• Sunday, May 19, 2024
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Uncommon lessons from House of Commons



Experience is not the best teacher but the only teacher. That is why the wise try to learn from the experience of others because to learn from personal experience is to wallow perpetually in avoidable folly. Nigeria has repeatedly refused to learn, either from the experience of others or even from its own. Therefore, it has become a tragic example of where history repeats itself in perpetuity. We always have good reasons for not admitting our shortcomings and learning from others.
When the Obama phenomenon occurred in the US, we quickly explained that American democracy was more than 200 years old. When the Ghana experience occurred, we countered that Ghana was a very small country and could not be compared with the large and complex Nigeria. But we could not organise an election in some wards of Ekiti State (the same area where a senatorial election will soon hold!). And by the time the South African experience occurred-the stepping down of Mbeki and the peaceful ascension of Zuma- we had run out of excuses.
Well, the UK parliamentary expenses scandal is another experience from which we should learn some lessons. That is if we are desirous of improving the standards of public expenditure management and governance in Nigeria. The Telegraph, in pursuit of its 4th Estate functions, published a damning expose of the manipulation of claims by British parliamentarians. One thing is obvious. What they did was by no means illegal; they just bent the law a little bit to satisfy selfish pecuniary interests. But their actions raised other issues: the issue of morality, profligacy, and living fat on the government in an era of unparalleled economic crunch.

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Britons felt that paying 29 pence for a box of matches or buying 16 bed-sheets for a bedroom flat within two months, were unacceptable-even if they were within the law. They made these views public and in an environment where politicians appreciate the import of public opinion and the fact that they are holding power in trust for the people. By this, the legislators did what is rather uncommon in our own clime.
The ministers who were implicated resigned-James Purnell, Caroline Flint, Beverley Hughes, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty, Margaret Beckett, Geoff Hoon, John Hutton Ian Gibson and Paul Murphy. And they even called on Brown to throw in the towel. Others included Kitty Usher, who stepped down over allegations that she changed the designation of her constituency home to avoid capital gains tax, and Andrew Mackay who claimed for a second home when there was no first.
The powerful British finance minister, Alister Darlin, publicly apologised over the issue early in June, and agreed to refund 350 pounds over-claimed in his own property. But that was after the prime minister (who claimed parliamentary expenses on two houses simultaneously and is refunding 200 pounds) had apologised on behalf of the political class, just as Cameron (Tory) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) had done. The climax was when the speaker, Michael Martin (an MP for 30 years and a Speaker for 9), had to quit. This was not because he was implicated, but because his colleagues and the public were not satisfied with the way he handled the crises. The last time the MPs ejected a Speaker from the post was in 1695
Incidentally, the current crisis was ignited by an expose of the extant allowance regime by the Telegraph. But when BusinessDay on February 9 and 10, 2009 and some other national dailies later gave graphic details of the scandalous allowances claimed by our legislators, Nigerians were not bothered! Accommodation-200 percent; car maintenance, 75 percent; furniture, 300 percent; entertainment, 30 percent; utility, 20 percent; wardrobe, 25 percent; severance, 400 percent; recess, 10 percent; newspaper, 15 percent (which amounted to more than N1000 daily for the Senate president who receives a basic salary of N2.4m). Even the president who lives in a well furnished and maintained palace at our expense still receives a housing allowance!
Furthermore, what happened in Britain did not violate the law and the amounts involved were petty cash relative to what happens on our shores. But take stock of some of the shady deals that have featured in the National Assembly and it becomes obvious that the Britons are saints from heaven above! Senator Mantu lived in his personal house and presented it as a rented apartment for which he collected tons of Naira as rent. He was also accused of collecting N54 million to facilitate the clearance of El-Rufai as a minister. What about the billions involved in the failed third-term plot, Etteh-gate, the Peugeot Contract deal, and the recent N5.5 billion electrification fraud? There had also been the N300 million Iyabo Obasanjo scandal and the recent trip to Ghana by the Senate committee on petroleum. And in terms of profligacy, one insignificant example will do: our legislators spent N159 million to celebrate democracy day including N25 million for 5000 year books (N5000 each); N15 million on hand book, N2 million on gala night and N10 million on memorabilia!
In all these instances, there was no meaningful outcry from Nigerians. Those who commented were probably classified as busy-bodies. Secondly, the NASS never admitted any wrongdoing on the part of their members. They always covered them, probably in line with the PDP “family affair” doctrine.
The Senate spokesman, Ayogu Eze, said that the Senate stood by Senator Ugbane until the court case was over (and that may be in year 2020), adding that senators who went to Ghana had done nothing wrong (even while the Senate had set a committee to probe the trip). Compare this with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who apologised, made his own refunds, and swore not to work with anyone found guilty.
Indeed, we still have a lot to learn if we are actually working and walking towards the governance promised land.