarians only get one official car through their tenure, ministers and director generals not only have a fleet, of not less than 3 vehicles, that are changed after 2 years, and new ones brought while they get to acquire the old fleet.
Another principal reason why I am offering my voice to this choreographed attack is the fact that these attempts have their ways of eroding the dignity of important an institution and arm of government that the legislature is. I know when the dignity is eroded via the fiery darts fired at the federal legislators, the respect that the institution this arm of government should have will evaporate and so the practitioners, and I believe very strongly that we cannot afford to have a national assembly that is bereft of institutional respect and regard from the citizenry. If we let that happen, then the constitutional role of the institution cannot be fully discharged. These have grave consequences. So I need to lend my voice, if only to salvage the institution.
In the same vein, if we let this damaging effort sink into the people, we would haveinadvertently encouraged a systemic misconception of who a legislator is, so much that , when a legislator shows up, he is seen as the latest noveau riche, a money bag, and all that, as if what he or she does is to wake up and once he shows up in National Asembly, his task for the day is to pick the Ghana must go for the day and goes home.
Already, Nigerians are made to believe that the national assembly does not do anything and they just get paid “jumbo salaries” for nothing! And worse still at the expense of hapless and helpless Nigerians. Unfortunately, this is the worst lie from the pit of hell. Even though I believe the national assembly can and indeed should do more that it is doing presently, I dare say even the national assembly performing at its suboptimal capacity as it is today, has remained the greatest anchor of hope of rescuing our nation from the brinks and edge of precipice that we are being pushed economically, socially, politically and in many ways. Imagine a Nigeria without a national assembly to step in with doctrine of necessity while the impasse ocassionedly the ill health of our former president lasted which nearly brought the nation to a standstill? Imagine a Nigeria without a national assembly, what will happen with the fuel subsidy scam, rural power initiatives, Maina and pensioners money, fraudulentprivatisation process, non remittance of money to federal account etc. These are few national issues from which the national assembly has earned credits, not to mention the several less sensational interventions of the national assembly. I have digressed to add all these because of the way these reports also portrayed the national assembly as a bunch of people fleecing the country. Now in clear and specific terms, it is patently untrue to say the national assembly’s budget of N150Bn fixed over the past 6 years is equal to one third of the national budget!!! It was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the CBN Governor in one of his all knowing“Mallamic” vituperations said the national assembly takes one third of the national budget. I had to check my maths again to ascertain how N150Bn can be equal to one third of a budget of N4.8 – 4.9Trillion in the past three years. Just by the way, Nigerians should challenge Sanusi to declare his earnings allowances and of his office. No legislator in Nigeria today comes anywhere near what Sanusi earns.
Now, it is important to let Nigerians realise that national assembly is not just 489 people i.e 109 senators and 360 members of the house of representatives. The national assembly is made up of the legislators, (489), all legislative aides up to 3000 Nigerians, each has 5 aides. The management and staff of national assembly i.e. the civil servants, we also have Nigerian Institute of Legislative Students and its staff.
So it is erroneous and malevolent prejudice for anybody to say the legislature takesremuneration amounting to N150Bn and indeed a third of national budget. I think people should recall their maths teachers for refresher courses. Now it is pertinent to also add that maintenance of the facility i.e. the national edifice that the structure of the national assembly is, is also maintained and serviced out of this amount of money, not to talk of live coverageof investigative hearings among other legislative activities that goes on there. Nigerians can take their minds back and try to put a cost to the coverage of the fuel subsidy exercise and you will be begin to appreciate what goes on in the bowels of the assembly. Unlike other arms of government, it is difficult to see literally what the legislators do. They are not the executive arm that can put on television or in newspapers the road tarred no matter how badly or schools built, the work of the legislator cannot be seen most times in physical sence, so it is easy for people to say that we do not do anything or contribute anything. What an ignorance!
Unfortunately, its patently wrong to serve to Nigerians poisoned dishes by hatchet people pushing out scripts of special interest people or group that seems to sell this bad outlook to Nigerians. As I have said very many times, the legislator is like the heart in the human body, while the executive arm is like the head, everybody sees the head and gives the head credit for all things the human being does, and only few bother to acknowledge the tiny organ, the heart that beats and with every beat guarantees that the human being is still alive. The heart is tucked in the body but continues to beat.
