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Monday, August 29, 2016

Part-time legislature: IBB’s belated panacea and lawmakers’ baggage

Zainab Suleiman Okino
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Part-time legislature: IBB’s belated panacea and lawmakers’ baggage 

Former military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd), does not shy away from controversies. Consciously or inadvertently, he courts them. Last week, he used the occasion of his 75th birthday to regurgitate the recurring issue of part-time law-making as a panacea to the economic recession and resultant hardship being witnessed in Nigeria.
Whenever the subject of economic downturn engendered by the drop in revenue from oil and other financial difficulties comes up, attention is always focused on members of the National Assembly and their excesses and how they have become a drainpipe on our lean national resources. On the social media, figures are bandied about to prove their culpability. The retired general’s tirade last week is not in isolation. To be sure, IBB is not alone in this thought, but coming from a former head of state and a statesman, part-time legislature is now on the top burner of our national discourse. IBB who said he made the same proposal as military president noted: “In 1989, we proposed that the National Assembly should be made a part time and I still believe if I have the opportunity, I will make it a part-time. I strongly believe in it and it is all in an effort to reduce the high cost of governance and I know I may be in trouble for suggesting part-time legislature”
With due respect to the revered general and former military president, the military institution, his constituency entrenched the skewed federalism we now practise, and which conversely brought about the centralisation of governance. Under the military-fashioned constitutions we have had, including IBB’s, the federal government wields enormous powers and controls over 50 percent of the nation’s resources. It is the same military that midwifed the current constitution and the last 16 years had not seen significant amendments. So how can a man who ruled for eight years, instituted diarchy, established a two-party system, cancelled presidential primary election that was on course to produce a candidate, annulled the freest presidential election in the nation’s history and stepped aside on his own terms say he did not have ample opportunity to make his later-day theory of part-time legislature a reality? It is either IBB did not have the political will, at a time the country had the resources, or as a converted democrat, he now has a new perspective because, a new reality has dawned on all of us.  
In the US where states are not appendages of the federal government, only about nine states out of 50 have full time legislatures. So the same military, starting from General Yakubu Gowon’s time ensured the states do not have the autonomy to do things their own way, while encouraging uniformity, in a federation that does not even allow the exploration of mineral resources on the concurrent list. That’s why back water states like Kogi, Taraba, Yobe and Ebonyi, to mention but a few, are maintaining full-time legislatures, the same way oil rich Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom; an  insignificant percentage (executive inclusive) gulping the state’s allocation/resources at the detriment of the entirety of the people and much needed infrastructure development.
To the law-makers who have been in the forefront in their condemnation of the IBB bitter pill, there is the need for reflection on current happenings at the National Assembly. How many bills on welfare and poverty alleviation, as they concern the people who voted them to office do they initiate, deliberate upon and pass into law. How many pro-people bills were passed by the 7th National Assembly?
 Since the beginning of the new dispensation, the members have spent more time on proposed immunity clause for themselves, how to curtail the powers of CCB and budget padding as it favoured them than making laws for the good of the generality of the people, while many have stopped going home, and are unperturbed about negative tendencies in their constituencies. Take the example of Rep Abdulmumuni Jibrin. He is in the House for the third time. Until the bubble burst lately, he has always wangled his way into ‘juicy’ committees in exchange for his support for the leadership of the House. Most contracts for constituency projects are always awarded to the lawmakers, who either execute the jobs haphazardly or do nothing at all after collecting the contract money depending on their political affiliation. 
Sincerely, even with our lean resources, Nigerians will not broach the idea of part-time legislature if their lawmakers think out of the box and make laws for the peace and progress of the nation. Nigerians perceive them as corrupt career politicians adept at budget padding, while abdicating their responsibilities.
Despite IBB’s later than never proposal, I’m convinced that one way to get out of our economic quagmire is to reduce expenditures, not only in the legislature, but even at the executive level. We have an agency statutorily empowered to fix the emoluments of political appointees—the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission, (RMFC) which to the best of my knowledge, is also constitutionally independent.  Why is that agency keeping quite in the face of the current economic crunch? Why is it left out of this debate? Who is gagging RMFC? Is it not this same agency that fixed these bogus salaries, allowances and perquisites of office? Why has it not summoned up the courage to reduce same to reflect the current economic challenges?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Religious subsidy, budget padding in a nation of frivolities

