Japheth J. Omojuwa: National Assembly; We Are Watching

The National Assembly is its biggest argument against its own usefulness. Many will argue that if despite its many days of holidays Nigeria still runs, it is very likely that this tier of government is either surplus to requirements or should be reduced to just one House. I haven’t taken a critical look at the essence of a bicameral National Assembly in Nigeria and I totally believe in the value of a virile legislative arm.

What I find most annoying about the National Assembly is that it is run like its members are volunteers who are serving the people without getting paid for the same. On the contrary though, our lawmakers are some of the highest paid in the entire world. When you balance their pay against the poverty of our country, they are the most bizarrely paid lawmakers in the world.

When it should be helping to lay the foundations for the reforms and change promised by the new administration, the Eighth National Assembly showed the biggest indication yet that we haven’t really moved that far from 1999. They had to resort to fighting to settle a leadership disagreement. Pupils watching that on TV would fail to believe they were watching their national leaders while “bus conductors” will wonder why they are the ones referred to as touts when their union leadership gets to organise peaceful elections more often than not.

The Eighth National Assembly has had a pretty poor start. That would not matter much if they were paid according to the actual work done or as part-time lawmakers. Instead, they are paid full-time. According to the budget tracking platform, BudgIT, the National Assembly has only sat for 15 days and been on recess for 12 weeks since inauguration on June 8. If you take five working days for each week, the National Assembly has been on recess for about 60 days. So, our lawmakers essentially go on a break for four days for every day they make an appearance at plenary. That is not even the entire story. The recess costs the Nigerian people in terms of the productivity of the lawmakers and in terms of much more measurable naira. In that period, each senator has earned N36.4m, each Representative has earned N25m and they all as a collective have earned N13bn! This N13bn has produced zilch (0) number of passed bills. So, we have spent N13bn on nothing but zero!

This is not how to run a country and this is certainly not representative of the change Nigerians voted for. Our well-overpaid senators rejected a new payment structure. You’d be happy to pay a senator who does his or her job well but in what part of the world does a senator who spends more time on holidays than he does making laws ask for more pay?

Do our lawmakers even realise that for every N1 we pay them, we deprive the 11 million Nigerian children out of school a chance to get an education? Are our senators aware that each time they cash their pay, we have chosen to have reducing maternal mortality as our alternative forgone? Are they in any way conscious of the fact that the average Nigerian is poor, jobless or homeless? Does it matter to them that the people they make laws over are mostly illiterates living on less than a dollar a day? Do they really count the rest of us fools and powerless? Are they conscious of the fact that the clean-up the Nigerian people orchestrated at the Executive level in 2015, the same clean-up that had a residual effect at the National Assembly can actually be focused on the National Assembly the next time round?

Under ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, the National Assembly was able to survive on N50bn/year. Under that same administration, the national minimum wage was N18,000. Ever since, the National Assembly has consistently been on N150bn/year while the national minimum wage has not moved one inch.

Still lean, still meagre, still keeping the Nigerian worker as poor as ever! The Executive arm alone cannot deliver the much-needed reforms but if it could, why would we need the National Assembly anyway? By the letter of the law, the lawmakers are the direct voices of the people.

They are literally the people in government. By the definition of democracy, the lawmakers are the very essence of “government by the people.” This has been far from the reality in Nigeria. The people do not feel represented by most of our lawmakers. There is an absolute disconnect between these representatives of the people and the people democracy expects them to represent. Something has to give!

President Goodluck Jonathan’s turbulent reign prevented Nigerians from seeing the disaster that was David Mark’s leadership of the National Assembly. Some would argue Mark was a worse leader than Jonathan. Anything went and the Yay/Nay operations were guaranteed to keep power in the hands of the Senate President.

Because that “Yehs” is louder than the “Nays” is not essentially what counted under the Mark leadership, it was a kind of loudness being in the ears of the beholder. You probably saw the Senate President pass an alleged election rigger as minister against the stand of his lawmakers but Mark may not have as many mouths as the other lawmakers, what he hears determines whether the “Yay” or the “Nay” has it. Expect Nigerians to pay more attention to the National Assembly, If President Muhammadu Buhari gets things right early on. That would mean that running the National Assembly Mark-esquedly would not be permissible under the radar of the people’s attention.

Senate President Bukola Saraki comes on the heels of promising reforms; a transparent National Assembly, an accountable one and a National Assembly that opens itself to scrutiny. He has to contend with his party’s – or at least a section of it – opposition to his leadership. Nigerians will not be listening to excuses if the All Progressives Congress’ Senate fails.

It will not be seen as Saraki’s failure as much as it will be seen as the APC’s. It is in the interest of the APC and Saraki to end their differences so they can focus on delivering the change they promised Nigerians.

The APC’s broom swept some people who actually had no business being in the Senate and other elective positions into such positions. For some senators, leadership is the distribution of Carmel meat and opposition to reforms that cut waste in every form.

For some new governors, governing means taking bad leadership a notch higher from where their predecessors left it.

We have even heard of some who rule according to the dictate of business moguls and economic saboteurs. When the novelty of the APC wears off and the people’s eyes are cleared from the obvious disaster that was the Peoples Democratic Party, the people will use the same APC broom to return some of these people where they belong.

It is early days yet; we still have some three years of solid leadership to deliver to the people before the distraction of elections takes full effect. We will assess each elected officer on the basis of his or her performance. The 2015 demonisation of the PDP will not work in 2019 – except of course the PDP continues to be represented by the obviously empty but ever loud individuals. We are taking scores and each elected officer will answer to the people when the time comes!

This piece was earlier published in The PUNCH Newspaper and is republished here with permission from the author.

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