Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Cost of Democracy

Is the taxpayer getting value for money from the current democratic structure? Are our elected politicians offering the taxpayers value for money? Should we outsource the nation legislative function to the private sector? Or should our elected politicians’ salaries/allowances be performance related? While some of these questions may sound trivial, these were some of the thoughts going through my mind over the last few days. It was reported in Thisday newspaper recently that about 17,500 public officers at all tiers of government draw N1.21 trillion allowances every year from the public coffers. This amount represents 93 percent of the N1.3 trillion that it costs the economy to retain their services every year. The balance of seven percent or N90 billion represents basic salaries payable to these public officers. To put this in context, it means N1.3 trillion is paid out to maintain 0.0125% of the nation’s population! Whilst the newspaper provided a further breakdown of how much is paid out in salaries and allowances to all tiers of government, this piece focuses on the legislature.

According to the newspaper, the 469 federal law makers (109 senators and 360 members of the House of Reps) cost the nation over N76 billion yearly salaries, allowances and quarterly payments. The breakdown shows that senators account for about 21 billion or 28 percent of the amount while House of Representatives take up the remaining 72 percent or N54 billion. We now know that each member of the 54 standing Senate committee receives a monthly imprest of between N648 million and N972 million per year, while, a member of the lower legislative chamber receives N35 million or N140 million as quarterly or yearly allowances.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find these figures mind blowing. It even became harder for me to reconcile these figures when I read in the Tribune Newspaper that only one bill - the 2009 Appropriation Bill - had been passed by the lawmakers five months into 2009, and that they passed only four laws in the 2008 legislative session. And these were my reasons for the questions in my introduction. Based on these performances, I will be interested to know any legislator who can justify these salaries and allowances. I also don’t think these current salaries and allowances are sustainable in the long term.

As you all know, the legislature is a type of representative deliberative assembly with the power to create and change laws. The main job of the legislature is to make and amend laws. In presidential systemof government, the legislature is considered a power branch which is equal to and independent of the executive. Members of the legislature are also expected to hold the executive accountable on matters that affect their electorates.

However, the Nigerian legislature is at odds with the functions of a modern democracy. Instead of holding the executive branch accountable for its actions, our lawmakers collude with them to loot the treasury. The ineptitude of the National Assembly is also not surprising, considering that most of these legislators don’t even understand their responsibilities. Our legislative assembly brews one of the highest level of mediocrity. In order to feed their greedy and kleptomaniac tendencies, they jump up for joy when Appropriation Bills are debated because it gives them opportunity to ‘load’ the national budget.
The nation expects more these lawmakers. Paying federal legislators N76 billion per year in salaries and allowances without commensurate performance is not acceptable by any standard. As I said earlier, we may be better outsourcing the function of the legislators to the private sector. I don’t expect that any company executive will be paid N140 million in allowances without delivering on company target.

I agree that politicians must be well paid to prevent them from being corrupt. However, political office should be seen as service and not short cut to riches. Salaries and allowances of elected politicians can never be at par with the private sector. And if any politician thinks it should, he might as well pursue a profession in the banking or oil and gas industry.

I have had the opportunity to live in two western democracies in the last 10 years, and I have met elected Members of Parliament in these countries. The members of parliament make themselves very accessible to their constituents. They have an obligation to make representation to government on behalf of their constituents on issues that affects their welfare. They operate a well staffed constituency office, and it is mandatory that they attend to their constituents on certain days of the week. Now tell me, how many legislators in Nigeria have an office in their local constituency? It is a well known fact that most of legislators when elected move permanently to Abuja. Even though they are paid an allowance to maintain a constituency office they never do. They only return at the end of their term to seek votes for re-election. What is the function of legislator who cannot fight for his constituents? We read everyday in the media how local community are being exploited by state agencies. I read a story about some local residents who were asked by PHCN to pay for an electric transformer to be replaced! In a civilized society, these are issues elected legislators should be fighting.

The present crop of legislators seems to have lost their heads. Instead of charting a new course which will help strengthen our democratic structure, they embarked on silly and grandiose goose chase, probing all sectors of the economy. No wonder why they have only managed to pass four bills in the last 18 months at cost of almost N76 billion per year. If the N1.3 trillion spent yearly on public officers is invested in the nation’s infrastructure, I’m in no doubt that the nation will be better off.

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