Jumbo Award For Public Officers

By Kunle Sanyaolu. (The Guardian 17th June 2007).

THIS country could be 10 times better in terms of concrete development within a couple of years, if the governments of the day devote just a little bit of their time and energy to the Nigerian people.

What they do now is simply to focus almost entirely on themselves. If only they could spend a tiny fraction of that time to the common man and common good, eldorado will not be far from here. Their selfishness and greed is evidenced by regular news over the past two weeks, about their plans for their housing, transportation, entertainment, inconvenience and severance among others. One of the latest is the federal government’s plan to procure N3.7 billion car loan for federal legislators. Under the scheme, a Senator will get N8.1m, while a member of the House of Representatives goes away with N7.9m loan. Another recent example is the upward review of basic salaries of top public office holders, including the President, governors, ministers, lawmakers, judges, special advisers, commissioners and a host of others. A cursory look at the allowances of federal lawmakers reveals however that the so-called proposed loans by the Federal government are nothing short of free gift, with interest, to the lawmakers. Each of the lawmakers is entitled to monthly car maintenance (N126,650 for senators and N124,075 for representatives); yearly wardrobe allowance (N500,000 a piece), constituency allowance (senators N5m, Reps about N2m). Annual utility allowance (N400,000 a piece), annual entertainment allowance (N600,000) and severance allowance (N6m). It means that in a year, a senator earns at least N8 million from these allowances to pay for the loan. But he still has huge allowances for housing, transportation, furniture etc. And of course, his severance allowance is intact. The picture is almost the same for members of the House of Representatives.

Members of the National Assembly are only 469, compared with a national population of 150 million. It is not even logical to begin to work out the percentage of federal lawmakers to the national population. Yet, the salaries, allowances and other emoluments going to the lawmakers must be a sizeable portion of financial resources available to the rest of the nation. This is neither equitable nor just. And it is far from being fair. The country is never going to make anything near progress because a lot of the money meant to create jobs, build and maintain infrastructure and eradicate poverty is being tailored only at meeting the exclusive taste of a select few. It is not new of course, but it is certainly getting worse. Every beneficiary of this largesse is aware of it. If not for the media, the rest of the nation probably would not know. The people do not need any further proof that their lawmakers are living easy, opulent and ostentatious life. Enough evidence of that abound in the cars they ride, the houses they build, their dressing and so on, all within minutes of their assumption of offices.

With the reported new salary structure for top political public office holders, the first thought that came to one’s mind is that these people have again awarded jumbo salaries to themselves. During the expired tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the government fixed and reviewed salaries for public officials. Another review has just taken place and although it was initiated by the immediate past-government, members of the new government will enjoy it. By the new package, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, now in the person of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, will earn N3,514,705 as his annual basic salary, up from N1,405,882.00 recommended in 2000 by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). The Vice President gets N3, 031,572.50 up from N1, 212,629. The Chief Justice gets N3,363,972.50; Ministers N2,026,400; Senate President N2,484,242.50; Speaker of the House of Representatives N2,477,100; State Governors N2,223,705 and the deputies N2,112,215. The largesse extends to other top public office holders. The last time salaries of public office holders were reviewed was in 2002. The RMAFC believes that package is no longer realistic in view of developments such as rising price of essential commodities. The commission’s chairman, Mr. Nwadala Wogu explained that at the time the 2002 package was being put together, pump price of petrol was N16 per litre. It was N65 per litre when the current package was being prepared, meaning that the new package could have contained higher figures had the current level of inflation, including the N75 per litre of petrol, been taken into consideration. At least, the RMAFC admitted that there is inflation in the country and that frequent increases of fuel prices contribute largely to it. That is much more than the Central Bank will concede when it stated that increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) from five to 10 per cent would not aggravate inflation.

Ordinarily, upward salary review should be seen as normal, not just to correspond with rising inflation and cost of living, but also to reflect an improvement in standard of living. A person living in a one-room apartment but with a family of three or four can move into a three-bedroom apartment, if his salary is increased. This is providing however that inflation is not moving up at a rate to render the salary increase nugatory. The problem with Nigeria is that while public office holders are wont to quickly adjust their emoluments to reflect the prevailing economic circumstances, they are less eager to take similar measures for the larger citizenry. We can always recall the tug of war between government and civil servants whenever the latter demand salary increase. If and when government buckles to the demand, it whittles down the increase considerably under one guise or another, leaving only a paltry for the poor servants. Government officials thereby show insensitivity to the plight of the average Nigerian, while displaying greed and selfish tendencies. In addition, the salaries public office holders award to themselves mark an unfair and uneven distribution of wealth, to the detriment of the gross majority of Nigerians. This is so not just because the amounts are very high compared with the salary of the average Nigerian whether in the public or private sector. It is high also because the public office holders enjoy regular and high allowances that are not ordinarily available to public servants in general. Nigerians are not deceived by the fact that it is the RMAFC that is preparing and packaging the salaries and allowances. The fact is that the commission’s officers are appointed by the public office holders and therefore have to do their masters’ bidding.

If the truth must be told, public office holders are not living in true reflection of the poverty in the land. Recently the legislators of the National Assembly worked out their allowances (furniture, housing and transportation) for four years and awarded several millions to themselves. Each senator is said to be entitled to N57m while member of the House of Representatives is said to be worth about N47m in allowances. This is to cover a term of four years in which the Constitution earmarked 181 days of sitting in a year, with a minimum requirement that each legislator sits for 60 days in a year. For such lawmakers to gross so much in four years (this is probably outside a jumbo severance package they awarded themselves) is grossly out of proportion with the reality of our economy. It is incongruous with the fact that the average civil servants who work for 35 years can hardly boast of a couple millions as his terminal benefits. Legislative work is supposed to be part time, but it is proving to be a lot more lucrative than full time work. The only effect this situation can bring to the country is to encourage corruption at the civil service level and to stamp political contest as a do-or-die affair. Unless the trend of helping oneself officially and plunging the country’s treasury is quickly checked, Nigerians can forget development of infrastructure, roads, schools hospitals etc.

This is yet another opportunity for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to assure Nigerians that this country will not drift under him. There is no point in his keeping quiet and pretending that things are happening through due process. Nigerians will remember him for his action or inaction in the face of obvious adversity they face in watching a few people corner the country’s resources.

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