Na­tional Assem­bly ren­o­va­tion: Di­a­logue of the deaf?

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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.

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