The oversight function of the legislature should provide the necessary supervision and control of affairs of the nation. But from 1999 to date, the National Assembly has turned the powers into a nightmare of serial deception, corruption and hypocrisy
Another oversight embarrassment occurred at the House of Representatives last Wednesday when Femi Otedola, a controversial Lagos businessman, yet again rubbed fresh dirt on the already muddy face of the embattled Green Chamber by refusing to talk to the Committee on Ethics and Privileges in secret, as they demanded. The committee headed by Gambo Dan-Musa, which is investigating the bribe allegation against Farouk Lawan, former chairman of the ad hoc committee of oil subsidy probe, had summoned Otedola to substantiate his claims against their equally embattled colleague, who had testified in camera on Thursday, June 28.
Just like Lawan, the committee members appear to be very poor students of recent history and even poorer judges of human psychology by again playing into the hands of Otedola. For a matter, which is the top trending political scandal in Nigeria, Dan-Musa and his colleagues in the committee should have known better. Consequently, Otedola again grabbed public support as the one who has “nothing to hide” while the House again reaffirmed its current image as a house of compromise and corruption, synonymous with the secrecy they wanted.
According to Otedola, “This is a matter that has generated a lot of public interest and controversy. The House of Representatives committee on the management of fuel subsidy, headed by Honourable Farouk Lawan, held all its sittings in public. When this issue arose, the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics and Privileges publicly stated that its investigations would be held in public. It is, therefore, surprising and curious that this committee has made a U-turn to hold its investigative sittings in camera, particularly in the light of unfolding events. I strongly believe that the interest of the public will not be best served if this investigation is held in camera.” Many Nigerians cannot help but agree with this view.
Dan-Musa looked a comic spectacle in his fury when he addressed a press conference later to paper over the cracks. According to him, “Mr Otedola appeared before us in compliance with our invitation in order to get to the root of the bribery allegation levelled against one of our members, but unfortunately he refused to answer all the questions posed to him.” Not only did he refuse, Otedola laughed at the committee, a gesture Dan-Musa described as “stupid and insulting.” “…He insulted us and, in addition to that, he was just laughing. It was very stupid of him and we are not happy… He has told us that we are hiding something and that is why we don’t want to do it in public. But we told him that he is the one hiding something by refusing to talk, by refusing to substantiate his allegation.” But Otedola insisted that “I have nothing to hide and will only speak on this issue when this investigation is conducted in a very transparent manner and the press as well as the general public are allowed to be present at the sittings of this committee from the beginning of its investigation to its conclusion.” That is how low the House has sunk.
Like the House, the Senate retreat which ended in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, on Wednesday, June 27, also captured the whole metaphor of confusion, corruption and compromise which have bedevilled the National Assembly, NASS, and limited their performance since the return of democracy in 1999. For five days, the “distinguished” senators, facilitators and resource persons supposedly brainstormed on the security challenges facing Nigeria under the theme, The National Assembly and National Security: Securing the Future for Development. Effectively, it was the NASS’s tortoise strategy to tell the executive arm of the government to wake up to its responsibility on national security by offering different options that could work. However, the unfolding events and outcome of the retreat suggest that it may just have been another abuse of oversight function, possibly for pecuniary reasons.
The absurdity of the retreat did not escape critical followers of the NASS. Just a few days to the opening of the retreat, the House of Representatives, an arm of the NASS, had summoned President Goodluck Jonathan and the service chiefs to appear at a closed session to explain government’s strategy on national security and counter-terrorism, which they say appear not be effective as the Boko Haram Islamist group has continued to spread death and destruction in the northern part of the country despite heavy security deployments and nearly N1 trillion appropriated for security in the 2012 budget. The retreat provided a soft landing for Jonathan to brief the NASS in an informal session, as it were, outside the constitutional constraints without any of the parties losing face. What that means is that either the lawmakers have come to realise that they erred in summoning the President at all, and particularly asking to be briefed on security matters in a house session, or they have imagined that they should have known that efforts at tackling security matters should not have been an issue for open debate.
