Not long ago, Patricia Etteh was removed from the exalted office of Speaker of the House of Representatives. She was accused of appropriating the sum of N628 million for the renovation of her official residence and that of her deputy and awarding contract for the same purpose. She was also accused of buying 12 official vehicles for members of the lower chamber of the National Assembly. The exorbitant amount involved in these projects far in excess of what was logically comprehensible prompted justified abuses and denigration of all sorts. The lady was referred to as another thief unmasked. A semi-illiterate like the man who planted her there! A lady who seemed to have understood the treasury of the National Assembly as some self-service Cash Point! The media indeed, was not short of abuses by hobby commentators and sadistic verbal pugilists. But justified they all were.
Recent issues unfolding in the wake of the resolved budget dispute between the Presidency and the National Assembly however, have now given a new twist to transparency in the practice of our budding democracy.
While the controversy raged over the budget, legislators at the lower side of the popular aisle were united in taking up arms to give the President a fight if he wanted one. Quite reasonably and vociferously they counted their reasons for tampering with the draft budget and refusing to let it stand the way the President submitted it. They pointed to secret accounts maintained by some Ministries in deep and wanton contravention of the spirit of transparency. Above all, they stressed the importance of their oversight function in keeping financial excesses on the part of the Executive under control. Many observers were angered and saw reasons with the deputies.
Much as the Ministries running the so-called secret accounts were not known save veiled threats that they would be revealed if the Presidency pressed too hard, the sources of this information from within the legislative chambers were never unveiled in public domain.
But democracy as we are learning by the days, is a two way street. By accident or by design, the Nigerian populace is getting the flipside of the coin being tossed also by unknown sources.
Latest media reports have uncovered figures arraigned in the budget as imposed by the legislators in a perfect unified standing and solidarity of collective self-service. The figures are so outrageous that one is indeed compelled to ask why Patricia Etteh was removed in the very first place.
The sin committed by Patricia Etteh, as is now becoming obvious, was and still is that she acted in the spirit of all being equal but some being more equal. In this light she obviously failed to carry the entire legislative house along with her while appropriating horrendous amounts for class and status exaltation.
The sum of N2.8 billion has reportedly been imposed by the House in the new budget that President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was forced to swallow, for the purchase of new vehicles for the legislators even though the same amount was earmarked for the same purpose in the previous year's budget. Its yet unclear if unspent money has been returned. A shocking sum of N6.2 billion is earmarked for refreshments and meals translating into N114, 054.95 per day for each legislator.
The House is reportedly planning to spend N1.7 billion and another N600 million on computers and Information Technology Projects. In fact figures published in the Sunday Sun of April 20th, 2008 (belonging to Ex-Governor Orji Uzor Kalu) â€“ if accurate â€“ are not only outrageous and hate-inciting, they are an outright affront on common Nigerians reduced to supernumeraries with the thankless role of wasteful voting.
N350 million for Publicity and Advertisement, N250 million for the healthcare of our dearest legislators, N105 million for Postage and Courier services, N1.7 million for "ongoing projects" that preclude office equipments, N600 million for security equipments, N500 million for video equipments, N350 million for a Radio/TV substation, N600 million for the equipment and partitioning of offices (since there was no office for legislators in the two terms of the past regime), N600 million for the renovation/decoration of annex buildings, etc.
Lets add it together and give Fela the answer. This is definitely not an Army Arrangement.
Why was Patricia Etteh removed? Why did the nation jubilate at having a learned and educated Speaker at the helm of affairs in the lower chamber? It was definitely not to outplay Patricia Etteh in carrying legislators along in financial looting and impropriety. Why on earth does the Speaker of the house need a N600 million allocation to buy guesthouses in the area of Lagos? They say it is cheaper than hotel bills. Would they now buy guesthouses all over the Federation and in every town and city? They will then, surely require more than N600 million.
To shelve off and be done with the budget confrontation once and for all, it was reported that the President's caucus advised against a head-on collision with the National Assembly. It was feared that the unholy marriage of convenience between Abubakar Atiku and Muhammadu Buhari was waiting on the sideline to build up a long-term damaging impact on the President in malicious exploitation of the budget standoff.
The President cowed in and signed the budget against which he had more than sufficient rational and objective facts to seek a friendly and nation-building judicial clarification for the future course of the nascent democratic experiment.
Emboldened by the current success, it is no doubt, a matter of time, before the National Assembly arrogates to itself once again, the duty of drafting the budget behind the guise of oversight functions. Undoubtedly, it may take another President if not Umaru Musa Yar'Adua to seek a final judicial clarification on how far the Legislative arm is allowed to go in imposing on the Executive, its perceived right to dictate what it feels belongs to it in its self-service national Cash Point.
No doubt many will remember that Olusegun Obasanjo as President in his usual rugged and somehow primitive attitude would not have given in to the whims and caprices of legislative wannabes. He would have forced the showdown to the Supreme Court, caring less if he loses or wins to tell the world who the true victor or vanquished would be as the case may turn out to be. "Gbolekaja" would have been a word to define for novices in Yoruba language.
Today, Nigeria is up against a National Assembly that sees wisdom in putting the news media to window its findings on the misappropriation of funds on the electricity project during the eight years of Babacracy while it is itself, basking in the privileges of financial self-service. What a tragic disease Nigeria requires to heal.
The need to sail in calm political waters weighed heavily in the reckoning of Presidential advisers much to the gallery of anti-Obasanjoists who marvel at the present state of lesser Presidential enmities than postponing a major decision in the future course of democracy.
A foolish and age-long Edo proverb says "Visit a Bini man, the Bini man is superior. If a Bini man visits you, the Bini man is superior." This is even symbolized by having a Bini man break the cola nut in informal traditional sessions no matter the tribes in attendance. Now the lower chamber of the legislative organ seems to be telling the Presidency "Bring your budget, we will slash it. We give you our budget, you dare slash it!" Yet Advisers had nothing more to fear than Atiku and Muhammadu Buhari. The umpire role of the Judiciary has been underrated and the Legislature granted the power to do and undo the Executive. They will slash the draft budget and dictate how much money they wish to have in wanton self-service and arrogate to themselves the duty of redrafting a budget and not legislating on it. All because the President is cowed into the wrong priorities of maintaining calm in "Capitol Hill"!
What about roads? Who talks about water supply? Who talks about the cost of fuel? Government seeks to reduce subsidies on fuel year-for-year. The National Assembly budget money for cars year-for-year! Who talks about health care for the population? Of course, the refreshment and meals of Legislators are more important. Who cares about state-sponsored transport services in each state? Of course, guesthouses for Bankole in individual states have more priority.
But sooner or later the nation will realize that no extreme actor is suited for the Presidency. No rugged Gbolekaja well wisher and no passive and colorless non-starter! What we need is a perfect blend of Obasanj'Adua with the courage to confront and the wisdom to be calm whenever the waves define the wind of change! The journey is long and learning is endless if the mind is open to explore beyond the realms of superficial perception!