11 October 2012

African Parliaments - the Road Not Taken


The high cost of maintaining parliaments, some of them mere rubber-stamping money guzzlers, is a luxury African economies can ill afford, as the Kenyan and Nigerian cases show.

Kenyan parliamentarians caused a continental uproar recently when, with all the myriad of problems facing Kenyans, they approved new, huge take home pay packages at the end of their current term in January.

To say the Kenyan economy, currently weighed down by a costly anti-terror war in Somalia, is struggling is to say the least. But that is the least consideration on the minds of the parliamentarians; the struggling economy must be further weighed down by high parliamentary expenditure to support the false lifestyle of parliamentarians. A law is a law especially if that law emanates from people supposedly elected to serve the people. Fair enough! Thankfully, President Mwai Kibaki rejected the new package for the MPs.

One African leader who was not amused by the Kenyan parliamentary 'coup' against the people of Kenya was President Macky Sall of Senegal. A few months ago, President Sall took one look at the balance sheet and decided the economy could not accommodate the two chambers of the federal parliament. Convinced that the interests of Senegal were better served by a single-chamber parliament and, luckily, since he did not need the backing of parliamentarians who most likely would have stopped him anyway, President Sall simply took out the upper house of the parliament believing his action would conserve funds for developmental projects.

As was the case in Kenya, his 'unilateral' action caused an uproar but, unlike in Kenya, the uproar did not come from the struggling Senegalese; it was from those who benefited from the status quo and who expectedly saw the move as dictatorial. Snippets from Dakar, capital of Senegal in the aftermath of the move, indicated an upswing in support for the president.

Nigeria's former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, can best be described as an impossible neighbour to have next door. His eight-year rule has been has been described, even by some of his diehard fans, as an avoidable and costly mistake for his countrymen and women. But like all mortals, President Obasanjo has his good sides too. One of his major contributions to constitution-making in Nigeria, which cannot be denied even by the harshest Obasanjo basher, is the robust case he made more than two decades ago for a unicameral or, single-chamber, legislature.

President Obasanjo literally hit the bull's eye when he argued then, in one of his books, that a bi-cameral or, double-chamber, is unwieldy and wasteful for developing countries. Pity is that on two different occasions, first as a military leader and later as an elected president, President Obasanjo had the opportunity to make the difference but demurred. More painful is that he had the opportunity to make amends in his second coming in 1999 but blew it, wasting precious time and money to attempt an elongation to his tenure.

There appears to be one major advertised benefit for double-chamber parliaments; according to its proponents, it allows for checks and balances. The impression one gets is that the upper house, supposedly made up of 'cool, level-headed' people, is capable of checking the supposed excesses of their supposedly 'hot-headed' juniors in the lower house. But that is where the attraction ends. Aside being financial sink holes, what obtains in most African parliaments is duplication of roles and functions.

Nigeria has two unwieldy, often bickering and scandal-prone houses in its National Assembly with some 459 federal legislators who, according to Central Bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, gulp one quarter of the federal budget. A reasonable representation, you will agree, for a country with an estimated population of 160 million, except that, for equal measure, spending a quarter of the federal budget for the false lifestyle of a few is an unreasonable expenditure profile in a vast plain of poor, struggling people.

If the need for checks and balances is one of the main benefits of a double-chamber legislature, perhaps that aim would have been better achieved through a single-chamber assembly with a good mix of the supposed cool-headed and supposed hot-headed. To better achieve this, and still illustrating with Nigeria, the present 350 federal constituencies could be retained.

Since the cost of running the National Assembly is unacceptably high, these federal legislators should operate purely on part-time basis and be paid sitting allowances. This is about the only way to bait professionals to come into the National Assembly, as the parliament is called in Nigeria, without having to abandon their professional callings and take politics as full-time business as is the practice today. Of course, there should be constitutional provisions to take care of special and under-represented groups such as the physically challenged, women, labour and youth groups.

Unless we are advocating outright scrapping of African parliaments - many of them are mere money-guzzling rubber stamps anyway - a unicameral or single-chamber legislature, such as is being practiced in Ghana and other African countries, where cabinet positions are occupied by elected members of parliament, is probably one of the best options.

The attraction with the Ghana arrangement is that it creates a synergy, a healthy political arrangement where ministers are able to talk back to parliament regarding the needs of their constituencies, update their constituencies as to happenings in parliament as well as press the case of their constituencies at cabinet meetings. Though there have been instances where some former ministers in Ghana say the arrangement could be taxing and should be reviewed, there is nothing to show that the arrangement is about to be jettisoned because it is working. Perhaps those who criticise the Ghana arrangement should pause and reflect on Nigeria where unelectable people are rewarded with juicy cabinet positions.

Aside saving cost, single-chamber parliaments with provisions for special and under-represented groups could be made even more cost effective if parliamentarians operate part time and receive sitting allowances. The present money guzzling parliamentary arrangement in places like Nigeria where many see a ticket to the National Assembly as a road to instant wealth does not encourage many serious minded people to go to the legislature: it is either they cannot afford the money for that purpose or do some of the unprintable things people do in the name of seeking a seat at the National Assembly, or they are unwilling to abandon their professions.

Whatever the case, the present arrangement in Nigeria excludes some of the best brains whose professional background could enrich legislations. And to think that the love of lucre has tempted many to quit school to jump into the murky waters of politics points to the need to re-order priorities.

Now, who will bell the cat? The snag here is that many African parliamentarians would prefer to tread the ignoble path of the Kenyan parliamentarians. This is for the simple fact that many African parliamentarians, especially in Nigeria, place politics ahead of productive business ventures and will get red in the eyes in the course of fighting any change to the present order with the proverbial last blood. And that, precisely, is why ever struggling and ever murmuring Africans will continue to groan for some time to come under the burden of maintaining their parliamentarians.

- Abdulrazaq Magaji, journalist, author and former history lecturer, resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

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