In any other decent society, where transparency and accountability count for much, the recent allegation of bribe-taking levelled against National Assembly members should prick up the ears, not only of the relevant anti-corruption agencies, but also of the entire Nigerian citizenry. It is an allegation that should not, as usual, be met with apathy or be swept under the carpet. This is simply because, once the legislature, a very important pillar of democracy, is corrupted, then the whole system is sustained on a wobbly tripod.
At a recent event, which had in attendance the leadership of the country’s three arms of government, Attahiru Jega, a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, bluntly alleged that National Assembly Committee bosses were notorious for demanding and taking bribes when exercising their oversight functions. He therefore rightly warned of the need to act decisively on corruption issues to avoid the danger of turning the little gains made so far in the anti-graft war “into drops in the ocean.”
Jega could not have voiced his concern at a better time; nor could he have chosen a better stage. He spoke during the celebration of the 19th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to civil rule, a day now tagged Democracy Day. Many politicians and office holders might have seen that day as one for celebration, but the former electoral umpire rightly reminded a nation that is still patiently awaiting the proverbial dividends of democracy that it was more of a day for introspection and evaluation of how far the country had come with her brand of civil rule.
It is not surprising that many federal lawmakers have come out to deny the allegation, calling on Jega to either furnish evidence in support of his allegation or keep mum. This has always been their tactic; they would either drown out any such allegation if it is coming from outside or descend heavily on the critic if he happens to be a fellow lawmaker. That is how they reacted when former President Olusegun Obasanjo and a respected legal practitioner, Itse Sagay, criticised them last year. “They will abuse me tomorrow but I will never stop talking about them. They are a bunch of unarmed robbers,” the former president had said then.
The most recent of such cases have been those of Ali Ndume and Jibrin Abdulmumin, a senator and member of the House of Representatives respectively, who were made to serve lengthy periods of suspension for daring to raise questions about the conduct of some of their fellow members, which bordered on corrupt practices. While Ndume was suspended after asking for clarification on the purchase of a car for the Senate President that lacked the relevant customs documentation and the damaging rumours that a senator did not actually have evidence of the qualifications he claimed to have acquired, Abdulmumin had to stay away for 180 days for blowing the whistle on the House in the case of budget padding to the tune of N40 billion.
Also, in 2012, the country was rocked by the allegation by a businessman, Femi Otedola, that Farouk Lawan, then the head of the House Ad Hoc Committee on fuel subsidy scam investigation, asked and collected bribes to remove his company’s name from the list of those indicted. Although the security agencies called it a sting operation in which marked notes were given to Lawan through Otedola, the then lawmaker said he actually collected the money to implicate the oil magnate. Yet, to confirm the allegation by the businessman, the name of his company was later struck off the list. The subsidy heist cost the country a whopping N1.75 trillion.
Many other instances of corrupt practices involving the National Assembly members go unpunished, especially concerning the padding of budgets. It is no longer a secret that many ministries, departments and agencies allege that they are forced to part with bribes before their budgets are passed. A former Minister of Education, Fabian Osuji, lost his job after it was alleged that he bribed lawmakers with N55 million to pass his ministry’s budget, while the current Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, alleged that he was asked to part with a N54 million bribe before he could be confirmed as a minister of the Federal Capital Territory.
Besides, it is difficult to forget the case of a lawmaker, Herman Hembe, who was accused of collecting money from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Arunma Otteh, the then Director-General of SEC, alleged that after collecting the money, Hembe failed to make the trip for which the money was provided. He was also accused of demanding money from the same agency for the purpose of funding a parliamentary investigation into its activities.
No democracy worth its weight in gold can thrive under such a corrupt legislature, which is why there should be a deliberate attempt to beam the searchlight on the activities of the lawmakers. It is sad and disgusting that despite approving embarrassingly high emoluments for themselves, over and above what was approved for them by the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission, already an act of corruption itself, National Assembly members still go about extorting money from MDAs.
This is a challenge for the security agencies to purge the legislature of corruption and save the country’s democracy from collapse. A legislature without integrity cannot claim to be representing the people as the federal lawmakers are wont to say. Jega’s allegation is therefore a strong reminder of the need to constantly subject their activities, especially the flurry of summons to heads of MDAs that usually come in the course of discharging their oversight functions, to close scrutiny. Those found wanting should not be spared.
In the United States, for instance, there are many systems of monitoring and naming corrupt members of Congress. One of them is the practice by a non-partisan group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which releases a list of corrupt legislators every year based on factors such as finance violations, flagrant rules violations and credible allegations of corruption, among others. Nigeria also needs such a system to identify and deal with corrupt legislators so as to help sanitise the parliament.