Bukola Ogunyemi: The Ultimate Nigerian Challenge – The People vs The National Assembly

It is often said that a country’s leadership is a reflection of its people. But Nigerians will wonder how in the very year that they desired and worked for true change in governance, the gods conspired to gift them the most retrogressive gang of federal lawmakers. When the decision to redirect the course of the nation’s political leadership was taken through the ballot, hopes were staked on the reward of a concurrent redirection in the fortune of the masses. In so doing Nigerians voted overwhelmingly for a president who, despite his dictatorial past, held the promise of a departure from the order of institutionalized corruption threatening the country’s future.

The anti-climax in that script of the triumph of the people’s will over the desires of the occupants of the corridors of power and their benefactors is the colony of flatitious individuals that make up the 8th National Assembly. That assembly as constituted has shown itself to be a kettle of political vultures feeding off the carcasses of the collective hopes and aspirations of Nigerians, and through the actions and inactions of its members, poses a serious threat to the actualization of any meaningful change as so desired.

Indeed, the 8th National Assembly has so far failed as a democratic institution in its primary assignment of law-making. Instead its members have focused on frivolities, united by their common greed they are dedicated to the task of sabotaging efforts to rid the system of economic scavengers plundering the nation’s wealth. Thus these parliamentarians have pitched their tent against the people who voted them in, making a mockery of the wishes of the people they represent and perpetuating their own selfish agenda. It is a familiar battle, one which the people have fought and won before, and which they are more than capable of winning again.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2016, while discussions held around the world on the actualization of a more gender-balanced society, debate in the male dominated and highly chauvinistic Nigerian Senate centred on polygamy as the ultimate solution to the myriad of issues confronting the average Nigerian woman. A week later the same Senate followed though by unanimously throwing out a Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill which among other things seek to ensure adequate protection for widows from inhuman and degrading treatment while granting them automatic custody of the children. Drawing from their polluted well of limited understanding, the Senators excused their shameful act on religious and cultural references which only reinforce their collective ignorance.

The leader of the 8th National Assembly is currently facing trial for alleged failure to fully disclose his assets in line with existing laws to that effect. In response, his colleagues in the Senate moved to amend the Code of Conduct Bureau Act under which he’s being tried as well as the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. While the spirit of the amendment is not entirely faulty, the timing and utterances of the lawmakers betray the self-serving motives behind their actions. The Senate has in recent years become the retirement home for former governors, and the prevalent fear that they may have contravened the same law inspired their support for the amendment, because if you don’t assist your neighbour when his house is burning, it will extend to yours.

A N120 billion budget for a National Assembly of less than 500 elected representatives in a country where over 60 million people are living on less than $2 a day qualifies as crime against humanity. In saner climes elected representatives are employees of the people, and their actions and responses exhibit this fundamental belief. But in Nigeria, parliamentarians are not answerable to their constituency because they paid their way to the hallowed chambers. As such, the efforts by activists and civil society groups to have the National Assembly budget reduced and its books made open to public scrutiny have proved abortive. A Nigerian voter with internet connection or cable TV stands a better chance of knowing how much the Obamas earned in 2015 than knowing the salary of the legislators representing him at the National Assembly.

And what do Nigerians get in exchange for a N120 billion National Assembly? Beer parlour gists, chauvinistic comments, pedestrian motions and juvenile debates. Debates on bills are only expedited when it fits into the self-serving agenda of Nigerian legislators. Out of over 150 bills introduced in the Senate since June 2015, only 12 have passed 2nd reading. Among those are bills meant to gag press freedom and grant politicians immunity against social media criticisms. To create an illusion of activity, Senators whose job it is to put legislation in place that would improve ease of doing business in Nigeria turned to trending hashtags and doing photo ops for Made in Nigeria products, advancing parochial and illiberal economic views disguised as patriotism for cheap publicity.

In an act of self-preservation, the lawmakers have made the process of recall made almost impossible. It is easier for a camel to pass the eye of a needle than a federal lawmaker to be recalled by his constituency. Such is the immunity against accountability that defined their latest move to buy 36 brand new SUVs at a cost of over N1.3 billion at a time the country is battling serious revenue shortage. This they did the same week the President went to China to secure loans and FDI, and the US pledged nearly $40 million in new humanitarian assistance to support people whose lives have been affected by Boko Haram violence. According to one of the Senators, Nigerians should be grateful because, in his words, we are supposed to buy 109 cars but because of the paucity of funds, because of our sensitivity and concern for lack of funds, we bought only 36 to go round per state.

The reality is that Nigerians can no longer afford to subsidise the ostentatious desires of legislators who are deliberately insensitive to the economic realities and political priorities of the nation. The people have another challenge on their hands if the National Assembly continues to take them for granted, as exemplified by the last government. It is a challenge that cannot be ignored, because no true development is possible if an essential democratic institution like the parliament is as morally deficient as Nigeria’s National Assembly has shown itself to be over the past year.

*Bukola Ogunyemi, a digital marketing executive, writes from Lagos.

**This column runs on AfricanLiberty.org every Thursday.