During his recent angry exchanges with senators, renowned lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Professor Itse Sagay, exposed the kind of luxury life the legislators live. Sagay said: “Look at the allowance they tak e, forget the amount. Why would a whole senator collect money for his wardrobe? Is he naked? Does a labourer, who is taking just 18,000 a month get it? He’s the one who needs the money for wardrobe allowance. But these opulent, rich, super-rich people are still collecting from you and I to cloth themselves; they’re collecting money from you and I to buy newspapers; they said they’re suffering hardship by working inside chambers that are fully air-conditioned with luxurious cushions, with people serving them left, right and centre, with food and drinks available.”
Long before the exchanges, the salaries and allowances of senators and members of the House of Representatives have continued to attract vigorous debates in the public sphere. Should senators and members of the House of Representatives continue to receive the jumbo salaries and numerous allowances that are paid to them regardless of the current economic situation in the country? Those who support the idea of cutting the salaries and allowances of legislators are as adamant and uncompromising as are those who oppose the idea.
To explore issues in the debate, we must grapple with some important questions. What kind of job do legislators do that other people on low paying jobs cannot do? In the current economic environment, can legislators justify all the salaries and allowances they receive, including other financial privileges that are accorded to them? These questions sit at the centre of public disappointment with the performance of National Assembly members.
The National Assembly has failed the nation at various levels. The members are supposed to serve as role models but their behaviour in public and private spheres is not something most parents would like their children to imitate. On numerous occasions, the lawmakers fought openly and shamelessly outside and inside the building that serves as an emblem of morality, decency, maturity, and wisdom.
The moral character of some members of the National Assembly is troubling. It has raised serious questions not only about the criteria for election of lawmakers but also questions about the qualities of men and women who should stand up for election.
Some of the lawmakers have taken to open dancing and clownish behaviour in public spaces, even when there are pressing matters that require urgent legislative attention. In light of these misdemeanours, should we continue to view the legislators as paradigms of moral uprightness and honourable men and women? What are the unique elements in the personalities of national legislators that we should aim to emulate or avoid?
A bad track record of involvement in corrupt practices coupled with a history of infantile and unacceptable behaviour has left citizens with no choice but deep contempt for the legislators. Many people are offended that the fat salaries and allowances that National Assembly members receive are at odds with the economic deprivations that many citizens suffer.
There is a general agreement that the salaries and allowances of legislators should reflect the economic realities of our time, particularly when many hardworking men and women are owed months of salaries in various states. While it could be argued that the National Assembly is not responsible for payment of salaries of workers in the states, we must keep in mind that the National Assembly has an obligation to show leadership, particularly in their constituencies. They can and should influence state governors to pay regular salaries to workers.
Some of the allowances that are paid to legislators are outrageous. They should be removed or reduced drastically. A typical senator, for example, receives all manner of allowances that would make the poor in our society to shed tears. For example, a senator is reported to receive payments known as tour duty allowance, house maintenance, wardrobe allowance, newspaper allowance, personal assistant allowance, entertainment allowance, utilities allowance, vehicle gas maintenance allowance, domestic staff allowance, and others I cannot list here owing to space constraints. Some of these allowances are paid yearly while others are paid once every four years. They are in millions and thousands of naira.
These stupendous allowances show just how we encourage and sustain social inequalities in our society. Consider millions of graduates who are unemployed and who have been roaming the streets of major cities in search of jobs. How would they feel when they see the astonishing salaries and allowances that are paid to senators and members of the House of Representatives? Are the salaries and allowances morally justified in our society? They cannot be justified in any way. Should the salaries and allowances be cut? Absolutely yes!
There are sound reasons to advocate a significant cut in the salaries and allowances of National Assembly members. First, there has been a sharp drop in the prices of petroleum products in the international market. Oil, as everyone knows, is Nigeria’s main foreign exchange earner. The country no longer receives the kind of revenue it used to earn through the sale of petroleum products. This has been attributed to a plunge in oil prices.
The second reason why the salaries and allowances of legislators have to be slashed is the economic recession that has gripped the nation for some time. Although the government hastily announced some weeks ago that Nigeria has survived the recession, ordinary citizens are yet to feel the impact of that exaggerated news. For many citizens, life is still tough. Prices of goods in the market are still beyond the reach of many people.
The third reason for advocating a cut in the salaries and allowances of National Assembly members is the growing army of the unemployed. There are millions of university and polytechnic graduates who cannot find jobs, who are unable to receive bank loans to set up medium scale businesses of their own. These unemployed graduates need assistance in the form of jobs and business loans. Those who cannot see any future have joined the army of kidnappers, armed robbers, and high profile “419” club of swindlers who defraud many people of their hard earned income. The situation is dire for many people. National Assembly members have to come down from their high horses rather than live the life of opulence for which they have become notorious.
As far back as 2015, the chairperson of the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), Mr. Elias Mbam, said the commission had started to reduce the pay of the President, senators, members of the House of Representatives, as well as those pertaining to all elected public officials as a way to manifest current economic realities. Whether the commission has done this is an open question. The RMAFC is responsible for setting the remuneration of political office holders, including that of elected and appointed office holders.