From Kemi Yesufu
MANY had almost forgotten this controversy. Majority of Nigerians would not want to hear of it again. But it seems that the move to alter the constitution to place principal officers of the National Assembly (NASS) on life pension has become an issue once more.
An umbrella of Civil Society Groups recently expressed their opposition to the move as the National Assembly commenced the business of revisiting the review of the 1999 constitution. Former President Goodluck Jonathan failed to sign the reviewed constitution into law for various reasons. Some called his refusal a case of pouring away the bath water with the baby while others who didn’t quite agree with certain amendments, hailed the decision taken by the former president.
The Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), one of the groups that immediately commended Jonathan for not signing the final product presented by the 7th assembly singled out the amendment seeking to give principal officers of the National Assembly the same privilege of a hefty life pension enjoyed by former presidents and vice-presidents as the basis for their happiness that the reviewed constitution didn’t get the presidential nod.
In a statement by its National President, Bobboi Bala Kaigama, and the Secretary-General, Alade Bashir Lawa, the union described the move by the legislators as fraudulent. The association said it was disappointing that despite opposition and protests against the huge salaries and allowances approved by the lawmakers for themselves, they were still bent on granting their principal officers generous pensions for life, a development that would cost the country a lot of money to sustain.
The union equally called on President Muhammadu Buhari not to accept any amendment that would place the National Assembly principal officers on pension for life. The statement read in part: “It is worrisome that the National Assembly could approve pension for life for the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and his deputy, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of each of the 36 state Houses of Assembly for serving four and eight years on the average.
“You can imagine the huge sums of money that would be siphoned monthly through this ill-advised pension-for-life for the principal officers of the legislatures in Abuja and the 36 states of the federation,” the union stated.
ASCSN reiterated that under the current pension law, public servants who serve the country for 35 years or attain the age of 60 years are retired without being paid any gratuity while the pension that is paid is contributed by both the workers and employers.
“On retirement, these public service employees are paid 50 per cent of their entitlements while the other half is spread over the years. Yet, Nigerian politicians who serve the nation for four or eight years on the average want to pay themselves pension for life.”
The ASCSN pointed out that in rejecting the proposal for life pension for the principal officers of the legislatures, the Presidency revealed that “the National Assembly defied constitutional procedures and resorted to the use of voice votes to pass such a fundamental Constitutional Amendment and added that it (the Presidency) would not be party to such illegality.
“Where in the world do politicians approve life pension for themselves after serving for four or eight years?”
The amendment to section 84 of the 1999 constitution is contained in a new subsection 5a, clause 8 which reads: “Any person,f who has held office as President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, shall be entitled to pension for life at a rate equivalent to the annual salary of the incumbent President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“The Senate decided, inter alia to alter Section 84 of the Constitution (by inserting a new subsection 5a and subsection 8) to read that: “Any person who has held office as President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, shall be entitled to pension for life at a rate equivalent to the annual salary of the incumbent President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives”. (The Constitution, 1999) .
This alteration follows the existing subsection 5 of Section 84 of the constitution which provides for payment of pension for life to the President and Vice-President of the country at a rate which is the equivalence of what the sitting president and vice-president are paid.
Indeed, the association spoke the mind of an overwhelming majority who feel that with a dwindling income, which led to states owing workers salary for months, the country has to stay far away from any policy that will increase recurrent expenditure which takes a huge chunk of the annual budget. For the N6.07 trillion 2016 budget, non-debt recurrent expenditure is taking N2.65 trillion. This is even as not a few experts have opined that an increase in capital expenditure and not recurrent expenditure is what Nigeria desperately needs to kick-start its economic recovery.
Observers are also irked by the fact that already, lawmakers who grudgingly accepted the call for a reduction of their salaries, get a huge severance pay after exiting the National Assembly, yet they seem disposed to placing their principal officers on pension for life.
Part of the remuneration package put together by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission showed that for the 7th assembly, senators like their House of Representatives counterparts got 300 per cent of their annual basic salaries as severance allowances at the expiration of their tenures on June 5 2015.
To pay senators, a total of N462,019,200 was set aside. This translates to each senator getting N6,079,200. Also, for the House of Representatives, about 290 members who did not return to the National Assembly were entitled to N5,955,637.50 as severance allowance. This means that the 290 members were paid N1, 727,134,875.
Reacting to the renewed call for the National Assembly to jettison the pension for life plan for its principal officers, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media, Abdulrazak Namdas said that it was akin to putting the cart before the horse. Nevertheless, he pleaded for patience and understanding from the electorate and concerned groups as work on the constitution had just commenced.
He said: “I am also a member of the constitutional review committee and we have only commenced on processes and how we can carry out this task in a manner that will be enduring. Yes, we are looking at what the 7th Assembly did, bearing in mind that a lot of money was spent reviewing the constitution. Having said this, I can tell you that you cannot say we have reviewed the constitution already, so what you are talking about just might be a case of putting the cart before the horse. I think Nigerians have to be a little patient”.
Namdas further stated that the House would fully involve the public as done in the past, saying: “The review of the constitution doesn’t involve just one item. There are many issues we will be looking into and for some of them, we will conduct public hearings. So, this issue is not something that has been concluded by the House. The constitution review committee only commenced work last month, we have only met twice and so we couldn’t have reviewed the whole constitution, so I must call on the people to be patient, even as I can tell you that we are alive to our responsibility which is to represent the people who sent us here”.
Indeed, speaking at the first meeting of the constitution review committee which followed its inauguration, Deputy Speaker of the House and Chairman of the panel, Yussuff Lasun urged members to brace up, as they would be embarking on a serious national assignment.
Lasun said: “We are on a serious national duty to carry through the constitutional review exercise which was initiated by the 7th assembly, but was inconclusive because of the inability of the former President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan to accent to the alteration Bill as passed.
“This committee under my watch will not only revisit all amendments that were passed by the preceding 7th Assembly but also entertain fresh referrals and do all that is necessary to ensure that the new constitutional process is carried out to a logical conclusion by this 8th Assembly. We will be guided by the principles of transparency and judicious application of scarce resources as we engage the people of Nigeria and other relevant stakeholders in renewed consultations in days and months ahead”.
Suffice to say that Nigerians expect no less from the National Assembly than what the Deputy Speaker told the committee. In fact, some would ask that just as the Senate President Bukola Saraki and the Speaker Yakubu Dogara, rejected the N10 billion voted in the 2016 budget of the Ministry of Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for the building of their official quarters, opting for it to be reduced to N1 billion each, to save the country N8 billion, they can also reject the move to place them and others on pension for life.