money or prayers

Nigeria’s Parliament: Exciting and annoying citizens in one breath

By Ben Ezeamalu

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Posted on August 22, 2023 09:43

 © File photo of Godswill Akpabio. (rights reserved)
File photo of Godswill Akpabio. (rights reserved)

On the last day of plenary before Nigerian senators began a seven-week recess, senate president Godswill Akpabio irked millions of Nigerians.

Addressing the senators on 7 August, at the end of their ministerial screening on national television, Akpabio said money has been sent to the bank accounts of the lawmakers.

“In order to enable all of us to enjoy our holidays, a token has been sent to our various accounts by the clerk of the National Assembly,” Akpabio, a former governor and minister, told bemused lawmakers.

Apparently realising his gaffe, the senate president quickly “withdrew the statement,” and rephrased it: “In order to allow you to enjoy your holiday, the senate president has sent prayers to your mailboxes to assist you to go on a safe journey and return.”

But Nigerians who watched the senate’s proceedings criticised the lawmakers for allocating sums of money to themselves at a time when millions of citizens are facing severe hardship: the pump price of petrol had quadrupled since the new government assumed office on 29 May. Transportation costs and food prices have also risen to an all-time high since the return to democracy in 1999.

Holiday ‘token’

Two weeks earlier, a video of Akpabio saying “let the poor breathe” before slamming down his gavel at plenary had gone viral on social media. President Bola Tinubu had used those words while speaking about the need to end corruption in the country, ahead of his inauguration. Analysts said the senate president’s mimicking of the president’s comment was an attempt to mock poor citizens.

Politics is still largely playing out in this government. Politicians are still putting themselves above the citizens, which means it’s business as usual.

“From ‘let the poor breathe’ to N2m ($2,500) worth of prayers, they keep reminding us that they are not there for public service but private service,” said Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of Enough is Enough, a non-partisan network of individuals and organisations committed to building a culture of good governance in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s national assembly, consisting of 109 senators and 360 house of representatives members, is regarded as the most expensive in the world, with the lawmakers taking home millions in salaries and allowances every month.

The ‘token’ the senate president announced to the senators turned out to be N2m for each of them, igniting another round of condemnation from Nigerians.

Ireti Kingibe, a member of the opposition Labour Party, representing the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was among the first senators to react to the N2m controversy. She told Channels Television that she did not receive any allowance that is not statutory. She also said she did not receive any “prayers” in her email.

Fellow Labour Party senator, Ezenwa Onyewuchi, did not respond to The Africa Report‘s request for comment.

The national assembly management later clarified that the N2m allowance was budgeted for in the 2023 Appropriation Act as part of the running cost of the office of each senator.

Victor Mathias, who runs an advocacy and training organisation, says if the allowance was statutory, the senate president would not have announced it. “In a sane nation, a lot of them would have been forced to resign because they collected that money without recourse to how Nigerians are suffering,” Mathias, the founder of Victor Mathias Foundation, tells The Africa Report.

Mustapha Mustapha, a lawyer, also says it would be “irresponsible for the senators to be sharing our national wealth” without considering the poor masses.

“There is nobody in the Nigerian senate that is not a millionaire, and there is nothing N2m can do for each of them. That money will change a lot of lives in Nigeria,” he tells The Africa Report.

Hailed for Niger rejection

On 5 August, however, the senators received a wave of commendation from several individuals and groups for rejecting President Bola Tinubu’s request to deploy troops to the crisis-hit Niger Republic.

“I will commend the senate for rejecting such at this stage,” Mustapha says. “We need to consult more and discuss at length with them (Nigeriens). It is international politics and we need to be extremely careful in taking certain steps.”

The senate’s rejection of the president’s request tallies with the northern senators’ caucus who also “took exception” to plans by the Tinubu-led ECOWAS bloc to use military force against the putschists in the Niger Republic.

The senate had also failed to confirm three of the 48 ministerial nominees sent to them for screening by the president, a move some analysts say could mean a departure from what was largely perceived as a rubber-stamp ninth assembly.

The previous assembly, although credited with passing an impressive number of bills, was seen as an extension of the executive arm of government.

Analysts say the parliament’s approval of the securitisation of N22.7trn by former president Muhammadu Buhari from the Central Bank of Nigeria ranks among the lowest point of legislative oversight.

Mathias disagrees with the commendations on the 10th assembly, saying both the current and previous parliaments are “essentially the same thing”.

“The current assembly is a rubber stamp as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “The truth is, politics is still largely playing out in this government. Politicians are still putting themselves above the citizens, which means it’s business as usual.”

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