TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI
Members of the Nigerian National Assembly, and by extension lawmakers across the country, have been under scrutiny lately with regard to their engagements with citizen-voters whose interest they are expected to represent in parliament. Two issues: constituency projects and constituency offices. President Muhammadu Buhari brought the issue of constituency projects to public attention when at an event organized by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), in November, he lamented that there is very little evidence or benefit to the grassroots of the One Trillion Naira that had been earmarked for constituency projects in the last 10 years.
This is the main finding of a tracking report on Constituency Projects conducted by the ICPC, the anti-corruption agency which has further announced that the North East is the most affected region where constituency projects were not carried out, or abandoned either due to Boko Haram insurgency or the negligence of the lawmakers from the area. ICPC is launching a probe. The second issue is that of constituency offices. In its lead story of Monday, December 2, 2019, The Punch newspaper focused at length on the issue of constituency offices: “Five months after inauguration: Senators yet to set up constituency offices – Lawmakers shun constituents. People seek assistance for social events – Senators,” the paper declares. I intend to deal with this latter issue first and subsequently return to the matter of constituency projects.
Lawmakers are expected to have constituency offices in the same manner in which they open campaign offices during the election season. A constituency office is a contact address for keeping in touch with the public, a place where the lawmaker can be contacted by his constituents to engage and relate with him, submit petitions for his attention and action, obtain feedback from him about his work in the legislature and draw his attention to community priorities or basically seek help from him or her. Every state in Nigeria has a state of Assembly with members representing local governments. There are 109 members in the Senate, located in the Federal Capital Territory and 360 seats in the House of Representatives.
Every lawmaker represents a constituency, they link national and state politics to the grassroots, reinforcing the notion that politics is essentially local and people-centred. In most jurisdictions, constituency offices are funded by parliament or the executive, and the lawmaker gets a constituency allowance to maintain a properly staffed office. Usually, the legislative calendar is also structured in such a way that lawmakers are given enough time within a year to enable them return to base to interact with the people they represent.
The investigative story in The Punch, earlier referenced, reveals what many Nigerians have always observed since the return to civilian rule in 1999: that is the alienation between parliamentarians and the people, and the urgent need for parliamentary strengthening within the context of citizen relations and wider local, political and sociological forces. The Punch reveals that most law makers in the Senate, five months after the 2019 general elections, do not have any office in their constituencies. The same can be said for other lawmakers. Those who probably have offices are in the minority. This is the Nigerian way. Politicians tend to remember the people only during election seasons.
In order to get the people’s votes, in those places where the people are still allowed to make their own choice unfettered, the political office seeker needs to be seen to be popular with the people, he or she must have followers and supporters. A politician seeking a position cannot close the doors to either his office or home: he must maintain an open door policy. Many of the visitors to his home or campaign office may even be members of the opposition parties. He is obliged to welcome them and find ways to encourage them to switch their loyalty to him and his party. In the home of a Nigerian politician, food and drinks during the campaign season must not be in short supply. People will eat and drink and collect transport fare, even if they live within the neighborhood. The politician needs them. They too need him. They serve one purpose in particular: apart from keeping the campaign machinery going; they also help to keep hope alive. They will never tell the politician that he would lose the election or that he is unpopular.
They will oxygenate him with so much hope, he would begin to see visions of overwhelming victory. Of what use is a Nigerian politician if nobody visits?
But this relationship often changes shape and colour immediately after the elections have been won and lost. The politician who loses election shuts his doors and withdraws into his shell to go count his losses in the privacy of his space. The supporters also instinctively withdraw, leaving behind only a core group of close associates. The crowd would eventually thin out: the same supporters who predicted victory would quietly move on to support the winner of the election. Politicians are pragmatists: even if they are die-hard party members, you can legitimately expect some of them to jump ship. But the major point in The Punch lead story is how politicians having secured victory at the polls tend to abandon the people. They become inaccessible. They lock their gates, now manned by fierce-looking security guards or able-bodied men or both.
The same man who used to buy roasted corn by the road side and personally serve the political crowd food, suddenly hides inside bullet proof vehicles, and siren-blaring convoy. He is now “Your Excellency.” If he is a Governor, he moves into Government House which is a no-go-area for ordinary people. If he is a Member of the House of Assembly, he becomes “Honourable” and he leaves the neighborhood for Legislative Quarters, in a secluded part of the state capital. Don’t expect to see him coming around to play football with his age mates as he used to before he rode on the people’s back to the Assembly. If he is elected as a member of the National Assembly, he would rather hide in Abuja. He may open a constituency office, but you’d never find him there. The poor boy or girl who occasionally keeps the place open to create an impression, has a ready answer: “Honourable is in Abuja!” “Senator is not around.”
