…As economic hardship bites harder
“In 2011, I took a bank loan and before end of that year, I was able to pay it off. When I got to the National Assembly, I was fortunate to be a vice chairman of a good committee. In no time, I understood the business of the game and I recovered even everything. But it appears as if I made a mistake by coming back here. Some of us did not know that Goodluck Jonathan will not be re-elected. So, I went back to the same bank through my account manager and I took a loan, hoping I will pay back like I did before. My brother, as I speak, my allowance here cannot take care of my family, children school fees abroad, constituents and other small things.”
By FRED ITUA, Abuja
IT’S a season of change. For the National Assembly, it is over a year since it was inaugurated. While some Nigerians have adjusted to the new change regime, others are trapped in the old system. Politicians who hitherto dolled out funds to their supporters, have since adjusted to the new reality.
From the ordinary woman on the street of Abuja, to a farmer in Chibok, Borno State, as well as a trader in Ariaria market in Aba, Abia state, the lamentations are the same. The change is biting so hard that some parents in Kano and Lagos states have started exchanging their children for a bag of rice. Pots of soups are disappearing, while shops in markets are sometimes ransacked for foodstuffs. The tales of agonies know no friends or foes; everyone is a victim.
For the National Assembly, the change is biting hard. In the past, the corridors of National Assembly were among the busiest. Beside the Federal Secretariat, Abuja, the National Assembly could be adjudged as the second government institution that has the highest number of human and vehicular traffic.
There are three gates leading to the National Assembly. At each point, visitors are expected to present a tag, which gives them a temporal access to the expansive complex. The second access gate is the ‘Mecca’ of the National Assembly where visitors troop to register their presence before they are granted permission. In the past, there were days when over 500 visitors struggled to secure the entrance tag.
Those who frequented the National Assembly were predominantly ‘hustlers’, job seekers, ‘runs girls’, family members of lawmakers, contractors, among others. While hustlers usually dressed up in well-knitted suits or African prints to look like celebrities, job seekers on the other hand appeared more simple. It was easy to tell the difference.
For the ‘runs girls’ who almost converted the revered highest lawmaking building into a red light district, their provocative dressing separated them from regular girls who were staff of the National Assembly. Those who were bold enough, approached offices of Senators and were sometimes lucky to smile home with some goodies.
Almost every Senator had a special budget which catered for different categories of help seekers. Their offices were filled to the brim that some of the visitors had to stand for hours just to have a glimpse of their lawmakers. All that is history now since President Buhari was sworn-in on the 29th of May, 2015.
In the last one year, human and vehicular activities in the National Assembly have drastically reduced. The second gate of the National Assembly which was hitherto Abuja’s version of Mecca now witnesses less human presence. Except for days when there are major events in the National Assembly, the visitors’ car park is seldom filled to capacity.
For Senators, it is a season of lamentations, gnashing of teeth and uncontrollable regrets. Some Senators who spoke with our correspondent in confidence, revealed that they were yet to pay off bank loans they acquired in funding their campaigns. They said with the current economic downturn and hardship, some banks have reviewed the interest rates without their knowledge and added that they may lose some of their properties used as collateral if they are unable to pay back the loans before end of the year.
A Senator from the South-south who was first elected in 2011, lamented: “In my state, it is very expensive to win any election. It is not like the north where you can give out some money and get elected. In 2011, I took a bank loan and before end of that year, I was able to pay it off. When I got to the National Assembly, I was fortunate to be a vice chairman of a good committee. In no time, I understood the business of the game and I recovered even everything.
“But it appears as if I made a mistake by coming back here. Some of us did not know that Goodluck Jonathan will not be re-elected.
So, I went back to the same bank through my account manager and I took a loan, hoping I will pay back like I did before. My brother, as I speak, my allowance here cannot take care of my family, children school fees abroad, constituents and other small things. I am not even talking of projects in my place and the bank loan is waiting for me. Things have changed, but Nigerians do not know this fact. They think that we still have access to o much money.”
Many lawmakers who were hitherto tagged ‘Father Christmas’ by their constituents have suddenly become ‘akagum’. Those who in the past, had small budgets to cater for constituents who frequented their offices, have reneged. Some of the lawmakers have changed their phone numbers to avoid their constituents or old friends from calling them. Others have resorted to the use of their personal exit doors which were in the past, seldom used.
