JJ, Omojuwa: Flawed Ethics and the Billions we pay our Lawmakers

In August 2016, the Federal Government said it would release N60bn for capital projects for the benefit of Nigeria’s 170 million or so people, that is still N480m less than the yearly allowances of lawmakers in the House of Representatives. There are only 360 of them. N60bn is also as much as the renovation of 4,000 schools, at least in Kaduna State where the governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, announced in June that that amount would be spent for that purpose. Each representative of the mostly poor people of Nigeria until recently went home with N14m per month, in allowances only. According to revelations by the embattled member of the House, Abdulmumin Jibrin, the amount is now N10m/month/lawmaker. That is still N43.2bn/year. That comes to a whopping N172.8bn per term. Until recently, that amounted to N241.9bn/term. Before we even raise the conversation on corruption in the National Assembly, you only need to realise that each senator’s allowance is more than that of each representative. The total of both Houses’ earning privileges is enough explanation for why Nigeria was in the mess that it was in; it explains why we are in the recession mess we are in today and along with other thoughtless waste of our common wealth; it is why we will be producing more poor people and more criminals in the coming years, except there is a fundamental change in our national priorities.

Even though our lawmakers actually legally earn the numbers above, focus must shift immediately to what they illegally earn via overt and most times covert acts of corruption. Nigeria must take another look at its fight against corruption and the House of Representatives as led by Yakubu Dogara offers all of us, the opportunity to test our fight and anger against corruption. An opportunity like the Jibrin allegations of budget padding against the Dogara and others is a great avenue to test the waters of our seriousness in tackling official corruption and sleaze. It is an opportunity to test the laws, the independence of the National Assembly, of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and the Ethics committee of the House etc. In a functional democracy, Speaker Dogara and Jibrin would both face the Ethics Committee on these allegations. That the Ethics Committee of the House of Representatives only invited Jibrin to face its panel exposes us to the cost of having a committee whose loyalty is not to the House of Representatives but to the Speaker of the House. The independence of the committee itself is essential so its formation must be founded on that reality. The ethics committee ought to be formed by having an equal number of representatives from the two major parties. The leadership and membership of the ethics committees of both the Senate and the House should never be decided by the Senate President for the Senate or the Speaker for the House. The ethics committees should be evenly divided between the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress, irrespective of who controls both Houses. An even distribution of membership makes it possible for one party to veto the other, irrespective of which party controls the House. The Speaker or Senate President should not pick the opposition members of the ethics committee. Each party’s caucus should decide its members. In our case, the PDP House members should nominate their members. This ethics committee that is evenly distributed between both parties can then elect a chair who must be from the majority party. A situation where the Speaker or Senate President decides all of the aforementioned puts the independence of the committee into question. Note that this formation process is unique to the ethics committee and not applicable to the other committees and it is best democratic practice at least in the United States, the land we copied our democracy from. The reason is intuitive; the ethics committee is the only one that can potentially have the Speaker or Senate president face its panel. A situation where the Speaker or Senate President appoints the members of the committee and decides its leader is flawed! The ethics committee has a unique role in the National Assembly. It is by intuitive and legal determination, the conscience of both Houses.

As Speaker Dogara takes a look at the budgeting process like he already mentioned, we must take a look at something else too. The National Assembly must as a matter of urgency take a look at how its forms both ethics committees. Until then, this is all a joke. If both ethics committees functioned properly, before the EFCC and the Code of Conduct Bureau engage both leaders, they ought to face the committees. It is actually an anomaly of democratic procedure of the separation of powers that a Senate President Bukola Saraki who still hasn’t faced the Senate’s Ethics Committee is facing the CCB on issues around ethics. If the committee did its job properly, the CCB would either be engaging a Senate President who has since been advised to resign by the ethics committee or one who has been cleared by the same. Either way, that committee should have had the first say – not the final say – on this. If our democracy really worked at all, Speaker Dogara ought to face the ethics committee right away. But of course, both ethics committees are FLAWED in their formation process and set up. Not a fault of the current leaders, anyway, but how do even begin to trust them to now correct that anomaly?

No country in the world had everything worked out at the formation of its laws and constitution. Events help evolve new rules. In a country where leaders cared for legacies, we would be taking a critical look at the ethics committees at this time. If we want to practise democracy, let us practise it. If we want to do “magomagocracy” with a huge dose of “jibiti”, let us not call it by another name. It is shocking, abhorrent and embarrassing for Dogara to continue to pretend he has no case to answer. He, as much as Jibrin, if not more, has a case to answer. None of them is above the House. None of them is above the law!

The budget padding allegations offer an opportunity for critical reforms, not just in the budgeting process but in the ability of the House to clean itself of its own mess. Before we even get talking about the EFCCs of this world. History is littered with how events helped countries to create better laws and processes to guard against certain recurrences of bad events or practices. Because politicians will perfect their budget padding process, you would be made to think things changed in the nearest future but only the stealing would have evolved. Do not expect lawmakers to have a budget padding controversy next year but it would not be because there would be no budget padding or an attempt at it.

There are few documents as important as the budget. If the process of its making is not sacrosanct enough, you hardly have a country. A situation where mortals like the rest of us can allocate sizeable parts of the budget to themselves calls for attention. If we want to have a genuine democracy, we must operate by its virtues, rules and norms. No way around it. Having said this, the EFCC must prove its independence and seriousness by pursuing the budget padding allegations to the end. This is beyond Jibrin versus Dogara, this is about the institution that makes the laws the rest of us live by. Its constituents must be above board or be forced to be by the citizenry.

And as for the rest of us, if we expect these folks to just do the right thing without us demanding same, we joke. An average human being prefers to do the wrong thing except such wrong comes with a telling punishment. Now, imagine an average politician who gets rewarded for doing the wrong thing…if you feel Nigeria appears doomed, this is the reason why.