While former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in a detailed missive, accuses the National Assembly of corruption and insensitivity, there is a growing worry that the legislature is indeed caught in a web. ANDREW OOTA dissects the issues.
Call him any name, the fact remains that former President Olusegun Obasanjo is not only fearless and courageous, but equally a well respected personality in the eyes of the international community. He is very often consulted on issues affecting Nigeria and other African countries in the general.
And for the fact that the former President, having ruled Nigeria first as military Head of State and secondly as a democratically elected President for eight years, particularly at the time the image of the country was absolutely down and battered, it would be out of place for anyone to assume that the former President have no idea about Nigeria’s decayed institutions and what needs to be done to take the nation out of the woods. According to public perception, corruption was a normal way of life with absolute impunity under Obasanjo’s regime, just the way the country is believed to have been between 2011 and 2015.
It is based on the aforementioned consideration and others not mentioned here that his letter addressed to both the President of Senate, Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara on behalf of the 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives where he raised very germane issues need not take anyone by surprise. To many analysts, Obasanjo is not one whose alarm should be ignored just like that, even though the former president did not say anything new or something that was out of the world in the missive.
Political observes are of the opinion that the issues raised by the former president should have received a standing ovation from members of the National Assembly, particularly the aspect where he advocated for a more transparent legislature in terms of their financial dealings. But more appropriate was Obasnjo’s indirect indictment on the executive , particularly the office of the Auditor General for the federation since 1999 till date, where External Auditors sent to the National Assembly have automatically become an extension of the institution and have been heavily compromised.
In his response to the letter, the President of the Senate attempted to maintain a safe position by assuring the former president that the 8th Senate was poised to make its budget open and track government spending to ensure that leakages are blocked. Saraki noted that the upper legislative House was aware of the economic challenges facing the country. He promised that the senate under his leadership was committed to good governance, accountability and transparency as well as due process.
Saraki who is the chairman of the National Assembly added that the federal legislature intends to ensure transparency to the extent that the parliament succeeds in introducing bold and progressive reforms in the management of its finances and to ensure value for money. “I will want to assure President Obasanjo that the leadership and membership of the 8th Senate are committed to good governance, transparency, accountability, due process and responsiveness to the economic reality of our nation. It is for this reason that the legislative chamber has introduced bold and progressive reforms in the management of the finances of the National Assembly”, he stated in his response via his twitter handle.
As beautiful and re-assuring as Saraki’s response sounded, not minding the other side comments from individual senators, the issues raised by the former president were not addressed by any of them, especially on the need for the National Assembly to submit itself to constitutionally mandated agencies of government with the responsibility of taking a critical look into the spending and management of the finances of the National Assembly and, in this case, the external aluditors from the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation.
Pundits agree with Obasanjo that it is not only strange, but equally illegal and totally unconstitutional that the National Assembly from 1999 till date has not deemed it fit to publish its audited accounts in spite of the criticisms wrongly and rightly about the way and manner they run their affairs. Suffice it to say that the former president in his letter, did not exonerate his 8 years government from the indictment. Even under his reign, there was no time that external auditors looked into the books of the National Assembly to ascertain whether or not the highest lawmaking institution in the country complied with financial regulations in the handling of monies meant available to them.
The issue, for some analysts, would not necessarily be about whether the former President allowed it happen under his nose as president. It all borders on the quest for Nigeria to be better and more transparent, and it must start from somebody. The fact that it would come after he had left office does not mean the practice where external auditors have seemingly compromised their roles of looking into the finances of the management of the National Assembly between 1999 till date is in the best interest of Nigeria.
Chief Obasanjo stated in the concluding part of his letter to Saraki and Dogara that “hopefully, the National Assembly will take a step back and do what is right not only in making its own budget transparent but in all matters of financial administration and management, including audit of its accounts by external auditors from 1999 to date.
“This, if it is done, will bring a new dawn to democracy in Nigeria and a new and better image for the National Assembly and it will surely avoid the Presidency and the National Assembly going into face-off all the time on budgets and financial matters”, he added.
Also, the issues of car purchase for committee assignments may have dominated the public space for quite a long time, so much the President Muhammadu Buhari assured Nigerians during his maiden Presidential media chat that he was going to have a closed door session with members of the National Assembly on the matter because of the huge different figures that were being mentioned as amounts earmarked for the purchase of the posh cars.
And it would be recalled that most analysts have asked whether the posh cars were necessities or desirables. Some advised the National Assembly to patronize indigenous manufacturers such as Peugeot Assembly, Innoson and others, whose products are designed specifically to suit Nigerian bad roads. To that extent, they said, the National Assembly would truly have a choice to make, whether or not to go ahead and import their posh-committee –vehicles irrespective of what those whose mandate they keep in trust feel about it just because they have the power of appropriations and constitutional independence. This, in any case, does not include insensitivity to daunting economic hardship. The general consensus is that the lawmakers should back down and go for what is acceptable in the face of the economic challenges facing the country.