For a NASS which doubted the competence of the security management team just a few days earlier, which probably led to the removal of Andrew Azazi, a retired general, as the national security adviser, NSA, and Haliru Mohammed, former acting chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, as minister of defence, the choice of resource persons suggested a rather political than a technical approach. For instance, Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno State, who appears incapable of saving his state from the onslaught of Boko Haram, chaired the first session on National Assembly and Contemporary Security Challenges. The lead speaker was Ekpenyong Ita, director-general, DG, State Security Service, SSS, one of the security chiefs earlier summoned by the House of Representatives. Discussants included Abdulrahman Dambazzau, former chief of army staff; Azazi, immediate past NSA; and Mohammed Abubakar, inspector general of police, who had also been earlier summoned by the House of Representatives to explain the seeming incompetence of the police to respond effectively to the challenges posed by Boko Haram.
The senators also had a session on Parliamentarian Oversight and the Imperatives of Good Governance. The Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, chaired the session and Ghali Na’Abba, former speaker of the House of Representatives, was the key speaker. Na’Abba tried to find a middle ground between oversight and resistance from the executive. He urged the legislature to ensure responsible oversight role and avoid abuse of their powers. He affirmed that legislative oversight and good governance should go hand in hand.
The choice of Akwa Ibom State as the host, according to insiders, was dictated by the financial imperatives. For a NASS that has financial autonomy and is supposed to have zero tolerance for corruption, the retreat being on the 2012 calendar was provided for in the budget and therefore should have been hosted by the Senate without farming it out to any sponsor. Had the Senate been more circumspect, they would have discovered that the Akwa Ibom State government that hosted the retreat had not paid its workers for two months and was funding its projects through a bond.
A senator, pleading anonymity, explained that apart from fear of attack, a major deciding factor about the choice of venue was “sponsorship” which the affected states could not provide.
The 1999 Constitution assigned three roles to the NASS: legislation, appropriation and oversight functions. Under legislation, they are empowered to make and unmake laws; under appropriation, they approve the executive’s expenditure; and in oversight, they are supposed to supervise, regulate and control the ministries, department and agencies, MDAs.
Victor Ogene, deputy chairman, House Committee on Media and Publicity, told the magazine last Thursday that oversight “is the distinguishing factor in a democracy. Without it, all the other arms of government can do whatever they like without intervention.” He says oversight is the “process of asking questions and therefore central to our role in a democracy.” Those questions come in form of investigative probes with the attendant flamboyant public hearings with live video streaming and photo effects.
How far and how selfless has the legislature asked those questions since 1999? It is almost certain that a majority of Nigerians feel both houses of parliament leverage on the oversight functions to enrich individual members instead of monitoring governance. Some ministers, directors general of departments and agencies and chief executives of companies whose establishments had come under public scrutiny allege intimidation and extortion from the lawmakers. Between 1999 and 2012, at least 35 major probes had been carried out by the NASS in the exercise of their oversight function. Out of this, only about seven were done between 1999 and 2007.
However, from 2008 it became a bazaar and probes appeared to have been commercialised by the lawmakers, as about 30 probes were carried out in the past four years.
As the number of probes increased, so did the quality decrease considerably as the lawmakers turned probes and public hearing into comedies and marketing assets. Every committee struggles to conduct at least one probe. Lawmakers struggle to be in “lucrative” committees with potential for probes, public hearings and oversight visits. The number of committees was fragmented to have enough to accommodate powerful interests in both houses of the NASS. A Senate president or speaker who ignores this in the composition of the committees will likely not last long as a principal officer. Patricia Etteh learnt her lesson the hard way when as speaker she failed to play the politics of committee appointments very well. The rise of the Integrity Group as an advocacy group in the House of Representatives was alleged to be a protest against not getting lucrative committees’ chairmanships.
A discernible pattern exists in the life cycle of a typical committee oversight activity of the NASS. When a target institution is discovered, a motion of “urgent national importance” is raised during plenary to draw attention to the problem in the sector. The preliminary debate is thrown open and if the sponsors do their homework well, it is referred to the appropriate committee to investigate. The committee orders a public hearing.
During the hearing, the process goes through the assault stage where the invitees are pummelled to submission if they are not confident enough or make them amenable to settlement; then comes the agreement stage and possible apologies; then the report is released with enough loopholes for the accused person to escape with most of his loot.
Two weeks ago, the report of the Aloysius Etok-led investigative committee that probed the management of pension fund in the country was submitted to the Senate. It reported widespread looting. Records of over N58 billion pension funds were reported missing while N273.94 billion is the difference between what was received and what was paid out. The Pension Reform Task team, headed by Abdulrasheed Maina, was asked to refund N15,386,122.96, “being the differentials between the claims of payment of pensions by the task team and the actual expenditure thereto.”
