Does Africa’s largest economy need two legislative houses?
The nation’s legislative arm derives its importance from the need to create and modify laws that sustain the social contract of society. It also does an important job in checking the executive arm of government. Yet over the years, the cost of governance has increased across the board and political office holders have experienced a rise in income - even as Nigeria’s economy reeled on the brinks of recession.
With a budget size of ₦125bn in 2017, questions are emerging over the necessity of several core expenditure items. In an era with smaller government, can we actually justify having two legislative houses?
A Bloated Power Centre
In absolute terms, the Nigeria Senate is quite influential. Besides its powers, there is also a case for its membership: there are 21 former governors and deputies in a Senate of 109 members.
Its abilities include bargaining power in passing the appropriation bill into law and confirming the appointment of key members of the executive. Add to this the numerical and equal ethnic representation it offers the country, and the appeal for any aspiring politician or public servant is clear.
Yet with great power comes great responsibility, and many would argue that the many Senators might have forgotten that. In three years, the 8th Senate has gone ahead to set unprecedented landmarks: from the historic budget padding scandal to the alleged forgery of Senate rules by its leadership and most recently the stance of the Senate on the confirmation of key members of the monetary policy committee.
The House of Representatives even has fewer functions compared to the Senate. Yet there are 360 representatives, who some might argue, duplicate the functions of the three elected Senators from each state. While the Senate could be described as a retirement home, the House could be a political nursery. Yet the expertise that could be better served developing states through their state assembly, is often spent in a House with few notable accomplishments.
A Pension House
The pension compensation packages of the many former public office holders in the Senate are extravagant. To be sure SERAP, a socio-economic advocacy group reported in 2017 that several former senators and ministers were receiving salaries and life pensions running into ₦40bn from states that are currently unwilling or unable to pay their workers.
Take, for example, former Akwa Ibom Governor and Senator, Godswill Akpabio, whose state's law provides for ₦200m annual pay to ex-governors, with perks including pension for life at a rate equivalent to the salary of the incumbent governor and a five-bedroom mansion in Abuja and Akwa Ibom. This cost is in addition to the largely secretive and yet high financial perks of being a Senator.
The financial implication of maintaining a two-house legislature is quite huge. #OpenNASS, a campaign that has called for publishing the budget of the assembly for every Nigerian to see, yielded results with details of its proposed 2017 budget. The allocation for the National Assembly was ₦125bn, a figure bigger than the combined capital budget estimate for the health and education sector.
Despite the huge financial implication of operating a two-house legislature, a report prepared by Nextier, a public policy think-tank in 2013, revealed that related to other countries, Nigeria legislators are one of the highest paid, yet, this investment does not translate to results (calculated as the number of bills passed into law). For instance, the 6th National Assembly passed only 91 Bills over its four‐year tenure (2007‐2011) while the 112th U.S. Congress (2011‐2012) passed 326 Bills over a two‐year tenure.
Return to 1989?
In 1989, the Babangida administration proposed the creation of a two-house legislature that would operate part-time, the rationale behind the proposal was to reduce the cost of governance in the country then.
A part-time legislative system that takes into account economic realities and legislative productivity as recommended by the 2014 National Conference might be the optimal option for Nigeria. While operating the Senate through a part-time mode could be cost saving, it does come with its set of disadvantages which includes less time for debates and the possibility that legislators may be under pressure to seek alternative sources of income. This means they are vulnerable to the seduction of lobbyists. Yet some will argue that the Senate already operates part-time through its lengthy recess that allows members to be paid 10% of their annual basic salary.
The best reply members of the legislature can give to individuals questioning its contribution is to produce results. As the legislative needs of the country grows, legislators must utilise their experience - which many consider its greatest asset - to redeem its image and drive development. Its biggest mistake might not be its failure to pass more bills into law but its inability to give true representation to Nigerians. And if they can't do that, we might as well reduce the amount of people sharing in the special national cake.