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There Is Nothing Like Constituency Allowance —Senate Leader
Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, a third-term member of the upper chamber of the National Assembly, in this interview with Regional Editor, Olawale Rasheed, speaks on issues bordering on the image of the legislature and the country. Excerpts:
What is your sincere assessment of the seventh National Assembly, one year on?
Let me be specific on the Senate; it is where I have the statistics and record. It has been another year of stability. If you look at the history of the Senate from 1999 to the sixth Senate, we always took off on a note of instability. It was only with the sixth Senate, with the coming of David Mark, that we took off on a note of stability and ended on a note of stability. We have, again, in the seventh Senate taken off on a note of stability. The implication is that the Senate as an institution is maturing.
In the last one year, we have passed at least 24 bills, which is the highest number ever passed within the same time frame.
We have 126 bills or thereabout under processing which, again, is the highest number. We have taken about 46 or 48 motions, again, the highest number within that period. It shows that as we mature, our systems get more productive and efficient. We still have constraints, the major one being in the area of capacity. The constraints are historical because for the many years that we had military rule, the legislature didn’t have the opportunity of a regular growth. We didn’t have the opportunities the other arms of government had because with or without the military, the executive and the judiciary existed.
This has affected our capacity, but we are trying to catch up with the stability that we now have.
We also had a challenge in the hostile public perception of the legislature, which is a consequence of long years of military rule.
We were under military rule for about 30 years in this country. This means that for 30 out of our 52 years of independence, the parliament did not exist and the country continued. For 30 years, Nigerians had lived without the parliament. Now, the implication is that if anything goes wrong in the system, the public would blame the parliament.
Talking about the hostile public perception of the legislature, I will give you two instances. The first is the notion that the National Assembly is responsible for the country’s woes. Our annual budget is N150 billion, and the national budget is N4 trillion.
This means that our budget is about three per cent of the national budget. That includes recurrent and capital and salaries of members of the National Assembly and their aides; it includes the salaries of the civil servants working in the National Assembly Service Commission; it includes our subscription to international parliamentary organisation and it includes the National Legislative Institute.
Now, N150 billion is about 10 per cent of what is alleged to be spent on fuel subsidy. The National Assembly’s budget is about three per cent of the national budget. This means that our ‘opportunity’ for corruption is three per cent. But that three per cent is the focus of everything that has gone wrong. Nobody is talking about where the other 97 per cent is domiciled.
Secondly, we hear about the jumbo pay. I have kept a file of my pay slips from the day I came to the National Assembly. I am operating from an office. I have staffers. What I am doing here is official. So, if I am given N10,000 to buy stationery, the same amount that is given in the executive or judiciary, while in the executive or judiciary theirs is for stationery, my own N10,000 is allowance. For the executive and judiciary, money to travel for official duty is travel allowance, but when it comes to legislature, it becomes part of my jumbo pay.
Recently, I was at a funeral service where the preacher was talking about what some of us do with what they call constituency allowance and what others don’t do with it. That issue has been in the public domain, but I am not aware of any constituency allowance. I don’t earn constituency allowance because there is no such thing. But this was coming from a knowledgeable and believable Nigerian, a preacher. The point is that there is no such thing as constituency allowance, but the public has its own perception of us, and with the kind of money they say we earn, there should not be a poor former senator. But I challenge Nigerians to show me a rich former senator!
You have talked about the achievements in the number of bills, what is the performance on oversight.
I have talked about capacity and the implications of the status of our capacity is far reaching. Let me use the budgetary process as an example. You use indexes and parameters for budgeting. The indexes and parameters we use are the ones referred to us by the executive. We have not yet developed an independent capacity to generate our own indexes and parameters like the United States legislature has the congressional budget office. We have not got there yet, we are working towards it. We have issues with oversight because the people you are over-sighting are the ones you are depending on for the inputs that you use. So, there are problems. But what I have noticed with my time here in the National Assembly is that as an institution matures, you begin to find ways around some of these issues.
People talk about corruption in the National Assembly. The Senate has 54 standing committees — I am not talking of ad-hoc committees. If there has been any hint of corruption, it is perhaps one committee out of 54. But the notion is that it is a pervasive thing. It is so bad that every member of the National Assembly is perceived as a thief. I remember in my first term in the legislature, I was taking my son to school and there was this radio programme that was painting all of us in the National Assembly as rogues, brigands and thieves. I was driving and I noticed that my 16-year-old son with me in the car kept shifting on his seat trying to stay away from me. I asked him why he was shifting; ‘you are believing this story on the radio?’ He asked me: ‘is it not true?’ But obviously, that is not true.
