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Furore Over Senators’ Move To Purchase N5.5bn Cars

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There has been mixed reactions since the plan by the leadership of the 9th senate led by the senate president, Ahmed Lawan, to purchase some exotic cars for senate committee chairmen and their deputies became public.

The outcry followed a cloud of gloomy economy hovering over even countries with highly-developed economy in the world. Until he issued another Executive order on March 28, 2019, United States of America’s president, Mr  Donald Trump ,had on December 29, 2018, issued an executive order freezing federal workers’ pay for 2019. Trump told lawmakers he planned to scrap the 2019 big pay for federal workers in August, saying the federal budget couldn’t support it. In addition to the 2.1 per cent pay increase, the executive order also canceled a yearly adjustment of paychecks based on the region of the country where workers are posted, called the “locality pay increase,” that was due to take effect in January. But on March 28, 2019, Trump issued another executive order authorising the retroactive pay raise. The pay raise granted a 1.4 per cent across the board raise for federal employees with an additional .5 per cent for locality pay.

President Muhammadu Buhari had on April 18, 2019, signed into law the Minimum Wage Repeal and Re-enactment Bill, 2019, after the national assembly on March 27, 2019, transmitted the bill for his assent. He ordered immediate implementation of the law, but the economic reality has affected the President’s order till date.

Amidst the  nation’s economic challenges came reports of moves by the leadership of the national assembly to procure operational vehicles for the lawmakers that make up its dual legislative chambers.

This is just as the national assembly officials confirmed to journalists on condition of anonymity that meetings in that regard started among presiding officers in the senate even before the apex legislative body embarked on its eight-week recess, which ends on September 24, 2019.

As usual, the preferred brand being considered for senators is Toyota Land Cruiser Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), which would be served to the 69 senate standing committee chairmen and their deputies. The 109 senators are either chairmen or deputy chairmen of the senate committees, in other words, they would all be served one each. Additional SUV cars would be added, and it is estimated  that the cars would cost N50 million each which would amount to about N5.550 billion in all.

A throw back into the recent past showed that similar exotic cars were purchased for the senators, some of them even presently in the senate got one each and those are  still in their possession. It is alleged that some of the items sold to members of the Eighth Senate and House of Representatives at scandalous prices include Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs and office equipment such as computers, photocopiers, and refrigerators.

The management reportedly sold the SUVs which had been bought for between N24 million and N26 million each, to the departing lawmakers at a paltry N1 million. It was also said to have received only N360,000 from the lawmakers for a set consisting two television sets, a photocopier, desktop computers, and a big refrigerator.

All the items handed almost freely to the legislators would apparently be purchased afresh and supplied to members of the Ninth Assembly inaugurated on June 11, 2019; just as the new computers, scanners, photocopying machines, television sets, and refrigerators would be purchased at hounding prices.

According to an Abuja -based lawyer, Alasa Ismail, this practice of the lawmakers run fowl of both Procurement Act 2007 and Monetisation policy of the federal government following accusations that fairly used vehicles and property were sold at give-away prices to former lawmakers.

Section 16 (1) (d) & (e) states that all public procurement shall be conducted  (d) in a manner which is transparent, timely, equitable for ensuring accountability and conformity with this Act and regulations deriving therefrom  (e) with the aim of achieving value for money and fitness for purpose.

Monetisation is the quantification in money terms of those fringe benefits which government used to provide for its workers as part of their conditions of service. Such benefits include residential accommodation, chauffeur-driven cars, residential furniture, utility services, et cetera.

The proposal came under the regime of former President Obasanjo from the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMA FC). It was debated in the national assembly and passed into law as ‘Certain Political, Public and Judicial office Holders (Salaries and Allowances etc) Act 2002. The law mandates that the fringe benefits which were formally paid in kinds be converted to cash by the Salaries and Wage Commission, more importantly to curb wastes and abuse of office since each law is either observed in breach or have its weaknesses exploited and appropriated to serve self at the expense of overriding public interest. It is the monetisation policy that enabled the former senate president, David Mark, to buy so cheaply the official residence of the senate president at Apo in Abuja . Also, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, bought the official residence of the speaker of the house of representatives at a giveaway price and got away with it.

Passing national assembly members are hande cars and office equipment such as computers, photocopiers, and refrigerators after their four-year tenure. This is just as the values of such property have been monetised and captured in the jumbo salary and allowances paid to them monthly, in addition to their severance packages at the end of their four- year tenure.

A group known as Advocates for Right Leadership Association has berated the senate for agreeing to buy SUV cars for all 109 senators at the cost of N5.5 billion . The group, also known as Believers in Politics (BIP), said that the senate and the federal government were insensitive to the present economic challenges  in Nigeria.

The group’s national public relations officer, Peju Akinyemi Abraham, said that it was unthinkable for the federal government to agree to spend such an amount on just cars and yet refused to implement the N30,000 new minimum wage. Abraham therefore called on the senate led by its president, Ahmed Lawan, to beg for God’s forgiveness in order not to incur his wrath.

