For their patriotic and constitutional duties of lawmaking, representation and oversight, Nigerian senators, in addition to a N700, 000 a month salary, also take home N13.5 million as “running costs”.
N13.5 million per month per senator amounts to one billion, four hundred and seventy-one million, five hundred thousand for the 109 members per month. To be depressed and despondent about the future of a country which must kick 60% of its citizens out of endemic poverty and reduce inequalities, multiply that figure further by 12 months and by whatever number of years this practice has been on.
Shehu Sani’s revelation from an interview with TheNews magazine and first published Sahara Reporters has set off alarms at the proportion of the national wealth made available to the nation’s lawmakers to spend on what they wish. Senator Sani explained that it is customary for each senator to provide an explanation for how they have spent their own allocation for each month. But he did not say that any senator had ever been stopped from collecting his vote for a month based on a lack of justification of a previous month’s collection.
That would imply that the authorities in the legislature are satisfied that the funds have been channelled to optimum use. But how can Nigerians know this when there has hardly been any sort of accountability by the National Assembly on its budgets? Senators and members of the House of Representatives are never known to publish any details involving what they spend on constituency projects when they carry them out; how could they be expected to reveal receipts of their “running costs”?
Extra remuneration for senators to spend as they please is the legislative equivalent of the so-called security votes available to Governors as a war chest to spend on whatever catches their fancy. While Governors are assumed to use their votes most judiciously when spending on emergency situations in their states such as security, Shehu Sani suggests that the lawmakers’ free money are for the costs they run into with constituents who pester them for infrastructure and demand welfare support. According to him, “the people come to you, they want you to build roads, dig boreholes, build hospitals, schools, give money, pay school fees for them” and that any serious senator seeking re-election will have to embark on projects for his or her constituency regardless of how active the senator may be in performing core legislative functions.
Without a proper appreciation of the different roles of various arms of government, most poor persons who do not feel the effects of good governance from state governors lie at the gates of their senators for whatever they can get. It goes without saying that this situation makes the deprived people relevant to the senators as the supply of their needs – the giving of fish not the teaching of the art of fishing – provide the readymade ground for accepting campaign messages and continuing voting in their favour. It is easy to see why such funds have never been made public before and why senators have kept it away from campaigns such as #OpenNASS.
To his credit, the Senator Sani wishes that the running costs and constituency projects be stopped as it perpetuates the dependence of the masses on their representatives: “Now, if we have a society in which people will stop asking legislators to do those things, then there is no need (for the allowances)”. But will the people stop asking when they are still poor and hungry? Will they truly stop when state governors continue to parade themselves at road project commissioning ceremonies as saviours who are doing the people favours?
Those who run to senators see them as just another option besides their governors for begging for favours. And so there will be “running costs” for the senators to provide these favours to the people.