Editorial: As Orji Kalu goes to prison with his salary and emoluments

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It is indeed sad, if not pathetic, that the upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly has become an embarrassing symbol of how not to be representatives of the people. The hallowed chambers of the Nigerian Senate has been rocked by scandals – from the recruitment scandal to the budget padding scandal by principal officers and the recent declaration the other day that convicted senator Orji Kalu’s seat would not be declared vacant and the convict would continue to be paid his salary and emoluments until Supreme Court concludes the case – which could go well beyond the end of his mandate in 2023. And this, in spite of calls by many Nigerians for the Senate to declare Kalu’s seat vacant having been convicted of fraud, a ground for disqualification of a senator by the constitution.

The untenable senate position about Kalu, convicted Chief Whip disclosed by Senate spokesperson, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, is curious and reproachful and has once again brought to the fore the need for Nigeria as a nation to consider a redirection of its moral compass. According to Akwashiki, Kalu, who was on December 5, 2019, sentenced to 12 years in imprisonment for offences bordering on fraud and abuse of office by a Federal High Court in Lagos, would continue to receive his salary and other benefits while in prison until he has exhausted all avenues for the appeal of his conviction.

Indeed, there’s everything wrong with a system, which elects to continue paying a convicted criminal his salary and emoluments for no work done. How can it be justified that the lack of representation of Abia North Senatorial District occasioned by the imprisonment of Senator Kalu is of any benefit to the people who elected him? Senators are elected to represent their constituents. They are the voice of the people on all fronts. But the sad reality, however, is that for the time it will take the appellate courts all the way to the Supreme Court to determine Kalu’s appeal; and while he remains in custody, the people of Abia North will have no voice in the Senate. Granted, Kalu has the right to explore every available legal avenue to prove his innocence. However, the good people of Abia North should not be made to suffer for his personal choices, which led to his conviction. In the same vein, the quest for the determination of his innocence should not be made to the detriment of the millions of people he was elected to serve.

Our politicians should understand that they are elected or appointed to promote the welfare of the people. This begs the question: who will represent Abia North if, for instance, the apex court doesn’t settle the case, which it must be recalled; began in 2007 before 2023? Indeed, the Senate needs to explain its position more clearly, because right now, the standing view is that the Senate is bending over backwards to protect one of its own and the chamber is not as hallowed as has been noted, after all. The upper legislative chamber cannot be guilty of complicity and give the impression that the Senate as an institution is inherently corrupt. Therefore, the Senate should not be lecturing Nigerians about the legality of their action concerning a convict. Citing the letter of the law without due attention to the spirit of the same law to justify the payment of Kalu’s salary and perks while he sits behind bars is self-serving and provocative and will only annoy Nigerians, who already hold the senate in very low esteem.

It should not be lost on anyone that the Senate is facing an image and reputational crisis. Less than a year into their mandate, the 9th Senate has already earned itself a reputation for working against the public interests. It is on record that the 2020 budget that was passed by the House was padded by the principal officers and the senate leadership who inserted extra constituency projects to benefit their cronies and districts. Some senators were spoiling for a fight with the leadership over the distribution of capital projects in the 2020 Budget, passed penultimate Thursday by the national assembly. The projects were outside the N100 billion constituency projects for lawmakers that the executive conceded to them.

The cost of the inserted projects, which was not originally in the N10. 33 billion appropriation bill the president presented to the National Assembly on October 8, formed part of the reason the NASS jacked up the budget by N264 billion before passing it on December 5. And this came hard on the heels of another scandal involving some senators, who allegedly shared 100 jobs that had been allocated to the legislators by some federal agencies. Apparently, as part of their national pastime of selfishly feathering their nests, the senators cornered some employment slots from agencies of the government. Rather than opening up the process to the general public, a group of senators allocated the jobs to themselves and their cronies.

However, the senators who blew the whistle over the budget padding and recruitment scandals did not do so because they love the Nigerian people. They were angry that only a few legislators, notably the presiding officers benefited from the deceitful exercise. Certainly, the matter would not have come to the public domain if the proverbial thieves had shown some honor among themselves! Although these dishonorable actions did not come as a surprise, especially because legislators are notorious for serving their selfish interest first, the latest scandals point to a new low in public perception of the so-called upper legislative chamber. In most states, the legislative arm is in the pocket of governors. Hardly do we encounter any legislative House that shows a modicum of independence, thereby negating the letter and spirit of the Nigerian constitution. No wonder the name “legislooters” coined by disenchanted Nigerians aptly describes the peoples’ view of the legislators!

In funds allocation and perks of office they have shown how distant they are from the ugly realities of life in Nigeria. During the 8th Senate, it came into public knowledge that the monthly take-home pay (including running cost) of a senator is about N15 million and a whopping N171 million per annum.  Whereas an American senator earns $174, 000 per year, the Nigerian senator earns the equivalent of $475,000 per annum. In a well-organized country, this would have been enough to provoke massive protests against the senators. This is besides the much-abused constituency projects, which fetch legislators hundreds of millions of naira.

In a country where the government is at pains to pay a N30,000 national minimum wage, this amounts to criminality and misuse of public funds! What most Senators do when they go on oversight functions to government parastatals is an open secret. Apart from the flamboyant display of gaudy wealth, they (senators alone) have approved a whopping N5.5 billion to buy SUVs for themselves. Indeed, the National Assembly has become so expensive for the commonwealth that questions are now being asked whether we need both chambers. They have no moral standing to make decent laws for the country!

Perhaps our legislators lying supine like the proverbial fat cats lack the knowledge or will to address the needs of the people. It is perhaps for this reason that they jostled over 100 jobs. What is the significance of 100 jobs when millions are unemployed? Yet, senators, men and women who ought to be above board in word and deed made a mess of 100 jobs to the chagrin of citizens. When will the legislative arm of government grow up in Nigeria? When will our Senators rise in defence of the people?  Lest we forget, the beneficiaries of the 100 jobs never sat for any competitive examinations. This is how we lay foundation for celebration of mediocrity and unfairness in the polity. This too is unfortunate.

Finally, the decision to continue paying Kalu while he is in jail is unacceptable and totally condemnable like the scandalous behavior of the senators who hustled 100 jobs to themselves. It is against the spirit of decent behavior. Senators should rise up to the challenge of personal example which is the hallmark of true leadership. If they are not ready to do this, if their interest is mainly to satisfy their selfish interests, they should vacate the hallowed upper legislative chamber.