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Downsizing parliament, lesson from Italy by @jideojong

FINANCIAL encumbrances have compelled Italy to downsize its parliament. The initiative by Five Star – the main party in the coalition government – will see the country saving a whopping €1 billion or £897 million in 10 years, amid its sluggish economic growth of 0.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year.
Under the arrangement, the lower legislative house will be pruned from 630 to 400 members, while the senators’ current strength of 315 will be down to 200.  “It is done! Promise kept,” the Five Star hierarchy said in a tweet, shortly after the parliamentary approval. But the new order will not come into effect until after the next election in 2023, by which time it would have been ratified by a referendum. It is, indeed, a political or constitutional sea change.
Italy’s Cabinet Secretary, Riccardo Fraccaro’s excitement about it is instructive: “The citizens are at the centre” of it all. The Italian news agency says an MP earns €230,000 per annum and a senator collects €249,600. The money to be saved, viewed from Fraccaro’s rhapsody, will be used to provide social services for common good. Italy is a member of the G7 – most developed economies of the world – yet, it has subjected its political system to critical self-appraisal to reduce waste in governance, thus elevating national interest to the primacy of public service.
By the action, Italy has joined other countries, which are conscious of not squandering their resources on just a few public or elected officials to the detriment of the larger society. In Africa, Senegal braved it when, in 2012, it scrapped its entire senate, which had 100 seats, just as the position of vice-president that had not been occupied also became a victim of sweeping political reforms. Saving $15 million to help victims of flood, which left 13 dead and thousands homeless that year, was the objective.
In Mauritania, President Mohammed Abdulaziz in August 2017 instigated a referendum which abolished the country’s senate. He had described it as “useless and too costly.”
Here, concerns are repeatedly being expressed by many Nigerians about the increasing cost of governance, especially in the National Assembly, which comprises 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives. It has N125 billion in the 2019 budget, and, in the best of times in the past, got much higher fund. What is intriguing is that much of the lawmakers’ emoluments are obscene allocations they give themselves. This has incensed not a few Nigerians enough to call for the adoption of a unicameral legislature.
A revelation by Shehu Sani in 2018 that a senator collects as much as N13.5 million monthly as operational cost, upset many Nigerians. This translates to N162 million ($450,000) yearly, excluding salary and car. Yet, this is a country the World Poverty Clock said in 2018 had displaced India as home to the world’s poorest, with over 94 million now living below the poverty line.
A cost-benefit analysis of the National Assembly’s existence since 1999 will not escape the inevitable conclusion that the country is not getting value for the money it spends. No assembly epitomised irresponsibility and waste more than the eighth parliament, which in 2017 and 2018 diverted funds provided in the budget for the reconstruction of Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and the Second Niger Bridge to their members’ so-called constituency projects. The Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, Bolaji Owasanoye, said that the country had since 2000 spent over N2 trillion on the scheme, which BudgetIT describes as a huge fraud. While tracking the projects in Akwa Ibom State in July, the commission observed that “three dialysis machines and other items” for one cottage hospital were not delivered. Its state’s commissioner, Sola Shodipo, said, “We found only one in a private place, which was not delivered or installed in the hospital…These machines and other equipment were meant to be delivered since 2018.”
The Italy-Senegal-Mauritania parliamentary paradigm will continue to be a seductive proposition for many in a country bedevilled by massive infrastructural gap. Bad roads everywhere; decrepit primary healthcare delivery system, ill-equipped universities, pupils sitting on bare-floor to learn, unemployment as high as 23 per cent; inflation at double digits; recurrent expenditure as high as 70 per cent and economic growth about two per cent are continually triggering alarm bells for change.

These downbeats in governance perhaps influenced Kayode Fayemi, the Governor of Ekiti State, to echo the call for the scrapping of the Senate at the just-concluded Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja. Undoubtedly, Nigeria embraced the presidential system of government without any critical evaluation of its financial imperatives, made worse by its prebendal politics. Two senators, for instance, represent each state in the United States – where Nigeria copied the system – whereas there are three senators per state here. Little wonder that Rochas Okorocha hit the bull’s eye recently on the floor of the senate when he decried the huge demand on the economy by many legislative representations.
Whether in Italy or elsewhere, the imprimatur of the government in power is evident in such constitutional reform. Citizens, therefore, must pressure the All Progressives Congress and President Muhammadu Buhari to reduce waste in governance, which they promised. Accordingly, now is the time for the political restructuring the party flaunted in 2015, epitomised in the devolution of powers – state police, more revenues to states, scrapping of local councils as tiers of government in a federation, among others, to be implemented. Lack of political will to do so is a betrayal no enlightened electorate should brook.


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