Journalism in the service of society

An Oliver Twist parliament

THE recent complaint by the National Assembly (NASS) about insufficient funds for its operations raised eyebrows and brought to the fore the apparent lack of prudence and transparency in the handling of public funds by institutions of government. The call for increased allocation suggests that the legislative arm of government is cash-strapped. According to media reports, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, expressed the view that the NASS was underfunded.

This situation, he lamented, had constrained the legislature and rendered it unable to effectively play its law making and oversight roles. For an arm of government which has repeatedly attracted the anger of citizens on account of the huge chunk of national resources it corners for itself, the call for more funding will be largely read as yet another self-serving proposal. At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the economy, devastating lives and livelihoods, it would sound unconscionable for a patriotic and disciplined legislature to even suggest the need for more funds for its never-ending recurrent expenditures.

Given the myriad of challenges Nigeria is facing at the moment, it beats the imagination that the most important thing on the plate of our legislators is how to grab more money from the national treasury. From a transparency and accountability standpoint, the NASS has always been dodgy and opaque. Nigerians have, for years, been kept in the dark about the financial details of its operations. A cursory look at what has accrued to that arm of government in the last three years would point to the accountability deficit which underscores its operations. In 2018, the budget of the NASS was N139.5bn. In 2019, N125bn was budgeted; and in 2020, N125bn was proposed but N3bn was added. While N125bn was proposed in 2021, it eventually got around N134bn. How well has it utilised and accounted for all these allocations in the past?

As it stands, many parts of the country are being ravaged by a devastating state of insecurity. In our once promising country, the safety of lives and property is now a luxury enjoyed by only a privileged few. On a daily basis, violent crimes such as terrorism, kidnapping and armed banditry have become the norm. The country is bleeding seriously from a crisis which the National Assembly has done very little or nothing about beyond the usual long-winding rhetorics that are largely self-serving.

Schools in many parts of the country are no longer safe, as they are now soft targets for criminal elements. Even the corporate existence of Nigeria is under serious assault as a result of pent up resentments and full blown separatist agitations. Added to these is the consistent rise in the level of poverty, accentuated by the Covid-19 scourge. Yet, what preoccupies the minds of our legislators is seeking more funds for a never-ending jamboree.

According to the World Bank, even before the onset of the pandemic, approximately four in 10 Nigerians were living below the national poverty line, and millions more were just struggling to survive. Given the fact that Nigeria is just exiting its second economic recession in less than five years, fears had always been rife that almost seven million people could fall into poverty, especially with the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of these problems, the National Assembly has remained flat-footed and unable to rise up to the occasion.

Unlike their peers across the globe who responded swiftly to the great issues of the day, the Nigerian parliament has largely been aloof, and impervious to the stark realities faced by ordinary citizens. In other jurisdictions, legislative bodies have continued to work overtime to respond to the health, economic and social security crises precipitated by the pandemic.

In Nigeria’s case, the scant measures proposed by the legislative arm have been half-hearted. For instance, an analysis by the US-based Brookings Institution scrutinised the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 24, 2020. The bill was supposed to be the signature legislation to provide counter measures that will reset the economy and help it recover from pandemic-induced shocks. The think-tank however noted that the initiative which was aimed to provide support to businesses and individual citizens fell short in terms of targeting the most vulnerable category of citizens who needed and still need emergency help.

The group stressed: “While the bill focuses on providing relief to formal sector businesses, 65 percent of Nigeria’s total GDP comes from the informal sector, which also employs more than 90 percent of the workforce, and these workers need support to survive.” This implies that even the initiative, which the parliament used to fulfill all righteousness, was just another elitist move – it was not painstaking enough. It ended up not targeting the vulnerable people mostly affected economically by the pandemic.

On the score of having the ability to rise up to the occasion and support citizens therefore, the legislative arm has always fallen short. The irony of the situation would be found in the fact that when governments in other parts of the world with strong cooperation from their legislative bodies worked round the clock to cushion the effects of the pandemic on citizens, the reverse was the case in Nigeria. To make matters worse, the legislature could not summon the courage to use its oversight powers to reduce the economic burden on Nigerians at a time when citizens in other parts of the world were enjoying generous relief packages.

If the NASS has over the years proved incapable of proper service delivery to the Nigerian people, on what moral platform is it standing to ask for more funds? What real value has it added to the lives of citizens to justify its call for more tax payers’ money to fund its operations?

The problem of the National Assembly is definitely not insufficiency of funds but lack of strategic planning and proper utilisation of available resources for more productive activities. The same National Assembly crying for funds today wasted billions of naira in procuring luxury cars for all members and other officers of the legislature. The amount spent on entertainment and stationery is mindboggling; not to talk of trips that produce no visible results. Most of the oversight activities are said to be funded by Ministries, Departments and Agencies that have anything to do with NASS, through the back door.

The same National Assembly that mindlessly cuts votes for critical infrastructural projects that would have fast-tracked economic development and improved the general wellbeing of citizens of the country, is the one asking for more funds even when the use of the massive allocations cornered for themselves previously have not been properly explained or justified. The National Assembly believes it owes no one the debt of explanation on how funds allocated to it are spent. Its budgets are treated as classified documents, even though it should not be so.

It is rather disconcerting that the call for funding is not being made simultaneously with any assurances of accountability. This clearly justifies the widely held perception that since 1999, the NASS has been a drain pipe of scarce national resources. More importantly, given the below par quality of representation it has offered the country, critical voices which have called for a rethink of the National Assembly and its place in Nigeria’s future democratic order, are increasingly finding resonance.

The NASS’ call for more funds at this very critical time in the country’s economic trajectory clearly shows that it is either oblivious of the current state of affairs or just plain arrogant and insensitive. There is no doubt, therefore, that the Nigerian people, who would consequently bear the brunt of the profligate tendencies of the NASS and other arms of government, must begin to think of ways to reverse the current trend. As the next general elections slated for 2023 draw closer, the unsustainable and insatiable greed of institutions like the NASS are key issues which should drive the choices and decisions of the electorate.

For now, instead of voting for themselves an unnecessary raise, the National Assembly should, out of solidarity with most Nigerians suffering under the current crisis, vote to cut their own pay and perks, in order to win back the confidence and legitimacy of the public.

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