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Is Bola Tinubu On To Something? By Okey Ndibe

September 24, 2012

Last week, former Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State got the attention of Nigerian senators. In a comment he made at a public forum in Abuja, Mr. Tinubu proposed that the Senate be scrapped from the constitution, leaving the House of Representatives as Nigeria’s sole legislative body.

Last week, former Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State got the attention of Nigerian senators. In a comment he made at a public forum in Abuja, Mr. Tinubu proposed that the Senate be scrapped from the constitution, leaving the House of Representatives as Nigeria’s sole legislative body.

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Mr. Tinubu’s words: “We have kept complaining about the cost of governance and the recurrent expenditure. But we have never examined the structural problem of even the constitution that we are operating. Why do we need two Houses of the National Assembly, whereas the House of Representatives representing the smaller constituencies is enough in the same number of population? Why not get rid of the Senate for a slim and better legislative activity? Let us start examining that.”

Well, several serving senators “examined” the proposal and failed to find it funny or impressive. As the Nigerian Punch reported last Sunday, numerous senators “excoriated” the former governor – who happens also to be a former senator – for his advocacy. According to Punch, senatorial adversaries “questioned Tinubu’s logic, and stressed that his wife was a serving senator. Besides, his party, the ACN has 17 senators in the red legislative chamber.”

For me, those broad objections are ill-thought and untenable. If anything, the fact that the proponent’s wife is a senator and his party, the Action Congress of Nigeria, occupies 17 seats in the Senate adds to the power and urgency of his case for abolishing the Senate. In fact, it won’t be odd in the least were a current member of the Senate to suggest that the body be expunged from the constitution. It would be silly to respond to such a prescription by demanding that the senator demonstrate her/his seriousness by resigning.

Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (PDP, Cross River Central) offered a more substantive and interesting response to Mr. Tinubu’s advocacy. He argued, as reported by the Punch, “that the multiplicity of ethnic nationalities meant that minority rights must be protected for democracy to function.” He contended that a bicameral legislature “is adopted in a heterogeneous society,” that the “Senate is a representation based on equality,” and that scrapping it would amount to denying “minorities proper representation.”

Mr. Ndoma-Egba’s is not an argument to be easily dismissed. Nigeria is a politically vexed entity, a harvest of ethnic, religious and social tensions and crises. As its two most important writers, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, have noted on different occasions, Nigeria is, at best, a space without a nation (Soyinka) or a nation that is yet to be founded (Achebe).

Let’s put the issue of minorities aside for the moment. No Nigerian’s rights are protected in any effective way in the current arrangement. Wait a minute, I must correct that statement. I meant to claim that the only people whose interests are served or protected in present-day Nigeria are the small number of political henchmen (senators included) and their cohorts in the business world. These are the ones who reap without sowing, who do the big crimes but hardly ever do time in jail, who daily work to wreck Nigeria and, in return for their impunity, receive national honors and other rewards. If you doubt this conclusion, consider last week’s revelation that businesses owned by numerous members of President Goodluck Jonathan’s inner circle of friends, associates and advisers owe more than a trillion naira to Nigeria’s beleaguered commercial banks.

The vast majority of Nigerians have no say in the affairs of the country, no way to register their voices, and no rights or interests that the Nigerian state is inclined to respect. And now, let’s talk about minorities. Senator Ndoma-Egba’s claim is hardly controversial: Nigeria’s minorities often have it worse than everybody else.

Still, one wonders whether the Senate as a body based on equal representation has any record of serving minorities. I seriously doubt it, but I’m willing to concede that Mr. Ndoma-Egba might know something that I don’t. In that spirit, I have a question for him. Pray tell: In what specific, concrete ways has the Senate advanced the interests of Nigeria’s plethora of ethnic minorities? I’d like to know how, and where, the senators have done battle for this country’s weakest elements.

