Editorial: As Nigeria’s “Legislathief” Contractors force Akpabio to blink

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The controversial decision by the House of Representatives to sue the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, for criminal perjury and civil defamation, was bizarre and laughable to say the least; and certainly a sad commentary on the Nigerian legislature; to which much has been entrusted and from which much is expected. Shortly after House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, announced Thursday, that he has instructed the Clerk to retain lawyers to commence perjury proceedings against Akpabio for ignoring the House’s request to name lawmakers in the 9th National Assembly he alleged were beneficiaries of 60% of contracts in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the Minister backpedaled on his claims, stating in a letter to lawmakers that he was misquoted. Public confidence in the legislature has been on the decline and it appears to have reached the nadir as lawmakers can no longer be trusted with oversight of the executive branch, let alone act in the public interest. It is an open secret that lawmakers routinely deploy their oversight powers as weapons of blackmail and intimidation against Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) with which they have an incestuous relationship. This is a textbook definition of corruption - abuse of public office for personal gain. This gluttony by lawmakers is an unbelievable shame that qualifies as a case study in selfishness. Nigeria is now a victim of her corrupt, avaricious, inept, clueless and lawless legislooters.

 

That many lawmakers are the leading contractors in some of the MDAs, including the NDDC is certainly no news. Rather, Nigerians are bewildered by a system that makes itself vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and manipulation potent enough to provoke a popular insurrection. The nation has been asphyxiated by the explosive revelations of corruption and misappropriation of hundreds of billions of naira by the House committee investigating financial malfeasance in the NDDC. Appearing before the committee, Akpabio derisively dismissed the investigation as a needless inquisition, and issued a veiled threat to lawmakers to stop biting the proverbial finger that feeds them. The hunter seems to have become the hunted when Akpabio told the lawmakers to their faces that it was in their own interest to ensure that ongoing payments to NDDC contractors were not hampered. “So it is important that people who have gone to court, people who genuinely did jobs; should be paid for their jobs. For me, I am not against it because, of course, who are even the greatest beneficiaries? It is you people,” Akpabio charged.

 

Interrupted by a female lawmaker who questioned his claim, Akpabio dismissively retorted: “I just told you that we have records to show that most of the contracts in NDDC are given out to members of the National Assembly but you don’t know about it, the two chairmen can explain to you. I was a member of the NDDC committee; so, I know about it.” A rather confused Hon. Thomas Ereyitomi who is chairing the proceedings in the absence of the NDDC committee chair, Hon. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo (who was forced to recuse himself following accusation of complicity in the scandal) interjected and kept shouting: “It’s okay, it’s okay, Hon Minister, it’s okay. Drop the mic; it’s okay, it’s okay,” in a futile attempt to prevent the public from hearing whatever bombshell Akpabio might unleash against lawmakers. Ostensibly angered by the public embarrassment, both the Senate and the House challenged Akpabio to name the legislative NDDC contractors and the House issued a 48-hour ultimatum which Akpabio ignored with unapologetic arrogance only to stage a volte face as Gbaja turned on the heat.

 

But as Akpabio retraced his steps, he muddied the waters, taking some pot shots at lawmakers: “I never referred to members of the 9th House of Representatives as beneficiaries of NDDC contracts as the NDDC has yet to fully implement any NDDC budget since the commencement of the 9th National Assembly,” Akpabio stated unapologetically, adding: “The Director, Projects forwarded to me 19 old contracts amounting to N9 billion which the NDDC chairman in the House insisted the IMC pay for. As a former minority leader of the 8th Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I shall forever hold the ideals of the National Assembly and will not make the entire document public, which I got from the lead forensic auditor in confidence.”

 

Akpabio’s non-denial denial is circumlocutious bloviating that seeks to express remorse without being contrite. It is worth-noting however, that corruption is the main reason lawmakers have failed to creditably perform their duties. Their oversight functions – a crucial part of their legislative duties – has been transformed into avenues for rent-seeking as lawmakers “shake-down” Ministers and Heads of parastatals for bribes during budget and committee hearings. The 7th legislature took this obnoxious practice to asinine levels, and went the distance to settle scores with officials who “refused to play ball.”