I go to church sometimes, and they preach against politicians. But at the end of it, when they want to roof the church building, it is the same politicians they will come to. We keep saying that we too are searching for salvation. In spite of the hostile perception of the public of us, we hope to go to heaven. We are also seeking the face of God like any other person. I am a Catholic. I carry my rosary in my pocket all the time. I am like any other person searching for salvation. Most of my colleagues are equally patriotic citizens struggling to offer their best to the country.
You find some legislators showcasing certain capital projects as part of their achievents in spite of the prior claim that there is nothing like constituency project. Who then do we blame for the impression that there is so much money in the National Assembly?
I give scholarships, and I started doing so since 1980, even before I came to the National Assembly. I have professors today on my scholarship. I bought cars for some of my constituents, but it is not from any ‘constituency allowance’. Now, let me say here that every project is a constituency project because it is in somebody’s constituency. What I am saying categorically that does not exist is the one they call ‘constituency allowance’.
Let me tell you how the constituency projects operate. There is an office in the presidency called the MDG Office. That office is headed by a senior special assistant to the president. That office may come up with parameters to intervene in six primary schools or 12 health centers or we want to sink 30 boreholes in Cross River Central Senatorial District, this is my senatorial district and I represent it. The MDG office would send me a form and ask me to indicate where the projects should be cited. I would now consult my colleagues in the House of Representatives from my senatorial district and ask where and where they are also siting projects so that we don’t duplicate. Afterwards, I fill the form, site the school intervention in so and so place, health centre and borehole, as the case may be, and I sign and retun the form to the committee on MDG, who would now compile and forward to the MDG office in the presidency. The MDG office does the award of the contract for the projects. We have no hands in the award of those projects even though you influence where it is sited. And I say again very categorically that there is nothing like constituency allowance.
What is the relationship between the Senate and House of Representatives.
Cordial. It couldn’t be better. The leadership of both chambers have mutual respect for one another. There is constant consultation and dialogue between both houses on those areas that we need to harmonise, and not on how we do our works.
How do you explain the different approaches to issue with the executive.
I made an exception that the consultation and dialogue between the two houses does not include how we do our work. But let me take you through one of the constitutional requirements or history of parliament. Constitutionally, for you to be a member of the House of Representatives, you must be at least 30 years old. And for you to be in the Senate, it is minimum of 35 years of age, which means you are likely to find older people in the Senate than the House of Representatives.
Again, our numbers are different. While we are 109 in the Senate, they are 360 in the House. So, if we have 109 shades of opinions or viewpoints in the Senate, they have 360 viewpoints in the House. Also, a senator represents a senatorial district, while a member of the House of Representatives represents a federal constituency under the senatorial district. In some cases, you have three federal constituencies under one senatorial district. The implication is that a senator has a broader outlook. They are more intense because their constituencies are smaller.
Again, the Lower House in a bicameral arrangement is usually designed to represent the people directly, while the Upper House is designed to stabilise the polity. When there is crisis, you expect the Senate to intervene. Structurally, the Senate is not expected to be part of the fray. We are supposed to stand apart. When there is crisis, we now move in to calm the situation. When the late President Umaru Yar’Adua faced health challenges, it was the Senate that moved in with the doctrine of necessity to stabilise the polity. During the last strike on the removal of fuel subsidy, our own approach was different, because we knew that if we got into a crisis, we would be expected to move in to stabilise the polity. So, the two houses are conceptually different.
You talked about the image of the National Assembly. You observed that there is a hostile perception of it. You have also given the difference in functions and approach. Does it mean that there is always allegations of corruption and bribe more in the House?
How many issues of bribery? Of the three arms of government, the legislative, executive and judiciary, the National Assembly is the only one that operates in the open. When we are in plenary, there are cameras. When we are in committees, there are cameras. We are obliged to operate in the open because we represent the public. We have only two situations where we can go into a closed session. To discuss issues bordering on national security and when we have what we call house-keeping issues. So, we are the most open. I remember when I was the Senate spokesman in my first term, there was a bulletproof car, just one, that was ordered even before Ken Nnamani became Senate President. It was the subject of many front page stories. And I went to the press centre and said: ‘look, gentlemen, we may have erred here, but tell me, how many bulletproof cars are there in the Villa?’ Nobody could say. I asked again: ‘how many bulletproof cars do you have in your local government chairman’s fleet?’ They couldn’t say. ‘How many bulletproof cars are in the judiciary?’ They also couldn’t say. But just one in the National Assembly was known.
