Senators, Reps abandon chambers in search of money

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It is traditional in the military to talk about the morale among personnel being low or high. But there hardly  seems to be a better way to describe the current mood in the two chambers of the National Assembly, than to say that the spirit of lawmakers is quite low.

The low morale in the Assembly is not unconnected to the increasingly loud complaints from members that they are cash-strapped. These days, it’s commonplace to hear lawmakers discuss how they and other colleagues are struggling to meet their financial obligations even as their salaries are seldom paid on time. Indeed, the late payment of salaries to members has contributed to the financial struggles of the lawmakers as the controversial constituency allowance is now paid along with salaries, contrary to when it was paid quarterly -with speculations up until 2014 placing the allowance of House members at N36 million. But now, lawmakers no longer have a large chunk of money quarterly to play around with, their salaries where the money has been diced into smaller chunks come late. A lawmaker confirmed to Saturday Sun, that his October salary hadn’t been paid as at last week.

Members are also complaining about the new trend, where unlike the past, largesse regularly came from the Executive through the presidency and Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), they now have to carefully request for patronage or assistance from heads of MDAs. Equally linked to the anger in the House during and after recent allegations and counter allegations of budget padding which ended with the suspension of former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin is the desperation of newcomers to attract projects to their constituencies. First timers who far outnumber returning lawmakers fear that due to their current financial situation, they might not be able to match potential rivals in 2019  money wise.

First term lawmakers who came in with a lot of enthusiasm were hopeful that they can influence the choice of contractors for constituency projects but they are now frustrated by the foot-dragging of talks  between the National Assembly and the Executive on the possibility that the Federal Government will fund constituency projects. N100 billion was allocated in the 2016 budget for constituency projects but the Federal Government has said the economic recession has forced it to prioritise other projects much higher tthan the constituency projects. In spite of this, Saturday Sun gathered as at Thursday that funds were already being released by the Federal Government for the execution of the controversial constituency projects.

Another issue that has made life difficult for lawmakers is the allegation by Jibrin that they receive between N10 to N20 million as office maintenance allowance. Twice, a member, Ayo Omidiran raised a point of order on an infringement on her privileges, but  she never got to speak on the floor, though people close to her confirmed to Saturday Sun that she wanted the issue of running costs to be discussed in plenary.

When approached by Saturday Sun, Omidiran declined comment saying the issues she wanted to raise were “internal matters”, which are not to be discussed with the press. But investigations by this paper showed that the lawmaker wanted clarification on exactly how much each member receives as running cost and the official amount  allocated to standing committees. There is also the notion among lawmakers that the House is gradually recovering from the bashing it received during the budget padding crisis, hence the show of lethargy by many members, even when it comes to committee meetings and oversights. Though participation at committee level is much better than attendance during sittings, the enthusiasm shown by members at the beginning of the 8th assembly has waned to a noticeable level.

One more common cause of concern among lawmakers is their failure to recoup millions they spent before they could  be elected into the National Assembly. According to section 91 of the Electoral Act, 2010 as amended, a campaign expenditure of N40m and N20m was set for Senatorial and House of Representatives candidates respectively. But some lawmakers who faced stiff competition in their constituencies have confessed at different times of spending higher amounts to get elected.

“If only some people could open up to you, they just might express their regret spending so much to become Honourable members because now, they have to thread softly when approaching heads of MDAs for one thing or the other”, said a highly placed staff of the National Assembly.

Senators on the offensive

In the Senate, the situation is slightly different. Apparently frustrated that there is no more patronage from the presidency, contrary to what was obtainable in the past, Senators have launched an offensive against President Muhammadu Buhari.

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Important documents or requests sent to the Senate now goes through thorough vetting and sometimes rejected. Infinitesimal details that were hitherto ignored by lawmakers, now come under scrutiny. This new stance by the Senate is perceived by pundits as a positive development. For them, the Senate is no longer a rubber stamp legislature that can be boxed into a corner by the presidency.

However, many lawmakers have temporarily abandoned the Red Chamber. Instead, they are now actively involved in oversight functions. They traverse every nook and cranny of the country where Federal Government agencies exist. Unlike in the past when certain misgivings by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government were overlooked, lawmakers are now frequently engaged in probing.

It seems the officially rich status of the National Assembly with N115 billion allocated to it in the 2016 budget, isn’t reflecting on the 8th House as there have been months of speculation that low morale had led to  poor attendance in the Green Chambers. Many observers would agree that the frequently scanty Green Chambers and short time spent at plenary, especially after lawmakers resumed from their eight-week vacation,  can be traced to their seeking for greener pastures outside the Three Arms Zone location of the National Assembly.

A ranking member from a North-Central state who spoke under anonymity confirmed this much to Saturday Sun, saying some members have now shared their time between their businesses and lawmaking in order to stay afloat financially.

“Would you blame those who have decided to activate their businesses or those who now supervise their business by themselves?”, he asked. He further explained: “Some people here cannot even say they gather up to one million Naira a month, yet they have as much as two million naira worth of requests coming from their constituents, so wouldn’t you understand it when they activate the businesses they had before coming here?”

Saturday Sun also gathered from lawmakers, majority of who spoke off record, that members are resorting to borrowing from banks and from old associates in order to meet their financial obligations. Investigations also showed that Speaker Yakubu Dogara, a few other principal officers of the House and wealthy lawmakers have had to assist other colleagues financially.

“ I have taken overdrafts twice from different banks since I was elected into the House. It wasn’t like this when I was in the State House of Assembly”, lamented a South-South lawmaker. He equally explained that his financial struggles, like that of his colleagues is traceable to high legal fees. “I have spent about N10 million  on a lawyer who has made just four appearances for me and he is not a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. I have a friend from the North here, who engaged a SAN and has spent much more than me. Add that to the expenditure incurred to get elected and you will believe me when I say I applied for two overdrafts “, he stressed.

Though the lawmakers have started taking delivery  of their Peugeot 508 official vehicles which cost about N10 million each, when it comes to spending money from their own pockets,  many of them are making significant changes. Again, the South-South lawmaker gives an insight into the new direction by members of the House. “ I won’t be surprised if colleagues start being more hesitant when sending their children to universities overseas. They might sacrifice to keep those already there, but I know of members who have told me they too have to struggle to get forex, so they really have to consider sending another child for University in England or America”, he said.

Why we are broke – House Spokesman

Chairman House Committee on Media and Publicity, Abdulrazak Namdas told Saturday Sun that members have been attending plenary in good numbers. He stated that when members aren’t on the floor, they are involved in other legislative duties. “The truth is that we are still carrying out our duties as lawmakers”.

“People have to remember that the job of a lawmaker is threefold. First is to make laws, representation and thirdly, conducting oversight functions. If you don’t see someone at plenary or any other place, he could be carrying out other assignments or be prevented from being there due to unforeseen circumstances.

On the average , a member belongs to six standing committees and we have to find means to balance things out. I say this because there are people who say we should be more proactive with oversight functions, yet there are people who want us to attend plenary more and still meet with our constituents”, he added.

On the issue of lawmakers being broke, Namdas said : “in terms of us being broke or not, you must remember that Nigeria is in a recession. Almost everyone has been affected by the recession including lawmakers. But that wouldn’t stop us from doing our jobs. In fact, we have to work harder in this period to help pull the country out of recession”.Dogara

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