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THE latest move by the Senate to secure lifelong salary for the National Assembly leadership smacks of insensitivity by the lawmakers. The Senate Committee on the 1999 Constitution review has made the proposal for the benefit of the Senate President, the Deputy Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Deputy Speaker.
Such an action by the Senate is wrong, indefensible and morally reprehensible. The Chairman of the committee, who is also the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, missed the point completely by turning an exercise which should strengthen our democracy into a self-serving tool to permanently enrich himself and a few other politicians who contribute next to nothing to the national economy.
While muddling up germane national issues such as fiscal federalism, state police and the reduction of the bloated, money-guzzling federal cabinet – 42 at present – the committee is proposing a flippant constitution amendment to the effect that former “Senate Presidents, Deputy Senate Presidents, Speakers, House of Representatives shall be entitled to pension for life at a rate equivalent to the annual salary of the incumbent President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives!” And this is for life.
The Ekweremadu-led committee is only scheming to re-introduce through the backdoor what was shot down in the Senate a few weeks ago, when an effort was made to increase the remuneration of former Presidents. Also, a bill passed to this effect by the National Assembly in two previous sessions did not receive the required Presidential assent.
Already, our legislators’ earnings are excessive and morally unjustifiable. A senator reportedly earns an average of N180 million per annum, while a member of the House of Representatives draws N144 million (excluding basic salaries) in a country with a per capita income of $2,700. The principal officers of the National Assembly receive far more, with the Senate President reportedly drawing N150 million per quarter or N1 billion annually when all other allowances are added. This obscene remuneration is putting enormous pressure on the treasury. It is certain that the economy cannot withstand the strain for much longer, let alone the additional holes in the treasury the new proposal will create.
It is unimaginable that our legislators earn more than those in the United States, which runs an economy in the region of $15 trillion, with a per capita income of $46,350, compared to Nigeria’s economy, which is no larger than $300 billion. Our lawmakers are said to be highest paid legislators in the world. It smacks of selfishness for ranking lawmakers, some of whom have been in the system since 1999, to be angling for pension at the expense of taxpayers. If they care to know, about 70 per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line.
Peradventure the proposal becomes law, it will take retroactive effect as no fewer than 16 former principal officers of the National Assembly, dating back to the aborted Third Republic of 1992 to 1993, are still alive. Nigerians, with the full backing of civil society, labour and the progressives in the National Assembly, must not allow the recommendations to scale through. Anything to the contrary will be a grave oversight.
In the US, where parliamentarians sign on to the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees Retirement System, lawmakers are made to contribute part of their earnings as pension when they are in the Congress. And these measures are not in the US Constitution; they are limited to being Acts of the US Congress. Also, retired US lawmakers need to be up to 60 years of age to benefit from the pension scheme, or must have put in 20 years in the Congress if they retire at age 50. So, why should lawmakers who do not contribute part of their salaries to any pension scheme, expect to be paid from the treasury after retiring from an assignment, which should be a part-time job in Nigeria?
While the proposal is unnecessary as it unduly increases the cost of governance in the country, it will also foster bitter political contests in the ranks of the two chambers. If the proposal should sail through, it is possible that every lawmaker will aspire, through any known means, to head the legislative arm or be the deputy. This will create unnecessary rivalries in the legislature – and provoke considerable heat in the polity – at the expense of lawmaking, which the legislators are not attending to meticulously now, even with the relative peace in those chambers.
The solution is to make the legislature less attractive in terms of remuneration, while also considering making the National Assembly, which as of now harbours 109 senators and 360 Representatives, a unicameral chamber, as the case is with the 36 state houses of assembly currently. This will significantly reduce the bogus recurrent budget of the government. Therefore, making the national legislative assignment a part-time job has become a necessity, just as it is in the state of Florida and others in the United States. We must seriously consider the dangers that political careerism poses to our economy before it is crippled by our selfish politicians.