Thus, the objective of representation/accountability, citizen engagement and feedback, is defeated. The Punch in its story interviewed a number of Senators. While one or two affirm that they run constituency offices, the overall impression is that this is not the case generally. And why? We are told that some lawmakers stay away from their constituencies for security reasons. Lawmakers from the North West and the North East run away from their constituencies either because of Boko Haram insurgency or the fear of being attacked. One Northern lawmaker was once stripped naked and given the beating of his life by his constituents. Lawmakers from the East are afraid of kidnappers… But generally, lawmakers complain about the pressure they face whenever they have any encounter with their constituents or other members of society. It is as if nobody is interested in their main assignment of defending the people’s interests and making laws for good governance while also acting as a check on the Executive arm of government.
The people are just interested in financial help: they want the lawmaker to help pay hospital bills, feed their families, get jobs for their children, sponsor a wedding, attend a funeral and make a generous contribution towards every expense. Community groups, religious bodies, market women associations, the council of church elders, the association of herbalists and spiritual masters…they all seek financial help from the elected representative. Many are unable to bear the pressure. They simply run away, or go into hiding. They hide in Abuja or the state capital. Nigerian politics, before or after the election, is so money-driven, a weak politician may be tempted to resort to armed robbery in order to live up to expectations. The crisis is complicated by the lack of opportunities for the people, and the widespread epidemic of poverty in the land. The country lacks a social security system. Politicians and their political parties have no poverty reduction strategies. Nonetheless, no politician should run away from the people because they seek help from him or her. Constituency work is part of the lawmaker’s mandate. To build a positive reputation, he must connect with citizens and other politicians.
What often happens in this regard, is that as another election cycle approaches and the politician needs the people again to achieve his ambition, he suddenly rediscovers them. He goes back home bearing cash and other gifts. Each politician has his or her style: they could distribute cash, clothing materials, phone sets, grinding machines, generators, motorcycles and tricycles, bags of rice, kegs of groundnut oil. Food is prepared. A musician is invited to entertain the people. But the politician makes sure the photographs of the items to be distributed are carefully taken and the event itself is video-taped. Journalists are invited to cover the event of course. The politician grants interviews professing his love for “my people.” Usually, the money that is spent on publicity and self-promotion is more than the actual amount spent on the people. It is also common these days to have anyone in power set up a Foundation. One lawmaker bought two electric poles and dug a borehole for his community. Another one built a latrine. Both men advertised the events in newspapers and on national television!
These politicians would later turn around to boast that they have provided constituency projects in their communities. They are rewarded with chieftaincy titles, the Knighthood of Forgotten Saints, or some other decorations. But what is a constituency project? Do National Assembly members fund constituency projects from their own pockets? If they do, so why would the allocation for Constituency Projects be a matter of contention between the Executive and the Legislature during every budget preparation and consideration process? If constituency projects are budgeted for in Nigeria, is the Fund handed over to each lawmaker as is the case in some other African countries? Since President Buhari and the ICPC brought up the matter of constituency projects in the last month, members of the National Assembly have been having a meltdown trying to defend themselves. Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives in response to the allegation that Constituency Projects have swallowed over a Trillion Naira, responded that only N500 billion was released.
So, who and who got the N500 billion? Where are the projects? Who are the contractors? Other lawmakers have told us that their only connection with constituency projects is to help identify priority and useful projects in their constituencies. They insist that the projects are implemented by the Executive through Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and if anybody is to be held accountable it should be these MDAs. This same position was repeated by Senator Ali Ndume, (Borno South –APC), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Army, in response to the ICPC claim that the worst abuse of constituency projects is in the North East where Ndume hails from. My gut feeling is that we certainly do not know enough about these constituency projects. There is something we need to know that nobody is telling us. At least not yet. For example, are there members of the National Assembly who also double as contractors to the MDAs for the execution of constituency projects?
Senator Ali Ndume says he is proposing a bill for the establishment of a Commission to track constituency projects. I disagree. Monitoring and evaluation of constituency projects is important, but Nigeria does not need a whole Commission to do that. The first step would be for the National Assembly to have a proper data base on constituency projects: which project is being done and where? Who is the lawmaker behind it and which constituency, MDA or contractor is involved? The relevant Committees of the National Assembly should also monitor the projects and the disbursements, and every detail should be made public, particularly for the benefit of the constituents who are the direct beneficiaries.
Perhaps when the constituents are properly informed about these projects, they will have every reason to ask questions. For now, politicians throw money at their constituents whenever they can, while accountability is shoved aside. The political parties also have no structure or means for monitoring the performance or the commitment of their members in public positions. That too, must change. Every politician in public office must open a constituency office and make himself or herself available to the people. A new typology of role playing for Nigerian politicians and a strategic pattern of behaviour aligning district behaviour with national responsibilities in general is what we need.