Swollen NASS Committees Versus Condensed Federal Cabinet
NIGERIA is broke. Nigeria may recede to the recession. Those assertions coming from two prominent functionaries, President Muhammadu Buhari and Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Godwin Emefiele; contrasts with the bloated number of committees in the 8th National Assembly.
While the president had in keeping with his belief that the financial state of the federation is no longer rosy, mooted the idea of fielding idle cabinet members, the decision of the two chambers of NASS to empanel a total of 161 committees seems to lose sight of the challenge of funding.
For instance, the increase of Senate standing committees from 57 to 65, the cost of running the committees is expected to witness an astronomical rise. And that increase could worsen the deepening crisis surrounding the management of the finances of the upper chamber. However, in a bid to address that challenge, the Senate leadership might have resolved to reduce what each committee gets by way of running cost so as to contain the cost of the additional committees.
In the House of Representatives, the Speaker, Mr. Yakubu Dogara’s decision to constitute 96 standing committees instead of the previous 89 committees of the preceding Seventh Assembly, is said to be at the root of the bourgeoning crisis in the Green Chamber. While some legislators believe the huge number of committees would enable the lower legislative chamber to perform its legislative duties effectively, others maintain that the number is so unwieldy for the House to contend with in view of the resolve by the President to cut the cost of governance.
But a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Gaza Jonathan, in dismissing the apprehensions over the impact of the number of committees on finances explained that the decision to establish 96 standing committees of the House was in the best interest of the country.
Checks by The Guardian revealed that in contrast, committees under the 7th Senate under Senator David Mark got N16 million per annum each for their operations. Consequently, if the 57 committees got a total of N896 million per annum then, giving Saraki’s 65 committees the same amount would leave a grand total of approximately N1b per annum as running cost. Despite that cost outlay, a committee scribe told The Guardian that the Senate had never properly funded its committees. He pointed out that that explains the increasing desperation by Senators for ‘juicy committees’. This quest for juicy committees, the committee scribe added, has been the cause of leadership crises in the National Assembly. He said committees such as Appropriation, Finance, Health, Education, Petroleum, Power, Sports, Public Account, Defence, Federal Capital Territory and a few others are popularly recognised as grade A or juicy committees.
In the estimation of senators, other committees such as Women Affairs, Culture and Tourism, Ethics, Rules and Business, Media and Publicity, Labour and Productivity, as well as, Employment represent the grade B committees. It was gathered that the existence of buoyant or viable parastatals within the jurisdiction of any committee constitutes the major yardstick for determining how juicy the committee is. The committee scribe further explained that contrary to widespread impression outside the National Assembly, committees get very little amount of money to fund its activities. “What committees have been getting is minimal. No committee got more than N16 million per annum to run its operations throughout the life span of the last Senate,” he said.
Another committee secretary hinted that official vehicles bought for Senators were never meant for the operations of the committees, but to serve the official purposes of Senators. Senate funds, he stated, were mainly expended on the allowances of Senators in the form of Constituency Allowance and others, adding that for many years, the National Assembly had fixed it’s annual budget at N150 billion. And that amount covers the budget of the Senate, House of Representatives, National Assembly Service Commission, National Assembly Bureaucracy, National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS). But one major source of confrontation in the National Assembly is the practice of converting funds budgeted for other legislative matters as special allowances for themselves.
A source disclosed that the mouthwatering and bogus allowances enjoyed by lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly in the past, emanated from this practice of converting budget allocation as personal allowances. However, in a bold move to manage the schism usually associated with the perennial struggle for juicy committees, the Senate has for the first time, injected a provision in its standing rules, which makes it clear that all committees are equal. But under the rule, the only committees that are accorded higher recognition are those described as Special Committees. They include Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Business and Rules, Senate Services, Security and National Intelligence, Public Accounts as well as Selection Committee, which is headed by the Senate President.