Although the call by the former president for the National Assembly to drop the idea of the posh cars is coming rather a little late, it has further injected energy into the growing criticisms of that particular step taken by the National Assembly. It is pertinent to state that the National Assembly, whose salaries, allowances and other emoluments are drawn from the Consolidated Revenue Account which is the pool of tax payers monies as fixed by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission cannot argue that it cannot be audited by whatever line of argument they may want to put forward. As an institution with the responsibility of oversight, which simply means they must be up and doing in tracking budget spending, the National Assembly must also allow other agencies of the government, especially the external auditors to audit their accounts and publish their findings. This would enhance accountability , transparency and deal with the age long perception that perhaps, the parliament is a corrupt institution.
Most Nigerians argue that, while the National Assembly has the right to itemize how it intends to spend its budgetary allocations, the parliament must understand that such monies belong to the government of Nigeria and by implication Nigerians. The thinking so that to hide under financial autonomy to perpetrate abuses of financial standards and indulge in financial recklessness without accounting to any agency of government simply would mean impunity and lawlessness.
The Office of the Auditor General for the Federation would also have failed in its duties by looking the other way, while the National Assembly spend funds in whatever manner they feel like. This is more worrisome for the fact that presently, there is a functional office of the Auditor General in the National Assembly, which houses an external auditor. Doing otherwise is symbolically hypocritical, because it is just the first and last step into compromises.
Obasanjo captured this succinctly when he stated in his letter, which the Senate President as chairman of the National Assembly has failed to address. The former president said, “By our Constitution, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission is charged with the responsibility of fixing emoluments of the three arms of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. The Commission did its job but by different disingenuous ways and devices, the legislature had overturned the recommendation of the Commission and hiked up for themselves that which they are unwilling to spell out in detail, though they would want to defend it by force of arm if necessary. What is that?
“Mr. President of the Senate and Hon. Speaker of the House, you know that your emolument which the Commission had recommended for you takes care of all your legitimate requirements: basic salary, car, housing, staff, constituency allowance. Although the constituency allowance is paid to all members of the National Assembly, many of them have no constituency offices which the allowance is partly meant to cater for. And yet other allowances and payments have been added by the National Assembly for the National Assembly members’ emoluments. Surely, strictly speaking, it is unconstitutional.
Observers have argued that the assurances of the President of Senate that the 8th Senate would make its budget bare is not and cannot be the issue. To them, the the issue here would be for the 8th senate and the management of the National Assembly to begin to behave in a manner that would tally with the change mantra of the present administration, which places premium of rule of law, due process and above all to fight corruption.
For senators to score themselves high through motions on the floor of the senate in condemnation of agencies and individuals involved in corrupt tendencies and roll out sanctions in terms of resolutions is simply not enough. The senators must create and device a means of conducting in-house cleansing where the various agencies of government that exists directly under the National Assembly and draw their budgetary allocations from the its budget subject their accounts to the external auditors.
This, financial experts argue, would not only give the parliament a brand new image, but also put to rest the wrong impression out there in the public, which is not too good for the biggest lawmaking body on the continent of Africa. The present Auditor General for the Federation, Mr. Samuel Ukura must rise to the occasion by ensuring that no institution of government is immune of subjecting its accounts for scrutiny including the budget of the Presidential villa.
Obasanjo took the matter further by reminding the lawmakers of the purpose for which they were elected, which is service to their fatherland. However, the tendency for all institutions of government everywhere in the world to be overreaching is indisputable since such systems are operated by human beings whose concept of leadership and service might differ. The establishment of other agencies that would ensure checks and balances becomes the only way for such systems to function and in the case of the National Assembly, it is the external auditors from the office of the Auditor General for the Federation who can ensure that the rules set by the same National Assembly are not violated and abused.
But until Mr Ukura and his team begin to beam their searchlight on the application of the National Assembly funds, be it for car purchase, constituency allowances, salaries and general financial administration and management, the determination of the present government to ensure accountability and probity would amount to nothing.
Pundits hold strongly that the Saraki led 8th National Assembly must realise that it can make a difference in accountability and transparency by opening the books of the National Assembly, because to hide under financial autonomy and allow various degree of financial recklessness and abuses superintended by the external auditors who have become an extension of the institution of the National Assembly is to say the least endorse lawlessness and further ridicule the parliament.
The idea is that financial independence has nothing to do with accountability. The illusion that under financial autonomy the various agencies of government and the Nigeria public do not have a right to know the expenditure profile or reports of audited accounts of the National Assembly would be ridiculous and pedestal.
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