The committee further recommended that Maina, John Yusuf, B. G. Kaigama and all the members of the Pensions Task Team involved “should be arrested and prosecuted by the Nigeria Police Force for the crimes of fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation, misapplication, illegal virement, contract splitting, award of contract to non-existing companies, award of contract without appropriations and outright stealing of pension funds and the stolen funds should be recovered from them.”
But Maina and some members of his team, including a representative of Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, on the committee, said the report is incompetent. The ICPC representative on the team asserted that, “it’s impossible for Maina to steal a dime” from the pension fund given the system the team put in place. Maina also described the report as “a compendium of untrue statements.” He described the ambush method used by the committee during the public hearing as unfortunate. “They will put words in your mouth and ask you to say ‘yes or no’!” On the quality of the probe report, he said the contents were contradictory: “Page one will contradict page four and page six will contradict 10!” Consequently, he said the report can only be “accusation and discretionary.”
A presidency source explained that this is the reason “no one really takes these reports serious; they are mostly products of fraud and [therefore] shallow.” He regretted the poor intellectual ability of most lawmakers, which affects their contribution to debates and investigations. This poor performance manifested when the House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market took on Arunma Oteh, former director-general, Security and Exchange Commission, SEC. The look of consternation on the lady’s face during the public hearing suggested she saw some of the committee members as having little knowledge of the issues they were probing. This kind of performance gives the impression that lawmakers undertake oversight functions for reasons other than the noble cause.
It is therefore not surprising that members lobby to be nominated on committees where they have business or political interests, or purely for pecuniary interests. Indeed one lawmaker admitted to TELL on condition of anonymity that the committees are corrupt. But he says it is “all part of the rot in the country. Everybody is corrupt – the executive, MDAs, judiciary and even the private sector – and you expect the legislature to be saints! That’s not fair.” He went further to give an insight into how they get their victims to play ball. “We know they are corrupt; so before any committee pays oversight visits to any MDA, you find out where the top management team is stealing. You hint at this and you get what you want immediately.”
They say the most prevalent places of abuse by ministers and DGs are money and nepotism in employment. Nearly every head surrounds themselves with members of their tribe, in some places with their clanspeople. So the committee members for personal benefits exploit this abuse of federal character principle. They take what they want and the head of the place has the licence to operate with ignominy. That is why there are claims that the so-called oversight functions are deliberate attempts to share loot with corrupt public officers or extort money from those who are not corrupt, either from the public or the private sector.
The consequence is that the so-called “distinguished” senators and “honourable” members lose the moral authority to get the offending parties to conform to the provisions of the Constitution. In effect, oversight fails.
Currently, Attahiru Jega, former vice chancellor and current chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, in abuse of the federal character principle is said to be running the commission with predominantly northern officers. Out of 15 top positions in the organisation northerners occupy 12, while only three are from the three geo-political zones in the South. The 12 include Jega himself; the commission’s secretary, Jigawa; director, logistics and transport, Kebbi; director, human resources, Sokoto; director, finance/accounts, Niger; internal auditor, Niger; director, ICT, Benue; director, voter education, (North-east); and deputy director, legal, Plateau. Others are director, M&E/performance, Benue; head, commission secretariat, Kogi; and director, civil societies, Benue. Critics say this is only possible because of the failure of oversight functions of the NASS. The committees of both houses could not call Jega to order and so much impunity reigns in INEC today. If they claim that they are unaware of the administrative infractions, then they have indeed failed in their supervisory roles.
The Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, is another example. There is no evidence that the NASS is exercising any effective oversight on the apex bank. Lamido Sanusi, CBN governor, has been riding roughshod over several laws without the necessary committees calling him to order. Last week, this weakness was emphasised when an Abuja federal high court declared his pet project, Islamic Banking, unconstitutional.
In 2010, the House of Representatives Committee on Customs and Excise produced a report that died a silent death. The committee, which had 31 members, plus a clerk who is a civil servant, spent about two years investigating customs but nothing came out of it. House Resolution 50/2008 mandated them “to conduct a public hearing on the state of the Nigerian Customs and Excise and the poor performance of its statutory duties and functions with a view to ascertaining the underlying problem affecting the organisation and report back to the House.” Some lawmakers said the committee ended up an advocate of the Nigerian Customs and did not achieve the expected shakeup in the service. It was alleged that the report died at the altar of patronage. Some members of the committee alleged that the slang they used to camouflage their loot in dollars was “bags of cement.” In other words, 100,000 bags of cement meant $100,000.
