The Case for Part-time Legislators

Each time our legislators dominate national discourse, it is unlikely to be for their law making prowess or compassion for their hapless constituents who wallow in poverty from one end of the country to the other. Often, sadly, it is for the most unflattering reasons. The current issue of public concern and a veritable source of public angst is that the men and women elected to make humane laws for the people are also busy making money for themselves – at public expense.

The common jibe used to be that the root cause of kidnapping is that legislators and other office holders kidnapped the economy and left few options for the army of unemployed youth. In the guise of oversight functions, some legislators also apply their resourcefulness in finding ways to appropriate executive functions. Now, in addition, legislators especially those at the federal level nationally renowned for their pugilistic skills are stretching the meaning of appropriation. Many of them were operating humble budgets before they assumed office. Now, all have turned into instant millionaires by virtue of the jumbo pay packages and outrageous emoluments which they progressively legislate for themselves. That is, aside from other visible and invisible largesse that accrues to their office.

A new alarm on this offensive pay package was recently raised in Minna by former President Olusegun Obasanjo who berated legislators for consuming a disproportional part of national resources! Voices of concern are being raised across the nation. Despite all the hues and cries, the actual emolument of legislators in Nigeria remains obscure. In the absence of a Freedom of Information Act or official clarification, no one seems to know the actual remuneration which legislators receive.

The salaries proposed by the Revenue Mobilization, Appropriation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) for the national assembly members in 2001 excluding allowances were N810,560.00 for a Senator and N794,085.00 for each House of Reps member. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House were to earn higher at N993,697.00 and N990,844.00 respectively. Today, these emoluments have ballooned to ludicrous levels. Informed estimates put the cost to the nation of maintaining each senator at over 250m annually and about N204m to service each federal representative.

What this means by simple arithmetic is that 109 senators gulp over N27b per annum while 360 members of the House of Reps wallop over N73b per annum bringing the total to over N100b for just 469 elected public officials. And that is at the federal level alone! Add to that the emoluments, “constituency allowances” and other visible and invisible benefits paid to state legislators in each of the 36 states as well as the 7888 councillors who make bye – laws in 774 LGAs. The annual cost of sustaining the entire army of 17,500 individuals holding political offices in the executive and legislative arms of government in Nigeria is put at a whopping N1.3 trillion representing 42 per cent of the 2009 budget!

In a sense, the cost of maintaining political office holders in Nigeria could be said to qualify for what in Igbo philosophy is represented by the saying “alu ite akago alu mmili” (the weight of the pot has surpassed the weight of the water). The phenomenal transformation in their lives from the moment they assume public office in contradistinction to the indigent existence of a larger percentage of the populace is at the root of Nigeria’s social malaise and soaring criminality.

Can a developing (read ‘third-world’) country such as ours where majority of the people languish in unspeakable penury afford to spend one hundred billion naira of public funds per annum to pay for the ‘service’ of a few representatives that sit occasionally? And that is besides other visible and invisible perks of office which accrue to them as a matter of course.

If the consumptiveness was matched by equivalent productivity, it would have been easier to reconcile. But as another election looms in the not too distant future, few legislators at the federal, state and local government levels in Nigeria today are able to give a good account of their stewardship. Yet many want their mandates to be renewed so that they can continue living a fairy – tale life ensconced in luxury and wealth while the electorate pine, whine and die.

In the United States, representatives and senators earn $174,000 (about N26.1m) each per annum. There are 7,382 state legislators in the 50 States of the United States but their upkeep has not drilled a hole in the national kitty. Even US President, Barack Obama receives only $400,000 (about N60m) a year. That is a mere chicken change to an average Nigerian legislator!

The developed countries do not have a culture of burning their candles at both ends as seems to be the culture of political remuneration in Nigeria. Imagine this: in Nigeria, a country where the minimum wage, until recently, was N7,500 (about $50) per month; a country where the majority of citizens live on less than one dollar (about N150) per day and many households survive on less than N300 (about $2) per day, federal law makers earn more than the US President! But while public officials in saner climes announced pay cuts to reduce the strain on the national coffers, Nigerian legislators were clamouring for a raise in their already bulging allowances. In any other country, it would be a national scandal.

What this whole argument seems to be pointing to is that Nigeria has become ripe for part time legislators at the federal, state and local government levels. Law making does not have to be a full-time activity. Our “professional” legislators are rarely able to pass the budget on time even when the same party controls both the executive and the legislature. In many states of the US, part time legislators are the rule. This enables persons to hold real jobs and spend only a part of their time in the capital. States with part-time legislatures concentrate their work and focus on the most pressing legislative issues. Such legislators receive only sitting allowances. When remuneration is tied to attendance and performance, productivity is enhanced.

The concerns raised since 2001 about the excruciating cost of democracy in Nigeria particularly, given the country’s ailing economy and it’s ability to cope with the cost of maintaining the armada of elected officials must have to be addressed one way or the other before the ship of sate is sunk in a bid to satisfy the pleasures of a few.

Written by
Uche Ohia
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