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National Assembly of self-seekers

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National Assembly of self-seekers

By Levi Obijiofor… National Assembly members past and present have been the butt of public criticisms owing to their involvement in shameful behaviour. Their shredded image, worsened by the latest malfeasance over budget “padding”, has not helped to improve the way the public perceives the lawmakers. When allegations and counter-allegations made by members of the House of Representatives against their peers dominate the business of the House, you have to wonder the calibre of men and women elected to make laws for the good governance of the country.

While it is not yet clear who is guilty or innocent of the allegations that have been flying across the floor of the House, accusations that leading members of the House of Representatives were involved in illegal stuffing of the budget estimates have damaged the honour and public standing of members of the House. Whatever happens, an institution whose reputation has continued to totter owing to licentious and dishonourable conduct of members should be censured, not pitied.
The public backlash against legislators followed allegations, denials, and angry exchanges between a former chairperson of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin (the accuser), and the Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara (the accused). It was Jibrin who accused Dogara pointedly of engineering the “padding” of the budget to the astonishing amount of N40 billion. While this might appear to be a scandal of extraordinary magnitude, the nation has indeed seen worse instances of legislators behaving badly.

The House of Representatives has never really had a cheering history since 1999. In the past 17 years, the House has rolled from one calamity to another, including the scandal that engulfed yet another former Speaker, Salisu Buhari, who was convicted for forgery and perjury by an Abuja Chief Magistrate’s Court on 22 July 1999. He was later pardoned by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. It is no surprise that a former chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mrs Farida Waziri, once described the House of Representatives as a “House of scandals upon scandals”. Mrs Waziri’s remark was apt. Past events in the House and the current storm over budget “padding” justify that epithet.

For many years, National Assembly members have been associated with reckless behaviour in public and private spaces, including gross abuse of their rights and privileges, uninspiring performance in office, dishonest practices, staging and participating in open scuffles, inability to uphold the rules and ethical codes designed to shape the behaviour of members, and approving for themselves enormous salaries and allowances that are odds with the national economy, in particular salaries and allowances that are not reflective of the nation’s poverty index and the number of citizens living below the poverty line. These abuses are not fabrications. They are documented and are accessible in the public domain.

Public discomfort and anger over the disreputable behaviour of federal legislators is growing. National Assembly members hold positions of authority and are therefore perceived as emblems of moral authority. By the positions they hold, they are required to conduct themselves in morally approved ways that should be copied by everyone. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Public behaviour of many members of the National Assembly has been appalling to say the least. Shortly, I will replay a memory tape of the mischievous conduct of previous leaders of the National Assembly. The essence is to underscore the point that the legislators and their leaders have not been setting good examples for anyone to copy.

We live in a season of scandals. The National Assembly is facing a serious test of character of its leadership because the Senate president and his deputy, Bukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu, are also facing possible prosecution for allegedly tampering with the Senate rules that facilitated their emergence as president and deputy president. To complicate matters, Saraki is also facing trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) on the basis of allegations of false declaration of assets when he was Governor of Kwara State. The charges were brought against Saraki by the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

You could say the trap laid before Saraki has been spread wide and tightened to ensure the man would not escape from his two predicaments. The situation is quite grave. If Saraki is convicted by the Code of Conducted Tribunal, he would have to relinquish his position as senate president. That would be a catastrophic and painful fall from grace, indeed a strategic blow to the image and political career of a man who was once positioned as a future presidential candidate.

The current session of the House of Representatives has gained further notoriety because of the spat among House members over illegal budget “padding”. Ever since the controversy broke, the public has been outraged. The revelations in the House received further impetus in the public sphere when Olusegun Obasanjo, himself no less a controversial figure than the legislators, said the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly were occupied by villains and lawbreakers.

