Africa Today

Ropo Sekoni: Are former governors actually double dipping?

The article below first appeared one year and one week ago. Now that it seems that some wing of our separated powers are interested in double dipping, the piece is being republished to enable former senators, governors, and ministers performing new roles see the ethical deficit involved in such acts, if they exist.

Between traditional and social media, Nigerians are daily bombarded by avalanche of news stories—mediated and non-mediated by professional news reporters. Many public affairs commentators habitually respond to both types of news reports, particularly when such news stories pertain to political and social information that governments on all levels choose to move from public notice. One news item with variants on both traditional and social media is about pension benefits for legislators and governors.

National Assembly’s efforts to legislate generous pension payments for principal officers of the two houses have already received the response they deserve from citizens. But it is worth repeating that any move by lawmakers to add another perquisite to the already bloated basket of benefits, already being perceived by citizens to be unjustifiable in a developing country that takes development aid from other countries, certainly needs to be stopped. Not to do this is to insult citizens and push them to start thinking like Arab Spring makers in Tunisia and Egypt. Enough insults have been heaped on Nigerians since the beginning of the current post-military democracy. They were made to elect the first civilian government in 1999 without a visible constitution. When the constitution was unearthed, it claimed to be a document made by the people, though not seen by the people. For almost twenty years of post-military rule, salaries and benefits of lawmakers have been treated as classified information, the kind of information that should be hidden from citizens under the guise of protecting national security and promoting national unity.

Added directly or indirectly to lawmakers’ benefits is what is referred to as constituency allowance. This authorises lawmakers to obtain millions of naira to dig wells, provide transformers, roof or paint existing classrooms, hang solar panels, and buy cars for people considered as major political stakeholders in their communities. It is a surprise that all these are not enough to spark any social revolt or protest by members of the underclass who scrounge to feed their families, largely because this demographic group has been deadened by gospels of prosperity and miracles from some churches or promise of multiple virgins waiting for fanatics and terrorists from some mosques. There is always a straw that can break the camel’s back. Lawmakers should not continue to take Nigerians for granted. With our current economy hobbled over the years by corruption, political leaders with enlightened self-interest need to know that many Nigerians, if not most, are already on edge and can flip over any time with the slightest irritation. Observant citizens who pay attention to contortions on many faces on the street need not consult social psychologists to provide them with any esoteric reading of the mood of the people. So far, Buhari’s change has been about identifying and prosecuting those who stole from the treasury in the past. When and if the government gets to re-structuring institutions that have been conducive to corruption, it will be easier than it has been to separate legality from morality in determining who is elected or appointed to public office.

Despite proliferation of what commentators see as information overload coming from the social media, governments in general in our country are too reticent about what they do or don’t do with respect to public funds entrusted to them. One such example is the news item principally in the social media that former governors now serving as senators or as ministers are double dipping by receiving pensions approved for them as former governors and salaries plus benefits provided for them as serving senators or ministers. Citizen journalists on the social media have for instance reported as follows: “21 senators currently receiving pensions from government as ex-governors and deputy governors and four former governors in Buhari’s cabinet are receiving generous or extravagant pensions and benefits approved for them by their state assemblies while also receiving salaries and allowances from the federal government.”

It is difficult to believe such claims, because they contradict all constitutional and administrative laws in all countries of the world. It is common sense that no individual can double dip from the same source and that receiving pension from state government while receiving salaries from the federal government or any government agency is still double dipping. Even retired military officers serving the government after retirement can choose only one source of revenue and not both at the same time. For example, the president who retired as a general in the army and had once been a head of state and thus qualified for two forms of retirement benefits cannot claim more than one of the three streams of benefits available to him: military pension, pension for former head of state, and salaries/benefits for serving president. If President Buhari is able to comply with the law of the land on this matter, no one else should be encouraged to feel above the law, regardless of how much value such individuals can add to governance. This has nothing to do with the financial health of the country and of its governments. It is a condition that holds true for all times. If truly there are governors that are drawing their pensions from their states and receiving salaries, such governors are in the wrong, and there is no better government to stop this or prevent it from happening than the Government of Change under President Buhari.

Furthermore, the government of change ought to take full advantage of its e-governance facility to provide citizens with information that can save citizens from confusion vis-à-vis veracity of the claim in social media that almost 25 senators and ministers are acting as double dippers. It is dangerous for the government to ignore such news stories, as doing so may be interpreted as silence that accepts veracity of such claims or as silence designed to avoid dealing with such claims. It is too late in the history of citizen journalism and the social media for governments to disregard such ‘news’ about individuals currently serving the government. Doing so ought to make citizens feel that such governments are deliberately acting irresponsibly, more so at a time that citizens believe that they have voted for a government that can sanitize the Augean Stables, left behind by decades of venality in government in the last half a century.

Social media is also overflowing with innuendoes that most of the people in government—executive and legislative—apart from a few— President Buhari and his Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and some unnamed ministers— have not declared their assets as required by law. If this is true, President Buhari would need to intervene immediately and ensure that every minister and lawmaker is made to declare his or her assets. To further boost citizens’ confidence in the government of change, each of such declarations should be accessible to the media and citizens that wish to exercise their right to know. No room must be given to make citizens believe that some individuals in government are sacred citizens who can be excused for not doing the right thing. Our new government of change and rule of law cannot afford to overlook any lapse on the part of anyone who is required by law to declare his or her assets. Such attitude is capable of eroding trust in a government that citizens see as their last hope in the war against venal behaviour on the part of government officials—executive, legislative, or judicial.

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