A controversial armoured vehicle bought by the Senate, but seized by the Nigeria Customs Service for evading correct duty payment, is yet another greasy mark on the National Assembly’s coat of many colours. Whether at the level of the lawmakers or the bureaucracy, our legislature has become a sickening joke in the eyes of discernible Nigerians.
Earlier media reports had linked the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, to the Range Rover Sport Utility Vehicle purchase. The value then was put at N298 million. But the Senate has just clarified that it is $298,000. The driver taking the vehicle from Lagos to Abuja was stopped by Customs officials who, upon investigation, found that, not only was the duty on it underpaid, it was cleared with fake documents. Besides, the end-user certificate that the office of the National Security Adviser mandatorily issues as authorisation to import such an item was not attached. The N74 million duty the Customs had claimed and the $298,000 value of the car the Senate has now come up with are whimsical elements that need to be reconciled. The car was imported in 2015, but it was this January that the issue came to light.
The vehicle controversy came barely a year after the Senate had procured 36 Toyota Land Cruiser, SUV VXR V8 series at the cost of N36.6 million each, despite the biting economic recession. Therefore, there is a sense in which some can insist that the seized car is the Senate President’s share of the bonanza.
Public indignation had greeted the Senate’s car bazaar last year, which compelled it to cut down the supply to only 36. Originally, all the 109 senators were meant to benefit, for which they set aside N4.7 billion. This may have been actualised secretly. But it smacks of recklessness and an assault on public sensibilities for anyone or those in leadership positions to indulge in ostentation at public expense, at a time many folks cannot put a decent meal on the table because of the hard times. Before the Senate was inaugurated in June 2015, about 27 states were in arrears of workers’ salaries for up to six months. Not even the revelation that 3.7 million people have lost their jobs as the economy shrinks, according to the latest National Bureau of Statistics report, could moderate the excesses of the senators.
Going by tradition, the armoured car and the 36 Toyota SUVs will be acquired by the senators as used cars at the end of their tenure, about two years from now, after paying a pittance to public coffers. In some cases, some of these vehicles are simply driven away by unscrupulous legislators without paying a dime as documented in the Auditor-General’s reports of infractions by previous legislative sessions.
As Saraki has failed to rise to the challenge of leadership, we find his homilies to his colleagues, which cascade quite often during plenary, or the charge to National Assembly bureaucrats at a workshop in Kogi State recently, to see themselves as agents of development for the sustenance of democracy as duplicitous and galling. Hear him: “We cannot play that role without first cleansing our house. It is time for us to accept that change has come, but not only by words but action.”
This will be far-fetched in so far as selfish interests always stand in the way of patriotism in legislative engagements. A Senate that initiated moves recently to confer immunity on federal and state legislators in a bid to stall criminal proceedings against its members simply because of the travails of its principal officer, who has been facing the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged false declaration of assets when he was governor of Kwara State, cannot enjoy public confidence or respect.
It will be one of the most dubious, self-serving pieces of legislation if eventually passed. The perfidy will lead to the amendment of Section 308 (3) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides for immunity only for the President, Vice-President, Governor and Deputy Governor.
The country cannot continue to shoulder the excesses of these lawmakers, who shroud their salaries and allowances in secrecy, or give so little, in return for one of the highest parliamentary remunerations globally, according to The Economist of London.
Watching our lawmakers in plenary evokes instant dissatisfaction and anger. Their debates are devoid of depth and robustness. The empty seats, fiddling with phones and exchange of personal communications during proceedings, beamed live, betray them as not serious-minded lawmakers. This is in sharp contrast to the rigour, commitment, full attention and attendance for which parliaments in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere are noted.
Any cost-benefit-analysis of running the National Assembly with its N150 billion annual budgetary average until two years ago will show that the country has wasted so much in maintaining our bicameral legislature. Senegal realised this a few years ago, and adopted a unicameral model to save cost. Can Nigeria then sustain this system in the face of this apparent no value for money spent?