There are, it seems to me, two elements in Mr. Tinubu’s argument. One is the explicit contention that Nigerians spend far too much on their country’s law-making apparatus. By erasing the Senate from the constitution, we’d cut costs and have more funds to spend on infrastructure and other critical needs. The second argument, which Mr. Tinubu merely implied but did not voice, is that the country’s legislators have been a terribly incompetent bunch, a high-priced collection of mediocrities who appear either ignorant or indifferent about the uses of legislation as a nation-building tool.

I speak not only of the Senate or even of the National Assembly. One is hard put to it to find a single legislature in Nigeria’s thirty-six states that remotely measures up to the role that a law-making body ought to play in a vibrant democracy. It’s often easier to focus on the failures of the president, governors and local government councilors. By comparison, the legislatures operate in relative obscurity, under the radar of public scrutiny. All too often, our inept, wretched legislators escape the censure they richly deserve.

Perhaps because the Senate is expected to be the more august of the bicameral bodies, its ineptitude stands out. In recent times, it’s become a warehouse for former (incompetent) governors, retired (undistinguished) generals, and the politically connected – this category including Mr. Tinubu’s wife. In more than 12 years of our “nascent” democracy, the Senate has done little, if anything, to deeply affect the lives of Nigerians in a positive direction. But, oh, all the ways these men and (a few) women have pitched hundreds of billions of naira into their private pockets!

If there’s palpable frustration about the huge funds gobbled up by legislators, it is also because Nigerians hardly get anything in return. Nigeria’s minimum wage is less than N20000. Millions of Nigerians with families take home that measly sum that can’t buy meals and drinks for three in many restaurants in Abuja and Lagos. Yet, every three months or so, each senator in Abuja as well as each member of the House of Representatives haul away three or four times the salary of President Barack Obama. And the only constant is that, each year, they demand – and receive – more!

Even if these lawmakers knew what they were doing, Nigerians would still have a right to begrudge them their astonishing salaries and allowances. Once you factor in the fact that, with the exception of a smattering of men and women, Nigerian legislators are certified incompetents, you begin to understand why they are sometimes tagged legislooters.

In the end, Mr. Tinubu’s suggestion does not address the problem it presumes to tackle. Even if we sacked the Senate and cut the membership of the House by two thirds, the National Assembly would still remain an untenable burden. There won’t be any guarantee of a wiser, more attuned lawmaking machinery. In short, Nigerians won’t get legislative value for their money.

Nigeria needs to drastically cut the cost of our bloated, confused “democracy.” That would entail setting up independent institutions to scrutinize the activities of Nigeria’s public officials. It’s an open secret that the Nigerian president and each governor maintain a stash of cash in their office and dispense such funds to visiting traditional rulers, misguided student leaders, and sundry groups. That is proof that the system discourages accountability and transparency.

The Nigerian president, governors and local government chairmen should be denied fraudulent access to public funds in the name of “security vote.” If there’s a security vote, it should be handed over to the police, the armed forces, and the intelligence services concerned with security matters. Next, there’s no justification for feeding the Nigerian president and governors as well as their families from public coffers. The US president, governors and mayors pay for their families’ meals, toiletries and other personal expenses – and there’s no earthly reason for pampering their Nigerian counterparts.  

With regard to legislators, Nigerians ought to be prepared to do something even more radical. Twelve years into the current “democratic dispensation,” there’s ample proof that full-time legislatures don’t make sense at all. The Nigerian constitution ought to be amended to allow for the National Assembly as well as state houses to sit only when necessary. Rather than their elephantine salaries and allowances, members of the various legislatures should receive sitting allowances for the days they are present to work.

Two benefits will flow from adopting this prescription. One, Nigerians will see a dramatic drop in the cost of doing legislative business. Two, we would have removed the cash incentive from the legislative sector. There would be improved odds of attracting more enlightened, visionary and patriotic citizens into the legislatures. As for those who are in it for their guts, many of them would be forced to look for something else to do.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe
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