BY ALEX OTTI (OUTSIDE THE BOX)
“The children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children live in Peace” Chief Obafemi Awolowo
“When you are skinning your customers, you should leave some skin on to heal, so that you can skin them again.” Nikita Khrushchev, Former Leader of the Soviet Union
We started a discussion penultimate week on reining in the cost of governance, which has clearly become an intractable challenge to Nigeria’s 4th Republic. This problem has been exacerbated by the twin problems of dwindling revenue and mounting debt. We have an economic crisis in our hands, though some people still live in denial as if by so doing, it will cease to exist. Those problems cannot just disappear simply because we have chosen to ignore them. We had earlier dwelt on the Executive arm of government. Today, we are going to look at the Legislature.
From information available to the public, our federal legislators are amongst the highest paid in the world. Specifically, a study shows that they are the second to the highest earning worldwide. The only country that beats us is Singapore, a city state that has one of the highest levels of income per capita, in the world. The reason for the high pay in Singapore is said to be to encourage professionals to participate in legislative functions. Everyone familiar with the matter agrees that the Singaporean civil service is arguably the most professionally run in the world.
Again, America the model of our own democratic experiment, does not occupy a pride of place in countries with jumbo pay for their legislators. Before now, the compensation package of our National Assembly members was not in the public domain. There was not much to really depend upon except some veiled references to jumbo packages being enjoyed by members. The first authoritative source of information on this matter came from Senator Shehu Sani, the outspoken Senator, who represented Kaduna Central in the 8th Senate. Senator Sani had revealed that Senators went home with a monthly salary of N750,000.00 in addition to allowances of N13.5m per month. This represents a total package of N14.25m per month. He had also said that they were entitled to constituency projects of N200m per year which was domiciled in different ministries. Theoretically, the way constituency projects work is that Senators are expected to liaise with the ministries to get projects worth N200m done in their different constituencies in a year. In practice, we know that this works differently. In Nigeria, it is more like the funding for such constituency projects sometimes find their way into the pockets of the politicians.
Also not captured by Senator Sani are a few other allowances, which include furniture, car and severance packages for non-returning senators. Translating the numbers into dollars for purposes of comparison, our senators earn about $450,000 per annum. This is over two and half times the $174,000.00 per annum that their counterparts earn in the United States of America. Meanwhile, there are 3 senators per state and one for Abuja, totaling 109. The 109 senators have a combined staff of 829 aides on payroll and a retinue of support staff who are also paid by the National Assembly.
The House of Representatives, in its own case, has 360 members from the different constituencies in the federation. Together, they are entitled to 1,880 legislative aides amongst other support and personal staff.
The compensation package for House members is a minimum of N600,000.00 per month or N7.2m per annum. In addition, they receive N12m monthly for ‘running costs’, bringing the total to about N151.2m per annum. The dollar equivalent of this package would be about $398, 000.00 per annum. Interestingly, the package for House of Representative members in the US is the same with that of the Senate at $174,000.00 per annum. The average House of Representative member in Nigeria earns a clear $224,000.00 more than his counterpart in the United States. The US has 435 house of representative members and 100 senators for a country of 50 states and population of more than 330million people. When one puts the GDP of the USA alongside that of Nigeria and what their respective legislators earn, one begins to appreciate the sorry state of things.
Nevertheless, the issue of the size of the economy and general wellbeing of the populace viz a viz the size of the legislature and welfare of legislators, is not within the scope of this discourse. The relative productivity of the National Assembly of both countries is also not within the contemplation of this piece. We are also not going to pay much attention to the fact that our National Assembly is expected to sit for 180 days in a year and be on holidays and recess for the remaining 185 days in the year. Again, the vexatious and much discussed issue of the renovation of the National Assembly Complex, is not our focus today. After all, that is a one-off cost and will not feature in the national budget for next year. We shall also not factor in the allegation that about 60% of jobs in the NDDC is allocated to National Assembly members, after all, that has not been proved and may soon become a subject of debate, if not litigation. We will also ignore the allegation made recently by Prof. Attahiru Jega, the former INEC Chairman, that legislative committee work and oversight functions have been turned into bribe taking and bribe giving pursuits. The fact that the hallowed chambers have become such a safe haven for National Assembly staff that civil servants who were ordinarily supposed to retire after 35 years of service or on clocking 60, have decided to stay put, preferring to continue to contribute their quota to legislative work until death does them part, is an area that this treatise is not willing, even if competent, to discuss.
What concerns us today is how the National Assembly can help Nigeria to reduce her cost of governance. How can the legislature contribute towards saving our democracy and preserving our economy? We strongly believe that this may not be out of altruism but out of self-interest and self-preservation. The budget allocations to the National Assembly have hovered between N125b and N150b annually. In absolute numbers, this may not be a lot of money, except that it is over 15% of the annual combined budgets for education and health for 200m Nigerians.
