Scrap the Senate? No. Trim the fat

PHOTO: Twitter/NGRSenate

At the 25th edition of the Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja last week, the governor of Ekiti State, Dr Kayode Fayemi, suggested that the senate of the Federal Republic be scrapped. I wonder if the participants found it shocking or funny. I am intrigued by both his audacity in making the suggestion and his reasons for doing so. I am surprised there is no rush yet to quarter him by the acolytes of the distinguished senators Fayemi wants to make jobless.

Fayemi was offering his thoughts on the very wasteful size of our government. He believes that scrapping the senate would reduce the size of government and save the country the huge amount of money it now spends, or perhaps more correctly wastes, on the 109 senators who are constitutionally bound to make laws for the good governance of the country. There is a sense in that. For one, we would save the N13 million in monthly salaries and allowances for each of the 109 senators. From my calculation, the saving would be substantial. For another, we would save loads of Naira from official accommodation and official vehicles. The government could find some good use for what is saved, as in buy enough candles for those of us who are condemned to suffer the eternal trauma of epileptic power or no power at all in an oil giant in the 21st century.

Fayemi’s point is this: “We do need to look into the size of government in Nigeria and I am an advocate of a unicameral legislature. What we really need is the House of Representatives because that is what represents.” What irks him here is that the equality of states in which each state sends three people into the senate chambers promotes inequality of states. The states are neither equal in size nor in development nor in endowment.

I dare say that the governor cannot count on many, if any supporters, for his view. It comes more than 50 years too late in the day for us to even think about it. Our bicameral legislature is cast, not just in stone but on marble. Difficult to chip at it with a teaspoon. I suspect though that if he had suggested this when Dr Bukola Saraki was calling the shots in the fractious executive-legislative eighth senate, I know who would perk up his ears.

On the face of it, Fayemi’s suggestion does have that strange sound associated with outlandishness. Not to worry. I bet there must be some closet supporters for his suggestion. The larger than life living standard of the senators grates on many a nerve. But any attempts to scrap the senate would run smack into a stone wall. You cannot scrap the senate without asking the senate to decide its fate. It is its responsibility. It is no brainer that should the vote on such a bill be taken on the floor of the senate, the nays would have it resoundingly. The senate would survive and Fayemi would count on the displeasure of the 109 senators. I just hope that the senate would not be called upon soon to approve a request by the president to refund some money to Ekiti State. It would be stuck in the senate chambers – to teach Fayemi a good lesson in how not to mess with lawmakers.

It should be possible for us to be more charitable to Fayemi’s take on pruning the size of government at federal and even state levels. Ours is a lumbering giant, I suppose, because our government is a lumbering behemoth. The size of government has been a source of worry for all our leaders long before yesterday. The civil service is not just bloated; it is criminally over-bloated. Because of political patronage, between five and ten people are employed to do the same job that could or used to be done by only one man. My estimate here is conservative. There is no better evidence on the crushing burden of big government than that federal and state governments commit between 75 and 80 per cent of their annual budgets to recurrent expenditures, as in the payment of salaries, allowances and other juicy perks of their civil servants and political office holders. This budgetary inversion is one good reason why the discos are dancing disco while the rest of us grope in the dark. With less money in the capital vote, it is naïve to expect us to make a giant leap in our development.

To prune the size of government should be a task that must be done. But it is a task no president or governor would like to undertake. Belling the cat, as the rats knew long ago, carries with it some obvious personal and political risks. No one forgets that the next election looms on billboards in the near horizon, anyway.

I tried to look beyond Fayemi’s suggestion and arrived at this: there is too much fat in our governments. Despite the lingering economic difficulties going all the way to the Second Republic, we have refused to take steps towards making our governments leaner, relatively cheaper and more result oriented. Part of the blame lies on the constitution. That sacred document prescribes that the composition of the federal cabinet shall reflect the right of each state to be represented therein. No president has a choice in the matter. He is obliged to pack his cabinet with a large crowd as ministers, ministers of state and special advisers. Every state must chop. It is the path to national unity determined by the generals in the 1979 constitution.

This is known as tribal accommodation. A political system that accommodates the big tribes and the small tribes is a sure recipe for national unity. The late Major-General Shehu Yar’Adua told us at a Newswatch summit that in their constitution making in 1978/79, they considered five political power blocks: Hausa/Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba, northern minorities and southern minorities. Political power would then be distributed among them as president or vice-president or senate president or deputy senate president or speaker of the house. Think of what a great beauty it would be for the three tribes and the two tribal blocks to be in the power loop.

In politics, nothing really is cast in stone. Unlike religion, fossilization is anathema to every form of government. Things must change with the changing mores, morals and contemporary demands of a new take on governance. Thus, the national assembly enjoys inherent powers to amend the constitution by deleting those provisions that no longer serve the national interests and substituting them with those that do in contemporary political thoughts. Although the bicameral legislature has been with us since independence, its longevity not necessarily self-evident truth that it is the best we could have for all time. I am sure there are merits too in a unicameral legislation beyond cutting the fat in the size of government.

I do not support scrapping the senate because I have good friends there who might be suddenly out of a job, but I do support our re-examining how we operate the bicameral legislature. If a system fails, it is often less the fault of the system itself but more the fault of how it is understood and operated by the operators. A serious national conversation could determine where the problems lies and the steps that must be taken to free the system from being held hostage by its own operators.

Law is expensive in making, expensive in disobeying and expensive in enforcement. But does law-making need be this expensive? Look at the sheer number of lawmakers in the country: 109 senators and 469 members of the house. Add the number of lawmakers in the state houses of assembly and you wonder: do we really need this large crowd to make laws for the good governance of our dear country and parts thereof?

Nothing says we cannot have fewer lawmakers and still have good laws. But the large crowd must remain as a tribute to tribal accommodation. If we are serious, we should be able to prune the number of our lawmakers and spend less on them and still get better results. I wonder though whether it is wise for a country that does not respect its own laws and court orders to continue to spend so much money keeping so many federal and state legislators in office under the fiction that they are making laws for the good governance of the country and parts thereof.

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