A great outcry rose in Nigeria since last week when it transpired that members of the National Assembly, the legislative branch of government, were pocketing huge sums of money as emoluments hitherto unknown to Nigerians. Senator Shehu Sani, representing Kaduna Central, had granted an interview to TheNews in which he disclosed that senators receive N13.5 million monthly as “running expenses,” beside their salary of N700,000.
This is separate from 17 different allowances running into many millions paid to the legislators. The senators also receive yearly N200 million for constituency projects.
Most Nigerians have for years, noted that since the return of representative democracy in 1999, the two chambers of the National Assembly – the Senate and the House of Representatives — have been unduly reticent about their take home pay. Credulous Nigerians presumed that as responsible representatives of the people, the members should be trusted on matters like that, especially when the Constitution has prescribed that the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMFAC) should fix the remuneration of public officials.
Occasionally, alarms had been raised by some eminent Nigerians who feared that the legislators may turn the power of the purse granted them by the 1999 Constitution into an avenue for self-enrichment. Among those who spoke up were the former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, and a former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili. In each case, the members of the National Assembly drowned out their voices with denial, evasions and misinformation.
It deserves mention that National Assembly members receive the regular, traditional allowances running into millions for accommodation, furniture, constituency, a vehicle loan, tour duty, severance and gratuity, and estacode. But on top of these are other allowances for wardrobe, hardship, newspapers/periodicals, entertainment, utilities, personal assistant, domestic staff, vehicle maintenance, house maintenance allowances, in an environment in which the level of poverty is such that 70 per cent of the populace are unable to afford two square meals per day and more than 80 per cent try to survive with less than one dollar a day.
From the disclosures, it is now beyond dispute that our legislators are, by far, the highest paid in the world which seems to explain why the chambers have been opaque, members dodgy and evasive about their earnings. For 18 years, they maintained a cult-like secrecy on how much they earned; not even the invocation of the Freedom of Information Act could make them reveal their earnings.
The Constitution is unequivocal that only the RMAFC should determine the earnings of public officials. Section 84(1) states that “there shall be paid to the holders of the offices mentioned in this section such remuneration, salaries and allowances as may be prescribed by the National Assembly, but not exceeding the amount as shall have been determined by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission.” Any earnings outside the recommendations of the RMAFC would, on the face of it, therefore, appear illegal and should be stopped forthwith and the excess recovered. The idea of a N13.5 million monthly running expense in Abuja is so absurd. It is an insult on the intelligence of Nigerians. It is no more than a poorly disguised treasury-looting. This is so painful because everywhere in the world, it is the legislature that watches the public treasury with eagle eyes to ensure there is neither waste nor abuse of national resources.
The disclosures are bound to give impetus to the push for a reduction in the cost of governance. Many Nigerians want the legislatures reduced to one chamber. Others want the job of legislators reduced to part-time employment. Such agitations are bound to continue in view of the extraordinary amounts the legislators gratuitously awarded to themselves.
We commend Senator Sani for his exemplary service in the Senate and for his unusual courage. He today represents the conscience of the National Assembly, being also the only member who had the courage to declare his assets publicly.
During the dark days of the Sani Abacha dictatorship, he represented the conscience of the nation. Those roles he did not choose, were thrust upon him by history and he never shrank from them. Senator Sani should take solace in the truth that Nigeria never forgets those who serve her well.