OUTSIDE THE BOX: TO HELL WITH SELFISH INTERESTS – BY ALEX OTTI
TODAY'S NEWS RECAP
“Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage” – Ambrose Bierce
As is usual in Nigeria, the word ‘interest’ has been bastardised but I will come back to that shortly. Take the expression ‘PR’, which has acquired such notoriety that the actual Public Relations practitioners think twice before using that expression to describe what they do. When a Nigerian tells you that he’s not ‘being carried along’, you must think twice to realise that oftentimes it has a deeper sinister meaning than just not being briefed on areas relevant to him. He may not be aware of the dynamics of a transaction he should be on top of, and yet be ‘carried along’, when the due share of the loot comes his way.
In the same light the word ‘interest’ has become a much purloined and desecrated word in its Nigerian parlance. It has become a popular saying in Nigeria that in politics, there are no permanent friends nor enemies but permanent interests. This quote was adapted from Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865). Lord Palmerston, as he was popularly called was a two time British Prime Minister in the 19th century. He had said “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests, it is our duty to follow”.
What Lord Palmerston meant is very different from the context that we use it in Nigeria today. When you listen to a typical Nigerian talk about interest, you will get the feeling that he is talking about the general good of the nation or better still, his constituents. Sadly, you will be mistaken big time. Our politicians actually mean self or better still, selfish interests. For them, it is not about the people they represent. It is about themselves, family and friends. They also employ this expression to explain their legendary ability to camp in one party today, decamp tomorrow and “recamp” the next day. Of course, it has been proved time and time again that our over 90 political parties are just mere platforms to stand for elections, believing in nothing in particular. There is virtually no difference between one and the other. There is no ideological orientation in practically all the parties. Even when they proclaim such, their actual practice demonstrates that they go where the money, better still, interest, dictates. The fact that there exists a humungous number of parties, including those that exist practically inside the suitcases of their sponsors, only creates room for the confusion. Even the simple issue of ballot papers has become so cumbersome as all the political parties that sponsored candidates be they contenders or pretenders must be accounted for on the ballot sheet, otherwise, the election would be subject to cancellation.
From the people we copied democracy, political parties have clear distinguishing characteristics based on what they believe in. So, it is unimaginable that someone who is a conservative today would suddenly become a liberal tomorrow, only to swing back the day after, with no modicum of shame or conscience. It seldom happens that someone would be a Democrat today and tomorrow pitch his tent with the Republicans. In Nigeria, these things don’t matter. The end justifies the means and the Maradona politician is hailed as being smart.
In recent times, there had been reports of politicians attempting to hijack the patrimony of their electorate for personal interests. The first notable case was that of Bayelsa State House of Assembly members, passing a law to appropriate funds to themselves as pension on leaving the House of Assembly. A document titled, “Pension Bill for Governors, Deputy Governors and Members of the State House of Assembly” released recently, generously awarded a retired Speaker a monthly pension of N500,000; a retired Deputy Speaker N300,000; House Leader and the Whip, N250,000; Deputy Leader N200,000 and other retired members of the House, N100,000. In addition, former lawmakers, including persons of Bayelsa origin, who served in the old Rivers State House of Assembly, would enjoy life pensions as applicable to former presidents, vice-presidents, governors and deputy governors across the country.
This new bill was to replace the “Bayelsa State Pensions for Governor and Deputy Governor Law” passed in 2003. Apparently, the 2003 law did not make provisions for lawmakers, so this new bill was to include the lawmakers in the looting game. After all, they are the ones that make the laws and should not have been left out in the first instance, so it seems. For the new bill to be attractive to the governor whose signature would make it a law, there was something in it for him also. He needed to be ‘carried along’, obviously. The new bill consequently increased the allowances for both the governor and his deputy in tow. In the new law a governor’s monthly allowance is put at 8 per cent of his Annual Basic Salary (ABS); wardrobe allowance, 50 per cent of his ABS; entertainment, 40 per cent of his ABS; transport allowance, 50 per cent of ABS and utilities, 80 per cent of ABS. Deputy governor’s allowances were also enhanced as follows: monthly basic, 8 per cent; wardrobe, 25 per cent of ABS; entertainment. 20 per cent, transport allowance 30 per cent and utilities 40 per cent. But where the governor and his deputy successfully served a second term of office, they would be guaranteed,150 per cent of their ABS.
As if all those were not enough, a governor is also entitled to seven bedroom duplex and a three-room boys quarters in any location of his choice in the state. A deputy governor exits with one five bedroom duplex and a two-room boys quarters in any location of his choice in the state. In addition, they were to receive two cars and one backup car, and one car and one backup car to be replaced every five years respectively. The pension includes three drivers, a cook, a steward and a gardener, who shall also be pensionable and two drivers, a cook and a gardener between the governor and the deputy respectively. Both of them will also enjoy paid vacation of 60 per cent of ABS for and 40 per cent of ABS, respectively. Holy Macro!
The action of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly generated so much condemnation and pressure from citizens that the governor withheld accent to the bill. This is probably one of the few terrible things that happen in the polity that had attracted this kind of attention. A lot of bills that get approved at the state assemblies seem to be shrouded in secrecy such that people hardly know before they are smuggled through, given assent and implemented without recourse to how it affects the populace.