The Senate probe of the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, from 1999 to 2007 by an ad hoc committee, chaired by Ahmed Lawan, revealed mind-boggling corruption in the privatisation programme and processes. At the public hearing, it was revealed how public corporations were hurriedly auctioned off as scraps. One of the affected companies is the Aluminum Smelting Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, which was built at the cost of $3.2 billion but was sold for $130 million. Even at that, the money was not paid and the dredging that the buyers were supposed to do was not done.
Likewise, the Delta Steel Company, which was set up in 2005 at the cost of $1.5 billion was sold for $30 million. Fraud was also established in the sale of high-class hotels like Transcorp Hilton and NICON Luxury. It was also established that the DG of Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, illegally sold federal government’s five per cent shares in Eleme Petrochemical Company Limited, in Rivers State, without due process and without relevant authorisation. The Senate uncovered so much sleaze and it was recommended that Bolanle Onagoruwa be removed as the DG of BPE but till today, all the recommendations appear to have been swept under the carpet.
The Senate probe of FCT administration under Nasir el-Rufai, headed by Abubakar Sodangi, opened up what it called a can of worms. But till today, the former FCT minister remains on the warpath as he claims that he is innocent but was being persecuted because many lawmakers had their properties demolished, having violated the Abuja master plan. El-Rufai had an initial experience of the oversight extortion of the NASS when Ibrahim Mantu and Jonathan Zwingina allegedly asked him for N54 million bribe for him to be cleared for his ministerial job. So they had an axe to grind with him. But in the end, the first report by the committee was found technically defective. Even after correction, the report still failed. The lost plots were not recovered, owners of demolished buildings did not get any compensation and the attempt to bar el-Rufai from politics for abuse of office failed. The Senate Committee on Communications’ probe of poor GSM services is another adventure in the oversight tragedy. Rather than ease the plight of consumers, the legislature was enmeshed in the allegation of receiving N4.4 million recharge cards from a major service provider, allegedly to overlook complaints of high call rates. The Senate threw back the report at the committee and nothing more has been heard about it until the committee was dissolved in 2011. Today, the chairman of that committee, Sylvester Anyanwu, is the chairman of the aviation committee, which is currently conducting a public hearing on the aviation sector. Prior to this, the aviation committee, then headed by Anyim Ude, probed the spending of N19.5 billion aviation fund and recorded modest results. However, all the people recommended for prosecution are still as free as the wind.
The Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, is a darling of the lawmakers. According to some legislators, the committee on NDDC is one of the lucrative committees that members scramble for. For years, the committees on NDDC have forged a relationship that works with the board and management of the intervention agency. Insiders in NDDC alleged that for you to get “anything” in the commission, you have to get “a note from Abuja.” In a rub-my-back-I-rub-your-back gentleman’s agreement, some lawmakers get juicy estacodes, nominate contractors and even have employment slots; on their own part, they conveniently forget their oversight duties and become lobbyists for the commission in the chambers. As a result, while some agencies like ICPC were getting their budgets trimmed down or redirected out of relevance, NDDC was getting theirs increased by the NASS. In 2008, the commission got N41 billion, which increased to N51 billion in 2009, but went down to N45 billion in 2010 before climbing up to N56 billion in 2011. A source in the NASS said the committee members “interfaced” well for them.
The fate of the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, perhaps best captures the betrayal of oversight functions by the NASS. The bill which carries all the hopes for indigenous participation in the oil and gas economy was killed in the fifth NASS by lawmakers who were said to have been intensively lobbied to vote against the bill by multi-national oil companies. The same interests kept the bill from being re-listed throughout the life of the Sixth Senate. It was in 2011 that Magnus Abe, chairman of Senate Committee on Petroleum, Upstream, cried out that the bill was not before the NASS for re-consideration. Attempts to probe the NNPC had also suffered similar fate until public uprising against removal of oil subsidy in January prompted an inquiry by the House. Now a committee headed by Udo Udoma, a former senator, has been set up by the minister of petroleum resources to produce an updated bill for re-enlistment. The choice of a former respected lawmaker, said insiders, is to make sure the bill sails through when it finally returns to the House by “reaching out” to his colleagues.
