Poverty, productivity and the National Assembly

Poverty, productivity and the National Assembly

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Nigerian senators are worried about a “looming revolution”. And they’ve identified the cause: the poverty tsunami the country is facing. Last week they spent 90 minutes debating how to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. They talked about the chicken coming home to roost, the revolt of the downtrodden, the elites under siege and the dictatorship of angry drug-addled beggars. They blame it on, “…long years of neglect of the welfare and future of younger generations and unwillingness by both the government and the elites to plan for the future, or read the signs of upheaval.”

Not a single senator, however, mentioned the disparity between the mammoth salaries and allowances of lawmakers (a tiny elite; 0.002% of Nigeria’s population) and the minimum wage. This is one of the factors that drive extreme inequality in Nigeria.

In Nigeria where political and economic power is intertwined, inequality is worsening. Public office is not only considered a quick route to riches, politicians have become a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. Capturing political power gives access to economic benefits, and given the high cost of financing a campaign, officeholders are less interested in policymaking that favour the majority. Nigeria’s legislature has become a career path to quick riches. It is plagued by careerism. Political careerists see the legislature as a means to opulence rather than minimum comfort required to serve their country.

Based on some calculations a Nigerian lawmaker earns 10,000 times more than national minimum wage and 200 times more than Nigeria’s GDP per capita. Only highly paid CEOs earn so much.

Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart and one of the highest paid executives in the world earned $23 million in 2017 – over 1,000 times more than the median salary of an average staff at the giant retailer. Those who justify this gaping difference say talented chief executives like McMillon are hard to find, and point to the 1.5 million jobs Walmart provides and the value McMillon creates for shareholders.

The same case can’t be made for Nigerian legislators. In 2015, with less than 10,000 people on its payroll, the National Assembly had staff, resources and a budget far more than 21 states in Nigeria including Kastina, Benue and Jigawa all with populations above four million, according to Quartz, an online news site.

Disparity between what lawmakers in Nigeria earn and their productivity is a problem. But do senators see the inefficiency of the National Assembly as a cause of poverty? Perhaps continued delay of bills that will reform the oil and gas industry or the reluctance to push for the sale of refineries or progress on plans to trim down overheads and recurrent expenditure in ministries, departments and agencies (listed in the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan) aren’t examples of the “unwillingness by both the government and the elites to plan for the future.”

It’s also possible that the senators aren’t aware that public administration (as a sector of the economy) contracted in the first three months of 2019 i.e. it’s still in recession, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Why bother when salaries and benefits are paid without fail?

Legislatures with salaries and benefits commensurate with the time spent making and passing laws, and supported by a sizable staff and resources tend to be more efficient, according to the Squire Index for Legislative Professionalism. An index developed by Peverill Squire in 1992 to measure the performance of legislators and the legislature in the United States.

Salaries and benefits are an incentive to attract the best who will give their time to policymaking assisted by competent staff. Consequently, this leads to long-tenured and experienced lawmakers with considerable policymaking influence relative to the executive.

Typically, rising salaries should be an incentive for greater service but the contrary is the case in Nigeria. It’s common for senators or representatives running for re-election to be asked midway not to campaign because an ex-governor, a party chief’s spouse or child are interested in the seat. Such possibilities divert attention from focusing on legislative activities to juggling for higher salaries and allowances since they are uncertain of re-election. Chances of building experience and learning the intricacies of policymaking are thus slim, even if they are re-elected. If most of the time is spent feathering their nest and fighting to keep their seat, the staff and resources at their disposal will be under-utilised.

Unfortunately, most of the senators who came up with bright ideas for fixing poverty in Nigeria won’t be around; the Eighth National Assembly ends this month. Maybe as a gesture of sacrifice and given the urgency of the matter they could add another bill to the over 2,000 they introduced since 2015. Though almost 20% of the bills introduced were passed (500 are pending), at least they are better than the Seventh Assembly that passed 10% of the 1,063 bills introduced.


Tayo Fagbule


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