Obasanjo’s unflattering remark was hailed by a society already exasperated by the excesses of legislators, in particular the peccadilloes of members of the House of Representatives. Obasanjo was responding to journalists who asked for his opinion about the scandal in the House of Representatives where it was alleged that some members secretly “padded” the budget. Obasanjo said what was unravelling in the House has justified the views he expressed in 2012 when he described the National Assembly as a grotto full of crooked men and women.

Expectedly, Obasanjo’s remark did not go well with the legislators. Some of them responded promptly by reminding him of the many transgressions of the government he led for eight years when he was president.

If President Muhammadu Buhari really wants to live and act his anti-corruption crusade, he must use this appalling budget padding scandal as a starting point of his campaign. The government must discipline politicians who are connected in any way with this noxious budget stuffing scam that has given the country a bad image at home and overseas. The question is: does Buhari have the courage to act against his party members who might be involved in the fraud? Many citizens hold the view that Buhari’s campaign against corruption is selective, lacks focus, and has been muffled by the leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) who also have blemishes of their own.

Regardless of their political affiliation, legislators who hold positions of power are required to show a high level of moral behaviour and prudence in the way they deal with financial and non-financial matters. Everyone expects the same high level of accountability from national leaders. Our experiences over the past 17 years following the return to democracy in May 1999 show the nation has witnessed legislative and executive carelessness in the planning, presentation, debating, and implementation of national budgets.

What has emerged in all of these is exceptional corruption by many National Assembly members who have shown that their first obligation is the security of their bank accounts rather than the interests of ordinary citizens.
Legislative misconduct at the federal and state levels did not begin and will not end with budget indiscretions. The irony is that National Assembly members are in general perceived most misleadingly as men and women of good conscience. History has shown this public perception to be inaccurate, wrong, and inexact.

To be precise, on Tuesday, 22 June 2010, members of the House of Representatives fought openly on the floor of the House. The fight was triggered by questions over whether the House should scrutinise claims of financial misbehaviour made against the then Speaker, Dimeji Bankole. When the sweat dried on their jackets and agbada, some of the dishonourable members took the rest of the day off while some others returned to their desks wheezing as they struggled to catch their breath. Certainly, that was not the first time members of the House used fistfights to settle issues.

Three years earlier in 2007, members of the House of Representatives exchanged abuses and insults after the publication of derogatory allegations that accused the then Speaker — Patricia Olubunmi Etteh – of approving contracts valued at a stupendous N628 million for the repair of her official house and that of her deputy, Babangida Nguroye. The allegation was later confirmed by a panel of investigation set up by the House. Etteh was also alleged to have endorsed the acquisition of 12 luxury cars. After months of angry debates in the House that pitched those who opposed Etteh with those who supported her, a vicious fight broke out in the House. During the free-for-all, a House member buckled and died later. Later in October 2007, Etteh, whose controversial leadership had fractured the House, finally left her office as Speaker.

The two cases which exposed the leadership deficiencies of the two former leaders of the House (Patricia Etteh and Dimeji Bankole) showed the way they dealt with accusations of financial impropriety made against them at different times was inappropriate, high-handed, insensitive, and disrespectful of the House rules. They ignored the basic rule that a House Speaker is required to unify members of the House, not to disparage or divide them.

In the current controversy over budget “padding”, we see a similar scenario. A member of the House has made damaging allegations against the Speaker and members of the House have quickly taken sides even before investigations have commenced. Regardless of how this political gamesmanship ends, what has been displayed in the public sphere yet again by members of the House of Representatives is lack of decorum, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, lack of proper management of the budget bill and improper handling of the ensuing debate, as well as lack of maturity.

These instances of financial and other forms of misbehaviour by federal legislators support the view in the public that since May 1999, the integrity of the National Assembly has been degraded or sullied by astounding allegations of financial misdemeanour and deceptive behaviour involving both the leadership and ordinary members.

The National Assembly, as an institution of our society, must undergo radical moral, psychological, and physical reforms in order to serve the purpose for which it was established. Public image of previous sessions of the National Assembly suffered terribly and members of the current session seem determined to keep the flame of that tattered image going for much longer.

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