By Cheta Nwanze

 

A lot of people are not as interested in the vote for the National Assembly as they are in the governorship and presidential elections. If so, the high turnout recorded in Saturday's botched election could have been higher. It is understandable that people are frustrated, but the stakes in these elections are possibly the highest of the three weekend General Elections. An exceedingly high percentage of our national expenditure is spent on members of the National Assembly; that is why for some of the contestants and their godfathers, getting into the National Assembly is a do-or-die affair.

 

Some people may not be too keen on going out into the sun again on April 9, but all the candidates will certainly be very interested in what is happening. The real prize for winners in the National Assembly elections is not just a seat in the Three-Arms Zone in Abuja, but a pay package which tops US$1 million each year.

 

A Senator's official monthly salary is N1.4 million, monthly while members of the House of Representatives receive N1.1 million. These figures dwarf the salaries of all the other Federal public servants, and these are not the only moneys that they receive. Each of the 109 members of the Senate receives an allowance of N63 million every three months for "constituency projects", travel and medical expenses. This is according to the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC). That translates to N21million every month for these vaguely defined extras. The 360 Representatives collect N45 million every three months, or N15million a month.

 

In other parts of the country, people regularly gather outside the homes and offices of legislators whenever they come around from Abuja. These people are usually seeking assistance for everything from paying their house rent to settling their children's school fees. Most of them have no idea that it is their fundamental right to walk into their Representative's office and demand a meeting.

 

Many lawmakers have turned this dependence into a way of sustaining local patronage and ensuring that they remain in office, quietly making a lot of money, but without the spotlight that comes with being in the executive arm of the government.

 

The cost of Nigeria's legislature has started to irk the finance ministry, central bank and the private sector, which fears the profligacy will lead to a rapid rise in interest rates.

 

Last month, the National Assembly added an extra N746 billion to the 2011 Budget proposed by President Goodluck Jonathan in December. More than half of the budget is earmarked for recurrent expenditure. Recurrent expenditure is money spent which does not result in the creation or acquisition of fixed assets. It consists mainly of expenditure on wages, salaries and supplements, purchases of goods and services and consumption of fixed capital (depreciation). This means that while Nigeria is in desperate need of roads, power, potable water and education, over half of our budget is being spent on paying enormous sums as salaries and allowances.

 

Minister of Finance Olusegun Aganga has described the amended budget as "unimplementable", while Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi has also been a vocal critic of the huge resources being spent by the country on the National Assembly. In December he said that 25 percent of federal budget overheads were spent on the National Assembly, a comment for which he was subsequently hauled before the legislators.

 

The central bank raised interest rates last month partly in response to the effect of rising government spending.

 

About 80 percent of members of the National Assembly are expected to be replaced after the elections so competition is fierce. The salaries and allowances make up only part of what the winners can expect as their spoils.

 

Our lawmakers have hardly been busy. In 2008, they managed to pass only 8 bills out of 120 that were presented to them, almost all having to do with funding. They have regularly been offered financial incentives to speed the passage of legislation and the next administration is likely to face a heavy backlog of un-passed bills, including a massive bill to overhaul the mainstay oil and gas industry.

 

Unless we as a people begin to take more interest in the National Assembly, not much is likely to change.

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