National Assembly renovation: Dialogue of the deaf?
years, not the least because of the cost and logistics of carrying it out. Let alone then, a developing country with a one-legged economy, its principal foreign exchange earner highly volatile, and harbouring 90 million people who live on less than $2 a day! It is as if the National Assembly members, many of them highly educated, have chosen to be absent from current and disturbing discussions on the wobbly status of our economy. For example, was it not only a few weeks back that the World Bank, in its halfyearly update, warned that even though oil prices are for the moment ascending, if they were to dip to 2016 levels, the prospects of another biting recession are considerable. That apart, there is a raging debate on our growing borrow borrow profile, and the humongous amount we are spending to service extant debts. Amazingly, these hard facts did not appear to have featured in the debate, if there was one, on the decision to grant approval for such a daringly expensive upgrade. It is even sadder that when the public debate broke on the matter, the lawmakers insensitively dismissed the critics, with one of them, a senator, bristling that the outcry “is not only misplaced but also unnecessary and unwarranted”.
In like manner, as the opening quote shows, the director of information, after blasting the critics, insists that what should be put on the table is a reconstruction of the complex, rather than a mere upgrade, not forgetting to tell us that we should be thankful to the “honourable” members for putting up with the dishevelled structure of the building. This, of course, is not the first time in which senators and their spokespersons have berated civil society activists and the media who criticised their spending habits as unwise in a recessive economy. Recall that, a few months back, in the heat of the outrage regarding the purchase of SUVS for senators, costing N5.5bn, a Senate leader, Yahaya Abdullahi, asked “What is the problem there? It is an insult to say that a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria cannot ride a jeep”. Yahaya did not factor whether the gist of the public discussion zeroed on an exploration of cheaper alternatives because of the distressed state of the economy. So, rather than the legislators making policies which take into account the downturn in the economy, it is the public that continually reminds them, with the legislators browbeating the critics. This trend has led to some commentators accusing the lawmakers of a certain arrogance of power, as well as inability or unwillingness to listen to the voters who elected them, especially on matters which touch on their emoluments and the perquisites of office. If this trend continues, the lawmakers may become a law unto themselves, especially in the context of what appears to be an incestuous relationship of the kissing cousins model, between the executive and the legislature. It was in this context perhaps that Senate President Ahmed Lawan defended the humongous cost of the renovation by stating that Buhari consented to the project.
One of the issues that should be brought into the discussion is whether it is wise for a country to borrow heavily, not for capital projects that would pay its way through prudent economic management, but for prestige projects which do not add value to the economic terrain. As I understand it, what is more important than borrowing is that whether the loans are utilised judiciously, or whether they are squandered on projects that do not yield economic gain. In the same manner, as I often criticised the President Goodluck Jonathan administration for its squandermania, in, for example, hosting several international conferences that the country could ill-afford, the current administration must be subjected to the same test of prudence and frugality, more so in an economy so gingerly.
A final argument exposing the underbelly of the high-rise renovation is the alternative uses to which that money could be put. The dissenting federal lawmaker, mentioned at the opening paragraph, puts it cogently when he argued that, “I would rather want to see 370,000 small businesses get N100,000 interest-free loans within 12 months, than have one edifice swallow that sum within the same period”. The ongoing controversy reveals, sadly, that we have not got our priorities straightened out, and that we’re still a long way from the ideals of a virtuous and egalitarian republic. It is suggested that once the lawmakers resume, they should take a vote, not only to drastically reduce the amount, but to carry out the project in phases, showing consideration thereby, for the nation’s parlous finances.