 

Nigerian lawmakers are no strangers to corruption scandals. In a sting operation, the former chairman of a house ad-hoc committee investigating the fuel subsidy regime, Farouk Lawal was caught red-handed collecting what was supposed to be a bribe of $500,000 from Chief Femi Otedola, to remove the name of his company, Zenon oil from the list of companies accused of bleeding the nation through the fuel subsidy regime; which had become a drainpipe on the treasury. As if that was not embarrassing enough; lawmakers fought a long-running battle with then chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Arunma Oteh after she openly accused the chairman of the House committee on capital market of demanding a bribe from the Commission. This allegation culminated in the arraignment of the chairman on corruption charges. There was no love lost as the Reps mounted sustained pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan to sack her. Not getting their way, the legislators refused to allocate funds to the SEC. Of course, this was blackmail carried too far, which did little credit to the image of the House and that of its members.

 

Legislative powers in all civilized democracies are not deployed to gratify the ego and whims of the legislature or its members. The last legislature was known to pick on anyone who takes it to task even when there is justification for doing so. For example, former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Lamido Sanusi’s comment on the emolument of lawmakers put him at loggerheads with the legislators. In a brazen show of megalomania ostensibly to teach Sanusi a lesson, the Reps embarked on amending the CBN Act purposely to curtail the powers of its governor, disregarding the fact that Sanusi’s term as governor of the apex bank was near its end. This shows the extent to which the legislators could go to deal with perceived “enemies.”

 

Nigerian lawmakers remain bitterly opposed to disclosure of their salaries and allowances. Their emoluments have always been shrouded in darkness, like backroom dealings among the Mafia. The authoritative London-based magazine, The Economist, recently ranked Nigerian lawmakers as the highest paid in the world. The report revealed the annual salary of legislators in several countries, which include USA, $174,000; Ghana, $46,500; Indonesia, $65,800; Thailand, $43,800; India, $11,200; Italy, $182,000; Bangladesh, $4,000; Israel, $114,800; Hong Kong, $130,000; Japan, $149,700; and Singapore, $154,000. The Nigerian federal legislator’s annual earning was estimated at $189,000 annually. This amount, scandalous as it may seem, is nothing compared to what they get from the system through other means. The sensibility of Nigerians may be further incensed when the various allowances which include oversight allowance, recess allowance, wardrobe allowance and the bizarre constituency allowance, among others, are computed.

 

Nigerian lawmakers are quick to dismiss such figures as not factual, but it is instructive that each of them has always dodged questions about the actual salary and corresponding allowances suggesting that there is something to hide. Legislators are representatives elected by the people to create and pass laws, represent the people who elected them and also do oversight functions. They pass the budget and through the public accounts committee, scrutinize the financial transactions of government and through the approval of the report of auditor-general of the federation.  It is an irony that the National Assembly, which ought to be the legislative gendarme of the treasury, has derailed in its function and constitutes itself as a drainpipe for chronic waste, legislative profligacy and the brazen diversion of funds earmarked for community development.

 

Nigerian legislators have subverted their role of ensuring transparency and accountability in government through self-enrichment and primitive accumulation. Lawmakers draw salaries on first-line charge on the federation account. There is nothing evident in their activities to suggest they are in office to represent their constituents who elected them and who desire the dividends of democracy. Nigerian legislators have not only lost their moral authority, they also have by their dealings transformed the National Assembly into an infrastructure of corruption.  The matter has gone past the caution threshold.

 

The National Assembly has itself become part of the problem of the nation’s democracy and needs total restructuring. In developed countries where the cost of governance is coterminous with concrete deliverables and not on padded emolument of public officers, the US spends 21% of its budget on running the government; Netherlands (47.7%); Sweden, (42.8%) and England (37.8%). Senegal scrapped its Senate to free resources for development. In Nigeria, the bi-cameral arrangement is not only expensive and unnecessary, legislative business must be made a part-time activity so that only Nigerians desirous of public service will seek public office. Amidst abject poverty, Nigerians can no longer tolerate a situation where a legislators feed fat on the commonwealth.

 

The ridiculous lawsuit threat against Akpabio is a contrived distraction which is laughable and should attract no further comment. Retraction of his accusation notwithstanding, Nigerians would like to see the Senate and House of Representatives committees on the NDDC disbanded immediately because they are compromised. Akpabio should be fired and the Interim Management Committee should be dissolved and the board screened and approved by the Senate installed. That is the only way we can be sure that the forensic audit will not be compromised. In order to kick start his now comatose slugfest with corruption, President Buhari must bring the pressure of his office to bear on these “legislooters” to rid the legislature of self-dealing and what unarguably is an insult on the collective intelligence of Nigerians. Needless reminding Mr. President, that, this was a key campaign promise.