Again, looking at our peculiar circumstances, where close to half our population live below poverty line of less than N720 per day and in the face of the pandemic that has grounded the world economy, ours included, this amount becomes an issue that deserves closer scrutiny and calls for immediate redress. Furthermore, spending on social services and infrastructure, which affects most of the people, continues to decline, while that of the legislators remains at high levels. While the number of legislators remains steady at 469, the general population of Nigeria keeps growing and about 6 Nigerians drop into poverty every minute. It would not be out of place to ask how fair this arrangement is and even if not important, whether it is really sustainable.
Given all these considerations, we plead with the National Assembly to consider some of the suggestions that we are going to make to reduce cost of governance and make democracy work for the rest of the country. We are addressing the National Assembly directly because they are the law makers and amending the constitution falls squarely within their purview.
The first issue to consider is the whole concept of operating a bicameral legislature. The pivotal questions are; Is it necessary? Is it desirable? Moreover, is it sustainable? Our belief is that we should do away with the bicameral system and maintain a single National Assembly structure. This simple step will immediately save the country a lot of money. If we must be honest, we would agree that many times, there is a duplication of functions in the National Assembly. While we admit the argument in the literature about the need for two pairs of eyes seeing better, we quickly add that it depends on how clear the vision is. A clear pair of eyes would definitely see better than ten bad pairs of eyes. Not too long ago, Senegal dumped its 100-member senate, maintaining a single National Assembly of just150 members. The net effect of this action is that the poor West African country is saving about $15m annually from its budget.
Our second recommendation deals with the size of the National Assembly. This, we would refer to as right sizing. So, what is the ideal size of the legislature for a country like Nigeria with all its multifarious economic problems? America’s 535 legislators for a country of 330m people translates to one legislator to every 618,000 people. India with a population of 1.38billion people has a parliamentary size of 790 people.
This means one legislator to 1.7m people. Even the European Union, with a population of 446m people, has a parliamentary size of 751, giving a ratio of 1 to 600,000. Nigeria with an estimated population of 200m and National Assembly size of 469 works out at 1 legislator to just 426,000 people. One may not say for sure what the ideal number should be but from the numbers thrown up here, we have fewer people per legislator than the countries considered here and one of them is the model of our democracy. Given our peculiar circumstances, if we take a cue from India, we should be looking at about a National Assembly size of about 117 people. This number will be justified shortly in this discourse.
Our third issue of focus is on the compensation package for members. There is no doubt that the National Assembly members take more than their fair share of the national cake. We should remove all perks and pay only sitting allowances to members. This means that they only get paid when they sit. Again, the legislative function should be part-time. That is the standard practice for board members of institutions and companies. When this is done it will help to ensure the success of the next suggestion.
The fourth issue is in the quality of people who would be fit to serve as National Assembly members. The minimum standard should be people who have succeeded in their chosen fields of endeavour and are not merely in search of jobs or relevance. If corporate organisations and multinational institutions would insist that to qualify to be a board member, one must attain a minimum level of experience and achievement, amongst others, we believe that for a country like Nigeria, we should collectively define high standards. We should also take away the pecuniary benefits which seem to be the major attraction for many people. Call it an elitist club if you will and you won’t be wrong. We, like Singapore, should be represented by the best amongst us.
The fifth suggestion is in the structure and mode of sitting. The Pandemic has forced us to devise alternatives to physical meetings. Today, many meetings are held virtually including the Federal Executive Council. Events like weddings, birthday celebrations, burials and graduations are attended virtually, through such applications as Zoom and Skype. In like manner, we should adopt virtual meetings for the National Assembly. Members should live and remain in their locations and hold meetings for which they would earn allowances each time they sit. We would therefore save on travels, accommodation and other inconvenience allowances. Physical meetings should be held, say, quarterly if and where necessary.
Finally, there is the long pending issue of the issue of the constitution. When we hear people refer to the constitution, there is this impression created that our constitution is flawless and sacrosanct. We all know that this is not true. For starters, the 1999 constitution was foisted on us by the military. The flaws are so glaring that there is no gainsaying the fact that it is one of the major factors holding the country down. We have tried to work with it in the past twenty years and should boldly change part of it that doesn’t work for us, if not the entire document, if we so choose. This is where the National Assembly comes into focus again. The National Assembly should help us save our fragile economy, and indeed democracy, by legislating out, any pressure on us. We are aware that some of the recommendations made in this piece cannot be implemented without amending the constitution. In addition, to achieve the optimum number of legislative seats recommended earlier, the National Assembly should pass a law requiring that each of the 6 geopolitical zones elect only 20 members to the National Assembly from 2023. It can even go the whole hog and legislate away the state structure in favour of the 6 regional structure to help us rein in the persisting high cost of governance.
All the building blocks to the required change can be put together prior to the 2023 elections. Some people would wonder what is in it for the current legislators. There comes a time when citizens would choose patriotism over selfish interests, even if at the minimum, to secure the future of their children and their children’s children. We think we are at that point where we need to look beyond personal interest and work to save this country from collapse. Where we choose to leave things the way they are now, at the time when we would be “resting in peace” our children, just like Awolowo prophesied, may not be allowed to live in peace.