The point I am making is that if you were to subject the other arms of government to the kind of scrutiny that the National Assembly is subjected to, are you sure that we will appear as bad as we do now?
Nigerians could do without the legislature. It is just paradoxical because the same Nigerians who could do without a legislature want democracy, and this institution that they could do without represents democracy. But if we get mischievous about the scrutiny of the National Assembly, we could end up with a timid National Assembly, and a timid National Assembly does no one no good because it means that the executive can have a field day. I subscribe to openness in governance, and I subscribe to openness even in our private lives. If you have nothing to hide, you will be open. And it was because of my very firm believe in openness that I personally sponsored the Freedom of Information Bill, which is an Act today — because I believe that societies must be open. It is when societies are open that we will rise even to the level of our abilities and responsibilities.
Because I know that everybody is looking at me, I become conscious of the things I do. It is when society is open that you will even elevate accountability and public discourse, because everybody will be well-informed. So, if there is one incident of bribery in an open institution like the National Assembly, I bet you we will have thousands in those institutions that operate in secret. That is why I asked: if you subject the other arms of government to the kind of scrutiny that the National Assembly is subjected to, are you sure that we will appear as bad as we do now?
The agitation for a sovereign national conference has been on for a while now. Do you subscribe to it.
I don’t know what you mean by ‘sovereign national conference’ because we have only one sovereignty in the country, which derives from the constitution. So, when you say ‘sovereign national conference’, how do we set aside the constitution. For it to be sovereign, you have to set aside the constitution and to set aside the constitution, you need a military coup, which is unconstitutional. So, I think a sovereign national conference in the context of a constitutional democracy is a misnomer. You can say ‘national conference’. O.k. The National Assembly does not object to as many Nigerians as possible or as many fora as possible or as many opportunities as possible to discuss Nigeria. We are even going to provide an opportunity for Nigerians to do so when we start the present round of constitutional amendment. The public hearings are going to be extensive and robust because the National Assembly is created by that sovereignty called the constitution. If Nigerians want to go outside the National Assembly to form groups to discuss Nigeria, we will encourage it. It is their right, guaranteed under the constitution —freedom of association and freedom of speech. We have sworn to uphold and protect the constitution so, we will uphold and protect every right that the constitution has given. But the one that I don’t understand is when they begin to qualify it as ‘sovereign national conference’.
When you encourage a discussion or debate at a national conference, would the National Assembly work with the recommendations that might come up?
We have always done so. We have never laid claims to monopoly of knowledge or wisdom. That is why the law making process inherently allows for public hearing and we use that opportunity as generously as we possibly can because you don’t know it all and every insight is very useful in what we do here.
Are you optimistic of a robust amendment of the revised 1999 Constitution by the time the seventh session of the National Assembly expires?
It is not in our hands. If you look at the procedure for constitutional amendment, it also involves the state houses of assembly. Every proposed amendment has to be passed by at least two-third of the state houses of assembly. The implication is that the state houses of assembly are nearer to the people. The implication is that for any amendment you pass, it is an amendment on which Nigerians have had sufficient conversation and reached some form of consensus. I give you an example. In the last round of amendment, we proposed financial autonomy for the National Assembly and the state houses of assembly, but the state assemblies approved financial autonomy for the National Assembly, and refused financial autonomy for themselves.
Why do you think Nigerians are calling for a national conference?
Are you satisfied with Nigeria as it is today? If you are not satisfied, you must discuss and if you are satisfied, you will think of how to get more satisfaction. So, discussion or dialogue is a normal human activity. It has been agreed that the fiscal term of our federalism has become antiquated, therefore, we need to renegotiate our union as a country.
What is your take on the call for a posthumous declaration of the late M.K.O. Abiola as president?
First of all, let me say that Nigeria needs to honour Chief M.K.O. Abiola. He earned and deserved whatever honour given to him. The democracy that we are enjoying today may not have been possible without his contributions and sacrifice. He had the opportunity to say: ‘look, let me go and enjoy my wealth and let go all these’, but he insisted that he would die for the issue and he did die. So, Abiola can never be honored enough for as long as we have our democracy. I have listened to the argument of him being declared the president and I have no problem with it. The only problem I have with it is, when will we say his tenure began or ended? Constitutionally, if you are president, your presidency will run for a period. So, how do we determine the time of Abiola’s presidency. If you now declare him president, what will be the terminal date of his presidency. That is the problem.