In the last couple of weeks, the economic and political news coming out of Nigeria has not been positive. It has been about doing things the wrong way, lack of due process, desecration of the rule of law, outright impunity for violators of rights and economic policies that have attracted negative ratings. Nigerians have responded in their millions; the international community and friendly nations have responded, and the perception out there is that anything is possible in Nigeria. Both the perception and reality are in tandem and tally. So, where do we go from here?
Let us concentrate this review on the first arm of government, the legislature which is created by Section 4 of the 1999 Constitution to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria, being the National Assembly. The National Assembly by its very nature is supposed to be the hallmark of due process, representing all constituencies in Nigeria including the ruling and opposition parties. From the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, the parliament should be the voice, eye and ear of the people against the arbitrariness of executive action. This role should be championed by the leadership and members of the legislature. However, we now have a leadership in NASS that unashamedly declares itself as an appendage of the executive and ready to rubber-stamp any executive request. This leadership is doing this under the guise of executive legislative collaboration which essentially is a betrayal of the confidence reposed by Nigerians in the legislature.
How else can one interpret the statement credited to the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, that the National Assembly would approve the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)’s request to borrow $29.6bn at a time the Senate and House of Representatives had yet to arrive at a decision? And to make matters worse, Lawan’s colleagues simply kept quiet without a whimper or protest. The statement was made before the Senate President even asked the requisite committee in the Senate to review the request and report back to the plenary. If the decision had already been taken to approve the request, why waste taxpayers’ time and money to go through the rigmarole of a committee review? The appropriate procedure should have been for the leadership of the Senate to have an open mind, allow the committees to do their review and when the report comes back to plenary, allow the preponderance of informed opinion to decide whether the country needs or should reject the loan.
Fast forward to the budget passage by NASS and assent by Buhari; Nigerians woke up to be informed that the National Assembly would require the sum of N37bn to renovate their building. Buhari signed the budget into law without complaining about the usual legislative budget padding or overall increase to the proposal he sent. The impression is that we now have an executive and legislature who are engaged in a quid pro quo kind of relationship; an incestuous relationship that allows one person to “rub my back while I rub yours”. You grant me approval for a loan without proper consideration while you pick up N37bn pretending to be renovating a building. Is this what governance has been reduced to in Nigeria? What exactly are the lawmakers renovating and how much will it cost to build the entire NASS complex anew? Recall that the NASS’ vote at the time of the proposal and approval was just one-line time without details and Nigerians only got to know of this renovation vote after the passage of and assent to the budget. Who needs a Senate or a parliament that operates as an arm of the executive and is available to do the mundane rounds instead of being the people’s representatives? From emerging evidence, all the executive noise in the past about budget padding was because of political disagreements and not based on principles of integrity and prudence.
Again, media reports indicate that NASS has amended the Public Procurement Act of 2007 and increased the mobilization fee payable to contractors to 30% of the contract sum. The specious reason is that local contractors should be empowered to perform government contracts. However, one of the capacities expected and averred by bidders is their financial capacity to perform their contractual obligations. So, how do you reconcile this financial capacity with a demand for 30% mobilization? The amendment is fundamentally flawed. It is a fact that profit margins due from government contracts may not be more than 30% of the entire contract sum. If after working very hard over a period of years to implement a contract and all you get is even less than 30% of the overall sum, the temptation to abandon the contract and walk away with the mobilization fee at the beginning will be overwhelming. The fuller details of the proposed amendment will be discussed in another day.
The National Assembly has passed the Finance Bill which in the New Year will increase the tax burden of Nigerians at a time of great economic hardship and uncertainty. While this columnist supports most of the tax initiatives in the Finance Bill, it is a time for greater prudence and value for money in public expenditure. While Nigerians will be called upon to pay more, any claim by the executive or legislature to a right to financial recklessness, as is currently the case, is a direct call for angry Nigerians to revolt against tyranny and oppression. Thus, the earlier the legislature realized that its sacred duty to live above board and hold the executive accountable to the people, cannot be abdicated without consequences, the better for our democracy.
This is coming at a time major international rating agencies are downgrading Nigeria’s credit worthiness from stable to negative. On the political front, the United States government has placed Nigeria on a special watchlist of countries that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. Other countries on the watchlist include Burma, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc. Some United States’ congressmen and women have also expressed unhappiness over the severe human rights violations involved in the continued detention of Omoyele Sowore. NASS has an overwhelming responsibility to take concrete and targeted steps towards measures that will halt this slide into a pariah state. For instance, it is expected that it should have come out with very strong resolutions condemning the desecration of the courts and detentions without due process which are outside the contemplation of the 1999 constitution. Tepid responses would not do and is not the expectation of Nigerians.
In conclusion, Nigerians need the executive and legislature to collaborate for the common good, in defense of noble principles of freedom, equality, wealth creation, poverty reduction, reduction of crime and defense of the fatherland. Nigerians did not vote for conspirators who will conspire against the interest of the people. The message should be loud and clear to the leadership of NASS especially the Senate; if you cannot abide by your oath of office in defense of the constitution, be prepared to vacate the office.
By Eze Onyekpere
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