To underscore the importance of the heart, protective body armour are worn over the chest area to protect the heart rather than the head most times, because a shot taken at the head, the human may survive, not too many people will survive a shot at the heart. So its imperative that the legislature be protected and defended. I am against malfeasance and sleaze andactions that could imply taking advantage of the people particularly the impoverished Nigerians in their millions, but I think the legislators are not the ones to be blamed for the way we are in this country today. Indeed, were if not for the legislators, I am sure things would have been worse, when one looks at the idea of constituency projects initiated to attend to the localised problems of every constituency, yet the Executive finds it difficult to accent to this and other interventions of the legislators in a lot of ways under the guise that legislators take the project for pecuniary satisfaction. I have not in 2 years.
The reality is that no minister today knows Oye and Ikole local government areas, the two local government areas making up my constituency more than me. So if and when I push forward projects that will meet the specific needs of my people and issues are made out of, it should show who really cares for the people. The projects are not given to me to execute neither am I involved in its award. My input starts with the identification and nomination of location of the projects within an envelope that is predetermined by the executive arm and you only get to monitor the projects that is if they are captured and slated for execution in the first place. Talking about other interventions that make the Federal Legislators endangered species. I will be quick to address the mind of Nigerians to some clear realities and fact.
Fact number one, I am one of the seven members of the house that the United State of America state department sent on a 5 state study of the American system in 2011. We went under IVLP initiative and that provided us the opportunities to interact with the American system. In one of our interactions, we met with Senator Chris Coons of North Delaware, and I pointedly asked him how much he earns and what he does with his money and the management of his constituents. Senator Chris Coons told us an average senator has a salary, but has allowance to the values of $2.6m for the running of his office. I dare say no Senator in Nigeria gets this amount to run his office. The amounts being bandied around by the deliberately ignorant and nay sayers is the equivalent of the running cost of the Nigeriansenator is way lower than 2.6 million dollars.
My last check on congressional salaries and allowances of American federal legislators by Ida. A. Burnich even shows that it could be more. It is a surprise that The Economist Magazine did not report this and those who choose to echo the evil plots to denigrate and colour the federal legislators as bad the national assembly have never said or referred to this amount of money which the senator said is for every senator to run his office and the amount is retired every year, just as the distinguished senators in Nigeria must retire their running grants.
I also asked the senator and the now late Congressman Donald Payne how they manage constituent demands on them. I cannot remember the running cost of the congressman, but I know its over one million dollars too, I checked from the same Congressional Salaries and Allowances report, it is over one million dollars.
These two gentlemen told us that they do not have direct intervention obligations to their constituents in any way. I am sure these people who have chosen to demonise Nigerian federal legislators cannot ignore what every federal legislators in Nigeria go through.
It is imperative to clearly indicate or reiterate the fact that huge compensation for little or work that is not commensurate with input is not only criminal, it is al best a demonstration of insensitivity. So I can never be an advocate or a proponent of such, having being a parliamentarian for two years, I am in a position to also share the other side of this job with Nigerians, peradventure, Nigerians will be able to situate their anger in the proper context, and possibly be able to realise that any attempt to compare the Nigerian Federal Legislators with his or her counterparts abroad is like comparing light and day, not apples and oranges. It cannot be a fair comparison to look at the wages, allowances of both sides without comparing ancillary prevailing and associated environments.
First and foremost among the operators of the three arms of governments, the legislators are the most vulnerable. How many “ordinary” Nigerians can stroll into the government houses or the Villa? Or indeed to the aseptic deepest recess of the judiciary? But for the federal legislators, in spite of the security layers introduced as a result of the height of insecurity in the land, regardless, Nigerians in their hundred of hundreds daily throng the National Assembly everyday to see the legislators.
With these daily visits, there is no legislator today in the National Assembly who sees less than fifty constituents and other coming for one assistance or the other, from letters of recommendations for non-existent jobs, to unlimited requests for financial assistance real or phony, ostensibly because the noise out there is that legislators only just go to the National Assembly to pick the Ghana must go for the day. We are closest tier to the people and that comes with huge responsibilities. This is NOT the case with our contemporaries all over the world.
