Threats to Our Democracy 

Femi Akintunde-Johnson

As commentators on Nigerian affairs, there are situations and circumstances where  writers, out of niggling frustrations and hapless impotence, wish for something tragically severe, akin to a hot sharp knife skinning the hides off fat lambs, would descend on the irresponsible and insensitive portion of our governing blocs – especially the legislative mandarins. With tons of critical written pieces, brimming with righteous indignation, and well-articulated umbrage at the shenanigans of our political class, in the last three decades and more – it is quite heart-wrenching to now read that our 10th National Assembly are contemplating – as if it is their feudal right – to mass purchase over 400 hundred Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV) to mark the beginning of another sleaze-and-freak show called legislative tenure. There are 360 odd members of the House of Representatives (HoR) and 109 senators – all would have a need for a new vehicle, apart from armoured versions for the principal officers. The fact that each regular imported SUV would knock us down by $35,000 to $70,000 (meaning ₦35m to ₦70m each); and that the top range bullet-proof vehicles are in excess of $200,000 (a sickening ₦200m each) does not seem to worry the undisguised spendthrifts. 

Even if the reports are a little off the track, there is a history of vagabond insensitivity in the way our legislators toy with Nigerian resources. Media reports show that between 2011 -2015, the 7th Assembly allegedly plunked a total of ₦3.5b on cars for serving lawmakers. Their colleagues in the 8th Assembly (2015 – 2019) notched it up by ₦1.2b, even as poverty ravaged the land. The total was ₦4.7b. The 9th Assembly (2019 – 2023) appeared less avaricious; increasing the total spent on their new cars by only ₦800m. So, in the era of great depression and recession when COVID-19 ravaged economies of the world, and some like Nigeria, were badly lacerated, our legislators still found it appropriate and wise to spend ₦5.5b on new imported vehicles. Never mind that many were immediate past occupiers of plush executive offices with a fleet of cars at their beck and backyards.

Before we add the honorable contribution of this current Assembly (2023 – 2027) which doubtlessly makes the last four chambers mere front-office receptionists in the indolent company of ‘money-miss-road’, let us revisit the justification of one of the leaders of the 9th Assembly in spending ₦5.5b at a time more conscientious leadership sacrificed their comfort for the sake of cushioning the adverse effects of a world gone bonkers on the welfare and safety of their populace.

The then Senate Leader, Senator Yahaya Abdullahi, argued thus: “The N5.5 billion is from the National Assembly fund (that year’s N125b Assembly budget) and not money being sought from any other source. Besides, the scheme, as it has always been with previous assemblies, is a monetised one, requiring each of the lawmakers to pay back the cost of whatever vehicle is given to them.”  Of course, most Nigerians did not take Yahaya Abdullahi on his word, nor did they care to support the illogical justification of less than 500 Nigerians amassing ₦125b to spend on and for themselves…in one year!

One could have even wagered some semblance of plausible argument if our so-called honorables diverted their vehicular appetite towards our homebred automobile assemblers – Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing, Nord Automobiles Limited and Coscharis Motors – who are bravely struggling to consolidate without dedicated patronage, we would hail them half-heartedly for at least indulging in inward investment and championing local content production. Whossai!?

Back to the quadrennial madness: if we thought such steady incremental splurge on imported vehicles was reckless, unpatriotic and insensitive, leaders of the 10th Assembly appear to have taken such anomaly to a devastating depth that empties your tear ducts, rendering you incapable of shedding tears, or gnashing your teeth in profound anguish. Now, we are reading of attempts to eke out a staggering figure that eclipses all the totals spent by all the past six chambers of this Fourth Republic combined! In fact, even when we add all of the vehicular expenses of all the prior three assemblies as far back as the First Republic – in the 1950s –  these current strange occupiers would still keep a hefty change. A sinful ₦40b!

A slew of civil society organisations, including Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Transparency International (TI), the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), and the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), among others, have raised alarm at the incredulous flippancy and arrogant display of insensitivity at a time the executive have been crying to Nigerians, begging them to endure the pains, lack and suffocating cost of living, while they work out some economic and fiscal magic that would bring us succour and positive outcomes.

 Very much like a house hell-bent on destroying its core and posterity, the legislators, to paraphrase SERAP while seeking an ‘order of mandamus’ compelling leaders of the two chambers to refrain from the spending orgy of public funds. The CSO is insisting that Nigerians have the right to expect honest and faithful performance of responsibilities by their public officials, including lawmakers; just as public officials owe a fiduciary duty to the general citizenry.

SERAP urged the Federal High Court in Lagos to restrain the National Assembly from spending ₦40b on 465 exotic and bulletproof cars for its members and principal officers, and ₦70b as alleged ‘palliatives’ for new members.  It will be interesting to see on which side of the divide the judiciary will reside: the people or the purgers.

A statement by one of the leaders of the coalition of CSOs would serve as a fitting parting shot. Awwal Musa Rafsanjani was quoted recently: “We can’t continue this way. We can’t support that kind of spending on vehicles. That is not what democracy is all about. Democracy is about proper utilisation of public funds. Democracy is about ensuring fairness, equity and justice. These spendings on cars (are) not sustainable and not justifiable.

 “Every year, you go to the budget, you see the same items like laptops and cars. We can’t continue like that. There is diversion and stealing of public funds in the name of buying cars. Democracy in Nigeria is about looting. Some of us did not fight for democracy for people to come and loot.

“The National Assembly should know that Nigerians are watching them because, with the underdevelopment, poor infrastructure, we can’t continue to spend this kind of money on cars. 

“There must be a national dialogue and consensus on the kind of democracy we should operate. If we don’t do that, the politicians will continue to loot to the detriment of the masses.” 

Clearly, we know those who are existential threats to our democracy. Enough said.

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