Sometimes the lawmakers can even be lobbied against themselves. For instance, during the last amendments to the 1999 Constitution, the NASS recommended financial autonomy for both the national and state legislatures. However, in what shocked Nigerians, the state legislators were “lobbied” by their governors to reject financial autonomy for themselves. They “loved” their governors so much that the state lawmakers preferred handouts from governors to being self-accounting. Some state legislators revealed that they were actually blackmailed to vote against themselves or lose re-election tickets.
That is the level of impotence in the legislature in the states. Indeed in the states, the lawmakers may have totally abdicated the oversight side of their constitutional function. “How do you even think about it?” marvelled a lawmaker from Enugu State last Thursday. “You try it and your political career is over! The governor will descend on you with a sledge hammer.” It is not on record that any state legislature has conducted any meaningful oversight on the MDAs since 1999, out of fear the governor may not approve of such “intrusion.”
Yet, the oversight function of the legislature as provided for in the constitution is necessary for democracy to flourish. In advanced democracies, the legislature is feared and respected for exercising oversight over appropriate institutions. In United States, for instance, the legislature exercises proper control over the presidency, MDAs and even the security agencies considered no-go areas.
In Nigeria’s NASS, some committees have also shown sparks of competence. Ayogu Eze, chairman of Senate Committee on Works, says his committee has actually done well in the discharge of their duties. “We have instituted an oversight regime that has built confidence between the executive branch and the legislature, resulting in a refocused work sector that has seen an aggressive construction, rehabilitation and reconstruction of roads in the country. We are working out a funding architecture that will guarantee speedy procurement processes and faster delivery of road contracts. And we have ensured that every naira deployed into the sector is judiciously utilised for the benefit of the Nigerian people.”
The Senate Committee on the FCT, led by Smart Adeyemi, did a great oversight on the contracts for the expansion of the Airport Road and Northern Exit Road in Abuja. That contract saved the government N38 billion, being the tune to which the real contract value was inflated. However, the committee pulled a punch allegedly for some selfish gains. Its critics claimed that that was why it kept quiet over the human component of the over-inflation and did not make sure that the crime was punished. It is felt that for a contract that passed through the BPP to be so inflated was indeed a great “oversight.” Yet the NASS allegedly looked the other way and the matter got buried.
However, Eze says there are inhibiting factors: “Our challenges are in the area of understaffing of the legislature with the right calibre of support staff to enhance its functions. We’re only entitled to five staff and this has inhibited our ability to carry on with the work at hand as efficiently as we would love to see. The work of the legislator is an arduous one that requires the involvement of experts and high calibre staff. But that is not the case yet. It’s not surprising because the legislature is the youngest arm of government in Nigeria because of the interruption of the democratic process by the military. I believe we shall overcome the challenges with time.” Even then there are allegations that a number of legislators do not recruit the approved number of aides, and those they recruit are said to be underpaid.
On the attitude of the executive arm and non-implementation of probe reports, Eze noted: “Don’t forget that the executive and legislature are branches of the same government. As such, they are expected to work together in order for democracy to thrive in the same manner that the right and left hands must complement each other along with other members of the human body for the body to function maximally. The recent restructuring of the board and management of the NNPC and other actions of the government may not be unconnected with the findings in the legislature to which the President is now responding. So, quite a number of our resolutions are adhered to. Look at the changes in the security sector as well as the SEC. There’s abundant evidence to show that this President is a listening president.”
Samson Osagie, minority whip of the House of Representatives, agrees with Eze: “The House of Reps, through its oversight responsibilities, has been able to unearth corruption in many sectors. Through our oversight responsibilities, Nigerians have come to know about so many things that have gone wrong in the system.”
He says that the non-implementation of probe reports and resolutions is the problem of the executive, not the weakness of the NASS: “The National Assembly cannot do anything other than to expose and let the Executive do the right thing. It is not the duty of the legislature to implement its own resolutions and recommendations.” Mohammed Adoke, the attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, told TELL recently that reports and resolutions are not binding on the government, as they are advisory. The legislature appears to be fully aware of this as the lawmakers are planning to make the necessary provisions in the next constitution amendment to compel the executive to do something positive on resolutions and implement investigative reports.
Ogene says the House is going beyond hope to ensure the executive stops taking reports and resolutions for granted by using NASS’s power of appropriation. “When they come to us for appropriation, we will insist that they must do what the parliament said before we appropriate money for them.”
Additional Report by Tajudeen Suleiman