Through the lenses of the security cameras in their offices, they gauge the number of visitors in their offices. Worried that they may be unable to meet their needs, they simply use the private doors to escape, while their visitors spend hours waiting for them.
In an interview with our correspondent, the Senate Deputy Minority Whip, Senator Biodun Olujimi from Ekiti state could not hold back the frustrations of Senators. She revealed that as a result of the cash crunch that has hit the Upper Legislative Chamber, lawmakers who hitherto paid school fees for their constituents or meet their other financial needs can no longer do so.
She said: “It is not a rumour. Funds are not forthcoming. Salaries of lawmakers are paid late. What can we do? Yet, the people out there have been poisoned to believe that all the funds in the country are here. When you cannot meet their demands, you look like an evil person.
“The truth is that we are the nearest to the people. Because we are federal legislators, we are expected to be better than the others. But where will the funds come from? When you put on your phone in the morning, you get demands from wives who just put to bed, children who cannot pay their fees, leaders that are very ill and you were able to give. Now, you can longer give. I have to tell my people that I can no longer pay their school fees. We used to assist some of them pay their school fees.”
House of Representatives
The dividends of democracy appear also distant from the Lower Legislative Chamber. For members of the House of Representatives, it is a season of lamentations and regrets. While the hardship in the Senate may still be tolerable, the situation in the House of Representatives is biting.
In the 7th House of Representatives, it was a season of mega harvests. Ministers who served in former President Jonathan’s government were free givers. During oversight functions, huge sums were budgeted to cater for the needs and other ‘logistics’ of lawmakers who were sometimes ferried around in chartered planes and exotic cars. At the end of the oversight functions, lawmakers were handsomely rewarded and everyone was always happy.
That was not all. The current governor of Sokoto state, Aminu Tambuwal, who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives between 2011 and 2015, played the role of Father Christmas to lawmakers. Those from the ruling and opposition parties were accommodated. Every weekend, lawmakers would file to the office of the Speaker to receive small sums for the weekend.
In the House of Representatives, it was a tradition for lawmakers to distribute bags of rice and other goodies to their office staff and friends during festive seasons. Trucks loaded with bags of rice and rams were frequent sights during festive periods. For those who were very benevolent, they gave out cash gifts to people. It was a season everyone looked forward to.
In the past, it was a misnomer for lawmakers to get their monthly salary payment alerts late. Their allowances were paid as at when due. Even though there were occasional delays in the payment of salaries of aides and civil servants working in the National Assembly, it was a taboo to pay lawmakers late.
All these goodies and many more are part of history now. As the economy bites harder, House of Representatives members have devised new ways to escape the long queues of professional beggars and constituents who frequent their offices to ask for financial assistance.
Some members have resorted to calling their secretaries to know the number of people waiting for them before they come to their office. Whenever it is extremely important for them to show up in the office and the number of people waiting is on the high side, they use the back door to get in and out of their office.
From the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara to the least member of the Green Chamber, everyone is afraid to solicit for funds from government agencies. The yearly consideration of the budget which was hitherto a mega harvest period, was a colossal disaster this year. Members of Appropriation Committee who hitherto smiled to the banks, were disappointed, as no Minister or head of government agency ‘greased’ their palms.
Similarly, members who hitherto frequented their constituencies in their villages have reduced their visits. Aides and other domestic staff have, instead, been urged to stand in for their bosses. This, Saturday Sun gathered, was a way of avoiding spending on frivolities and other ‘irrelevant’ things.
In the last one year as well, journalists have been affected. Every year, until the All Progressives Congress (APC) led government came to power, there were budgetary allocations for journalists who traveled with lawmakers for oversight functions. That practice is almost history now. Committee chairmen and their members go on oversight visits without journalists and this has in a way, affected the existing relationship between the lawmakers and some media practitioners.
Advertorials that were frequently given to media houses and payments made almost immediately have vanished. Some committees that are financially bouyant enough to place advertorials in newspapers, negotiate for outrageous commissions. Sometimes, it takes up to three to six months to pay for the advertorials.
Food vendors, recharge card sellers, security officers who hitherto got handouts from lawmakers, among others have also been affected by the change regime in the last one year.
Maybe in the months and weeks to come, things may pick up. But for now, it is a long walk to freedom and a far cry from Uhuru.