While we were trying to settle down from the ‘Bayelsa war’, news filtered in that the Kano House of Assembly had also passed its own version of the Pension bill and had sent it to the governor for assent. The Kano Assembly is known for passing bills with jet speed like the recent one that was passed within 48 hours to split the Kano emirate into five small units. As if the house of assembly was seeking compensation for a job well done with the “Kano Emirs Appointment and Deposition Amendment Bill 2019”, the Assembly quickly packaged and passed the “ Life Pensions Bill for Speaker and Deputy Speaker 2019”. The bill grants Speakers and their deputies pension for life by the state, provided that such person were not impeached.
“There shall be paid pension to persons who held office as Speaker and Deputy Speaker equal to the emoluments of a serving Speaker and deputy speaker, provided that either the Speaker or the Deputy do not hold any paid elective or selective appointment.”
“Where the speaker or deputy speaker dies in office before the expiration of the term of his tenure, he shall be paid pension pro-rata the number of years he spent in relation to his tenure of office. This provision needs to be explained as our understanding is that the House wants to pay a dead Speaker or Deputy. I hope they would be required to sign for the money!
The bill continues, “there shall be provided for the speaker and the deputy speaker a brand new vehicle to be bought by the state government every four years. “There shall be provided for the speaker and the deputy speaker medical expenses either home or abroad depending on the nature of the illness”.
Again, this bill has attracted the attention of civil society organisations and organised labour who have mounted resistance asking that the governor withholds accent.
While all these were on, the National Assembly, in approving this year’s budget, approved a staggering sum of N23.678 billion as severance package for Senators and members of the House of Representatives.
We wish to put it stridently that this column condemns this self-serving attitude of our lawmakers, both at the national and state levels. Our laws are very clear about who fixes salaries and allowances for public officers. In the 1999 Constitution, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) is responsible for fixing salaries and allowances of public officers including lawmakers. It is a breach of our constitution for the law makers to hijack the job of RMAFC. It is also against the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances for law makers to be fixing their own emoluments.
We also worry about the state of the economy. Like we had said in this column over and over, we run a very expensive public sector at all levels, such that over 70% of our budget goes to recurrent expenditure. It is a known fact that all tiers of government have been borrowing to pay salaries. It is sad that the same people who should worry most are the ones who pass laws that enhance their self-interests and put further pressure on our earnings and our collective interests. Related to this is the clear insensitivity to the plight of workers and the real people who should actually be entitled to pensions; namely the real pensioners. In some of the states paying jumbo salaries and allowances to both the executive and legislator, salaries of poor workers have been in arrears for several months. One would have expected these ‘elected representatives of the people’ to show greater empathy and concern for such people who need the money more, rather than approving jumbo packages for already well-off people in government.
We are also of the opinion that it is very inappropriate for someone who offered himself for public service to spend his or her valuable time discussing pension. Frankly, we should begin to do everything possible to make public service very unattractive to people who see it as an avenue to make a living. Elsewhere, people offer themselves for such services when they had been successful in other walks of life. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case here in Nigeria. It is also the main reason why our elections have turned into banditry and war. It is up to us to sit down and change this deplorable situation. I believe we all know what to do, if we don’t do it voluntarily, the realities of the economy would force us to do it. Even then, these are the more palatable choices facing us. It is difficult to contemplate worse, but not impossible scenarios. The French monarchy and aristocracy had its comeuppance in this manner about 200 years ago. If we let that happen here, the consequences could be too dire for all of us.
There are a lot of cases where governors and other public officers receive jumbo packages called pension on leaving office. Some like we had seen, are entitled to mansions in their states and elsewhere, in addition. Meanwhile, many of them, surprisingly, do not retire. Many of them end up in the Senate or the House of Representatives while others get appointed to ministerial and other juicy positions. So, they end up collecting salaries twice or even more. This also applies to retired military officers. This is simply unfair and dishonest, but more importantly, dangerous in a society like ours where the poverty levels are rising daily. By the way, have you bothered to find out how much your governor draws as monthly ‘security vote’? Is the information classified?
I also want to put it on record that I do not believe that pension should apply to temporary positions of 4 years, 8 years or even more, in the case of legislators. We must let our public officers know that they are not employees of the government. My understanding is that pensions apply to employees and today, we have all adopted the contributory pension scheme. Let it be known that anyone who is interested in receiving pensions should approach pension funds administrators and work out an arrangement for payment as required by the pension reform act, which interestingly, was also passed by the National Assembly a few years ago. I believe it is an insult on our collective intelligence for someone to offer himself for a 4 year or 8 year service and on expiration of his tenor, want us to put him on the payroll for the rest of his life.
Finally, I call on citizens to become more vigilant and show interest in how our commonwealth is used. It is our responsibility to know and we should be asking questions. As they say, the rat cannot steal from the hands of someone who is alert. Our leaders are bound to take us for granted if we do not ask questions. We must learn to hold them accountable because they are actually our servants and not our lords. That many of them are pulling in the same direction is understandable, but just like Edward Abbey wrote “One man can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing that can beat team work”. The choice is ours. We can decide to be collectively dumb or collectively wise. We must thank organisations like the CLO and SERAP for rising to the occasion. We must emulate them and help raise this public alarm. They also deserve our support. We must do these today.