The statement partly read, “Senate leadership decision to purchase 109 SUV for its 109 members is insensitive, self-serving and ungodly. For a government that has refused to commence the payment of N30,000 monthly minimum wage to poor civil servants and Nigerian workers to embark on this frivolity is a reflection of the insensitivity of the people in government.

“We do not only condemn the decision, we equally advise Senator Ahmed Lawan-led senate leadership to retrace its steps, repent and ask God for forgiveness, so they don’t incur God’s wrath.

“We advise them to turn a new leaf and begin to work for the interest of ordinary Nigerians whose interest they are elected to protect,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the senate, Senator Dayo Adeyeye, has reacted to the controversial N5.5 billion earmarked for the purchase of cars for members of for the Red Chamber.

Senator Adeyeye, who spoke via the phone during Channels Television’s Sunday Politics, stated that the said amount would only be legal if budgeted by the national assembly for such purpose.

He, however, dismissed the reports, stressing that he was  yet to hear about the plan to purchase vehicles for the lawmakers with such a huge amount.

“It is an exercise in futility; a complete exercise in futility. Even I as a senator has not heard anything about that.So why will people be relying on rumours and newspaper reports? I wouldn’t know and in any case, if the senate is going to spend that amount if it is budgeted for, then it means it is purely legal,” he said.

The senate spokesman explained that every new administration budgets vehicles for public office holders.

He, however, regretted why there would be a public outcry against the development, noting that it’s a norm for the three tiers of government.

“So why will the national assembly be different? Why are they focusing on the national assembly and not looking at the executive and judiciary arms of government?” he questioned.

The lawmaker added, “All of these people are entitled to official cars and do use official cars. Directors of agencies, even minor officials in agencies use official cars. So why will the national assembly be different? Why should it be a problem that the national assembly is entitled to use official cars?”

He decried that the purchase of cars for senators was viewed from the negative side, saying he cannot imagine himself in a vehicle used by a former member.

Senator Adeyeye also said some of the vehicles that were bought four years ago, were no longer serviceable while others had probably been sold.

He, therefore, warned those he described as mischief makers to desist from attempting to destroy the national assembly, saying doing so would amount to destroying the nation’s democratic process.

However, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), BudgIT, Enough is Enough (EiE) and 6,721 concerned Nigerians have asked the federal high court in Lagos to stop the national assembly from spending N5.5billion to buy luxury cars for principal officials.

Specifically, the suit seeks to “restrain, prevent and stop the National Assembly Service Commission from paying or releasing the sum of N5.550 billion budgeted for purchase of luxury cars for principal members of the ninth senate, and to restrain and stop the senate from collecting the money until the downward review of the amount proposed by the senate.”

In suit number FHC/L/CS/1511/2019 filed last Friday at the federal high court, Ikoyi Lagos, the plaintiffs argued, “Spending a huge sum of N5.550 billion to buy luxury cars for principal members of the ninth Senate is unjust and unfair. It negates the constitutional oath of office made by members to perform their functions in the interest of the well-being and prosperity of Nigeria and its citizens, as contained in the Seventh Schedule of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended).”

The plaintiffs also argued, “The proposed spending by the ninth senate raises pertinent questions: What is the economic value and contribution of the vehicles sought to be purchased to the grand scheme of Nigeria’s economy? What are the parameters used to arrive at cost efficiency and value for money in the decision to purchase the vehicles? Where are the vehicles purchased by the eighth senate?”

The 6,721 concerned Nigerians who joined the suit as co-plaintiffs with SERAP, BudgIT and EiE include; Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) co-conveners, Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu; Jibrin Ibrahim; Edetaen Ojo; Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, and Deji Adeyanju.

The plaintiffs argued, “The failure or refusal by the senate to comply with legal and constitutional provisions is nothing but an act of arbitrariness. The money could be better allocated to more important sectors of the national assembly expenditure – like constituency projects and national assembly-endowed educational scholarships.”

According to the plaintiffs, “A public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his official duties. But the plan to spend N5.550 billion to buy vehicles for principal members of the senate is a textbook case of a conflict of their personal interests with national interest of fiscal efficiency – a conflict eventually resolved in favour of personal and self-interest.

“Members of the national assembly as public officials form a very tiny percentage of about 200 million Nigerians. It is public knowledge and judicially noticed that members of the senate are still eligible to collect huge sums of money as monthly allowances and severance pay on conclusion of their respective terms at the national assembly.

“It is thus rational that this matter is presently generating a lot of public concern and many Nigerians are now calling for a review of the sum proposed and budgeted for vehicles for members. In the face of glaring facts about Nigeria’s dire economic position vis-a-vis the scant allocations to critical sectors of the nation, we can only pray the court to do substantive justice by granting our reliefs sought.

“There is real urgent need to assign, hear and determine this matter expeditiously. The well-being and prosperity of Nigeria requires commitment and sacrifice by all and sundry. However, the plan to spend N5.550 billion amounting to 6.4 per cent of Nasarawa State’s budget is anything but a commitment to pursue the interest, well-being and prosperity of Nigeria and its citizens.”

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