The Nigerian political elite has a way of diverting people’s  attention from serious developmental defects to mundane matters that sometimes border on the personal interest of a few people, but which are given patriotic colouration.  Some of these overlooked issues affect our reputation as a nation but are taken for granted by those in the position of authority, making Nigeria the butt of jokes all over the world.
Penultimate week, I was on a trip to Dubai enroute to Birmingham, United Kingdom. It was supposed to be a six-hour journey from Nigeria to the UK but I ended up spending almost 20 hours. The choice of Emirates Airline to connect through to Birmingham was informed by the outrageous amount I could not afford to pay for a direct trip, so I chose the long, unwieldy route. Unfortunately, a seven-hour plus journey to Dubai became nine hours because the aircraft had to go to Accra, Ghana to get aviation fuel.
It is an irony that the world’s sixth producer of oil could not make aviation fuel available for visiting airlines. It was scandalous in the least and a huge embarrassment to the Nigerian passengers in the aircraft that their oil-rich country in an era of change failed again to measure up to a global standard. I later learnt from co-passengers that the same aviation fuel problem led to the cancellation of the Lagos to Dubai flight and passengers directed to Abuja for the combined flight. 
Closely strung with aviation fuel scarcity is the skyrocketing cost of kerosene. If you ask me, government should have continued to subsidise kerosene. Here is one product that is closest to the ordinary voting public who cannot afford gas. Kerosene currently sells between N200 and N220 per litre as against NNPC’s fixed price of N150. For years now government has been preaching against tree felling and the need to preserve the environment. Absence of funds to buy cooking gas (where food is even available) have led the masses of this country to resort to cooking with firewood.    
While President Muhammadu Buhari led-government cannot subsidise kerosene to put the basic need of man (food) on the table for the family, the same government has made another costly mistake of making forex available at the official rate to intending pilgrims by way of ‘subsidy’.  The naira is almost N400 to a dollar, but intending pilgrims will get it at the official rate. In a circular said to have emanated from the CBN, the FG would spend N11.92bn to subsidise 65.197 pilgrims at the official rate of N197.Yet the government is said to have stopped the sponsorship of pilgrimages in another classic case of policy somersaults. Apart from sending a bad signal, pilgrimage is the least worry of a hungry man and largely a private affair. It is true what they say that ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ and you can never win any argument concerning religion in this country.
Politicians do use religion to manipulate the people sometimes but definitely not all the time. On the subsidy case, they are beginning to ask questions. One such trite question went viral at the weekend on the social media.  “Why is the government spending N11.92bn to subsidise religious trips when there are over 2.1m Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in 12 Northern states and  FCT, many of whom are dying of starvation in the various IDP camps?” 
 The Naira is in a free fall, inflation is rising, taxes are being raised without commensurate improvement in people’s lives kidnapping is on the increase, robbery has not abated, wanton and indiscriminate killings are on the rise, and Fulani herdsmen are on rampage, yet the populace is only inundated with mundane and insignificant issues like the Fayose/Aisha Buhari altercation, what she wore to the US, the cost of her hand bag, etc.  
Some disputes are pedestrian, yet we dissipate energies and resources on them. More than a year after the coming into being of this government, we are still arguing over how their leadership emerged. Again, does it matter if the leadership would provide strategic direction in governance? After Speaker Yakubu Dogara’s visit to President Buhari over the budget padding controversy, he was accosted by journalists; the question was whether he would resign or not. His response was casual. “Resign for what”? For him as an experienced lawmaker, padding or insertion is within their constitutional power, and as such all the hues and cries are mere storms in a tea cup. Gullible Nigerians took over the personal problem between Speaker Dogara and Rep Abdulmumuni and tore themselves into pieces, while sleeping on their. We should look beyond the budget padding, because it is now a legal document and so a done deal. In any case, at the appropriate time, especially when 2019 is at the corner, all these warring groups would coalesce for a common purpose. 
Although there is virtually no difference between APC and PDP, Nigerians can take each other to the cleaners in defence of one against the other, but for the politicians, it is a free movement between the two. With all the insults hauled at each other by the supporters of Buhari and Jonathan, when the duo met last week, it was all smiles, exchange of banters and camaraderie on display.
Nigerians should stop fighting proxy wars; instead they should demand for good governance, and why such a promising government is falling like a pack of cards. They should ask why there is so much mediocrity in a nation of millions of smart people. Above all Nigerians should ask Buhari, his party and the men at the corridors of power why they have dashed their hopes, so early in the day.