Monday, 01 April 2019 06:14

[Opinion] The legislature as toll gate - Wole Olaoye

There are certain negative developments in this Nigerian variant of democracy that we must not allow to take root lest they permanently taint posterity’s unborn tomorrows. We all pretend that these bad behaviours are normal until we become victim. Think of the fact that the police still collect bribes before releasing suspects on bail even though the government poster conspicuously pasted on their wall says, “Bail is free”.

Every Inspector-General of Police has always promised to stamp out police toll gates, a.k.a. checkpoints, but none has succeeded. Yesterday, I cringed as a policeman endangered his life while trying to extort a bribe from a tricycle operator at Galadimawa Roundabout in Abuja. The IGP can send his moral preachments to the marines!

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Despicable as the bribe-seeking attitude of the police is, it peters into insignificance when compared to the brazen shakedown and institutionalised blackmail going on in the federal legislature. We are right now in their season of bounty, season of budget presentation and defence of estimates by members of the executive arm, when, in terms of booty, this is the equivalent of Christmas and New Year and all the Sallahs put together. This is the time when legislators harvest fat bribes and embed phantom projects in the budget.

Thanks to the former chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin (representing Kiru/Bebeji federal constituency of Kano State), who in 2016 revealed to the world, at great personal cost, the criminal padding of budget estimates by the leadership and members of the House. The scheme or scam is designed in such a way that bribe funds running into billions of Naira are hidden under other legitimate subheads for subsequent retrieval by the legislators after the budget is passed. For all his troubles, Jibrin was suspended from the house by Speaker Dogara for about 16 months. As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala famously said, in Nigeria when you fight corruption, corruption fights back.

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Budget defence has become one huge circus. Ministers and chief executives of MDAs are harassed out of their wits and humiliated if they refuse to pay ball. The legislature simply refuses to conclude the process in the case of recalcitrant agencies of government. And when such agencies somehow manage to keep the shop open without succumbing to blackmail, they are dragged before the House to explain how they managed to continue in business when their budget approval process was not concluded.

The framers of our constitution put checks and balances in place to ensure that the executive is not allowed to run wild in budget implementation, but even this oversight function vested in the legislature has become an albatross on the neck of the executive. For example, a university Vice-Chancellor who refuses to play ball is routinely demonised as having failed to follow due process in procurement and is summoned to Abuja. As soon as he provides the ‘oversight requirement’, his institution’s name is removed from the list of offenders. He learns his lesson: Meet the legislators at the point of their greed and all will be well with you.

During the protracted budget defence process of 2018, one exasperated chief executive of a government agency who insisted on anonymity cried out to the media: “If they (the legislators) sense you are not playing ball, they do everything to frustrate you, ask you questions and not allow you to answer, ask you to come back over and over … The lawmakers are not even afraid anymore. They keep demanding cash and asking us to insert projects in our budgets for them. I can’t definitely satisfy their needs because I don’t want to go to jail because of some frustrated greedy lot. With all the millions they collect every month, they are still not contented.”

Ben Akabueze, director-general of the Budget Office of the Federation, had to come to the defence of the MDAs in a statement where he stated that that the budget was submitted with every detail the lawmakers needed to do their work, based on the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS) templates.

But who is to stop a greedy worm from the fateful salt lick?

Many of the current legislators lost their re-election bids. This is their last hurrah in the sun of sleaze. And they are determined to make hay. They would certainly consider any suggestion for the end of the bazar as crap. They would rather turn the republic to ‘Briberia’ than back down.

It is fair to state that not all legislators are bribe champions. However, the oily fingers among them have soiled the rest and it is dangerous for the moral crusaders among them to raise their heads lest they be crushed.

The principle of separation of powers demands that legislators be above board. On what moral high ground could a bribe taker stand when querying budget provisions? If the legislators shirk their duty of being watchdogs over the activities of the executive on the altar of filthy lucre, what hope is there for our democracy? The various revelations that have come out over the years have, in no small measure helped to shape the negative impression Nigerians have of their legislature both at federal and state levels.

Senator Shehu Sani has done us the favour of revealing the actual emoluments of the legislators and for that Nigerians will be eternally grateful. Nigerians have been calling for a drastic reduction of the legislative loot. To earn such insane emoluments and still insist on picking the pockets of ministries and parastatals shows the level of depravity in the land.

Can the anti-corruption agencies rise to this blighting challenge?

 

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