Yet, there have been allegations about Senators resorting to unauthorized means to increase their earnings and allowances. Lawmakers have also been accused of taking advantage of their oversight functions to extort monies from Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). The Senate leadership, which uses the selection to appoint committee chairmen, has also been trying to cope with pressures from other Senators for the so-called juicy committees by splitting some of the existing committees into additional ones. This may have informed the increase of Senate committees from 57 to 65.
Saraki had in a bid to reduce the crisis associated with the struggle for committees, influenced the Senate into adopting the aspect of the Senate rule, which encourages fair representation in constituting the committees, particularly in terms of geo-political balance. This new tradition is in compliance with Order 3 (4) of the Senate Standing Order 2015, as amended. It states: “The appointment of Senators as chairmen and members of committees shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the six geo-political zones of the country and there shall be no predominance of Senators from a few geo-political zones.” But even this section of the Standing Order runs contrary and in conflict with the 2011 version, which favoured the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Again, it was not contained in the 2011 version of the Senate Rule, which was used by the Seventh Senate with its discrepancy in favour of PDP. In that arrangement, the South-South got 14 chairmanship seats, followed by the North Central, South East and North West, which got 10 each. South West got the least number of chairmanship positions with only five seats while the North East got seven. The implication of the equal sharing principle stipulated by the new rule is that the APC, which drew its membership mainly from the North West, North Central and the South West will enjoy no special preference, unlike PDP when it was in power.
What Was Done To Cut Cost
THE number of committees in the House of Representatives suggests a deliberate attempt by Speaker Dogara to curry support and loyalty of the lawmakers by spreading the chairmanship positions around. Therefore, whether that means whittling the sphere of influence of what used to be known of some of the key committees of the House before now does not seem to matter.
The instances are many: House Committee on Defence still exists, but broken down as committees on Defence, Army, Air force and Navy. The same thing applies to the committee on Education, which has given birth to committees on Tertiary Education and Services, Basic Education and Services. Committee on the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) has been broken down to FCT Area Councils and Ancillary matters and the FCT Judiciary Committees. For Niger Delta Affairs, there are now two committees all in a bid to massage the ego, as well as, appease members of the House.
Despite the House leader, Femi Gbajabiamila’s claim that he was not carried along on the appointment of the committee chairmen, the ruling APC got 49 chairmanship seats while the opposition PDP got 46 seats. PDP members played a determining role in the victory of Dogara. The Social democratic party (SDP) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) were allotted one and two committee chairmanship slots respectively.
Concerns have been raised as to how the House would cope with huge bills required to sustain a large number of committees in the present dispensation, especially with the declining revenue from oil.
The lawmaker who represents Karu/Keffi/Kokona federal constituency of Nasarawa State argues that “a key plank of our legislative agenda is to cut the cost of governance. We are strongly behind the President Muhammadu Buhari agenda to cut the cost of governance. This explains the need for these committees. The essence of proper oversight of the other arms of government is to ensure effective utilization of our scarce and hard earned resources and that is what we are committed to in this dispensation.”
On the issue of duplication of roles in committees like Defence, Jonathan said “separate committees on Army, Navy and Airforce is like the offices of the Chief of Air staff, Chief of Army staff or Chief of Naval staff” when the office of chief of defence staff could have handled the pressing needs of the entire defence sector of the country. “The issue is we want effectiveness and efficiency in the system and that is, why we have gone the extra mile to have these committees in place,” he declared.
THE attempt by the leadership of the current Senate to bow to public pressure and effect a reduction in the earnings of Legislators suffered setbacks in August, as Senators overwhelmingly rejected the move, which could have resulted in the reduction of their pay by at least ten percent.
Saraki had, in his first few days as Senate President, hinted that his leadership would review downward, the perceived bogus salaries and allowances of senators, saying his decision was in line with the mood of the nation. He actually constituted an ad-hoc committee on the review of the finance of the Senate for that purpose. However, after weeks of deliberations the 10-man committee, headed by Senator James Manager, PDP Delta South, submitted its report with recommendations on a slight reduction in the salaries and allowances of senators.
A source within the committee revealed that the report recommended a 10 percent cut even as it was stood down for further legislative input after about two hours of a closed-door session by all the senators.