Entry to the parliament is restricted! If one leaves the ones who make it to the national assembly, I will be surprised if our contemporaries in other countries wake up every day to find between 200 – 300 short messages on their phones, this is a modest number, I have records of mine, and daily have to take over 600 calls, and ninety fiver per cent of the sms and calls are various forms of request for assistances and support in one form or the other, they include, medical intervention, payment of school fees, roofing of constituent houses, foundation laying, festivities e.g Christmans, Sallah, Visa and passport fees for those emigrating, and lots more. I am afraid , in NO other profession do people get to attend those types of limitless requests and certainly not the unwritten responsibilities of our contemporaries in other climes that people are quick to compare us with.
As part of “our duties” as federal legislators is to carry the burden of everybody and the extended relations of everybody that voted for you or who claims to have voted for you. And God help you if you do not try to do this..
When we were sworn in in 2011, a friend and colleague of mine, Honourable Ezeiuche Ubani saw me with huge stack of tellers that my aides have organised after payment to people’s accounts, and he pulled me aside and told me that I need to be careful because alot of federal legislators who are reputed to have collected “jumbo salaries” in a space of one year are flat broke, not put of their recklessness in eighty per cent of the cases, its because attempts to meet all the demands of constituents eventually rip a huge hole in your pocket. I can attest to this. Today, I can safely say that many of us parliamentarians have huge exposures to financial institutions, if you give N10,000 at the minimum to 50 persons every day, I do not see how a parliamentarian can survice that, yet our nay sayers calls us the looters. I can safely confirm that this is not the case in other climes.
For a minute, compare this scenario to every unelected official of government for instance in the executive arm, having ascertain that this can never happen in climes. When a minister or special assistant, or special adviser steps out of Abuja, his travels cost are borne by the parastatal or ministry that he or she supervises, secondly, if he or she goes to his or her village, NOBODY swarms them asking for one thing or the other as the case with federal legislators, indeed they have armed policemen who will prevent people from seeing them, the people also realise that they didn’t made them ministers, or special adviser or assistants, so they rarely go to them. But for federal legislators, anytime we go to our constituency, we are regaled with innumerable demands from individuals, from lowly to the high, your constituents, groups, associations.
For God’s sake, how can a parliamentarian survive. So when they churn out stuff like Nigerian Legislators are the highest paid in the world which is patently untrue as I will also show, people should be honest enough to for once admit that we are at best conduit or channels or redistribution, I do not know of any of my colleagues who does not have a similar experience to share, just as I have shared here. What we face are Jumbo Demands and Challenges which I dare say we only barely manage to live on. I can prove this in kobo lay kobo terms. I need not tell anybody that parliamentarians in other climes do not have these responsibilities to bear, in the face of system capacity of state to offer education to those who desire to, access to medicare, and nobody looking up to any parliamentarian for these or even subsistence.
Not done yet, federal legislators in Nigeria are also expected to be “government”, we are expected as part of the reason why we are voted to undertake personal projects such as repair works in broken down hospitals, and even build new ones as yours truly is doing, you undertake road works, build schools, have the events fondly referred to as “empowerment programme” where your constituents benefit from the “Jumbo Pays” i.e buy motorcycles, deep freezers, give cash out etc. I dare say NO PARLIAMENTARIANS in any of the climes they gloatingly referred to in other climes get to do this.
How did we get here? The people are impoverished, social security is non-existent, systems have collapsed, no jobs and lot more, so under this circumstance, the legislators who already has been sold as a money bag must step in to the rescue. 85% if our constituents do not realise the job of the legislator, it is how many or how much of those I have enumerated above that a legislator does that makes him a good legislator to our constituents, and regrettably the way we have been portrayed by those who are festering the gap between us and the people completely made us endangered. We on one hand are seen as “Agbada” flying rapacious people while, we do not have a chance to breath because of the choking effect of the huge innumerable demands of our people, and the circumstance of Jumbo salary earner, why not, they sure deserve a piece of the action. So we are caught between the rock and the hard place.
From all indication this is a battle we may never win, and if we will, not by my response, but by this response. I am happy that at least I have put out there enough to chew for those who do not know, but which will definitely not gel with those who are biased and prejudiced. For now, we remain the endangered species.
Hon. Bimbo Daramola is a member of Federal House of Representatives. He is representing Ekiti North Federal Constituency1.