….Special Adviser on Media to Hon. Speaker

It started like a little fire, one that a cup of water could put out but thirty days down the road, it is still raging. For politicians’ especially federal lawmakers, it is not a strange fire but to Nigerians, it is something to worry about. It is a political fire, they say, but the misrepresentations are strange.

For while we were yet asleep and drunk on the euphoria of a progressing democracy, some men were working round the clock to cage the House of Representatives leadership.

While we were celebrating the inauguration of Nigeria ’s first female speaker, these men perfected plans for her replacement and the installation of another set of leaders for the House of Representatives. For these ambitious men, it is not about making international statement that Nigeria succeeded in swearing in a Female Speaker seven months after America did the same in November last year.

It does not matter that it took America two centuries and a couple of decades to do what Nigeria did in less within than a decade of steady democracy and less than half a century as a sovereign state. It is not even about lawmaking and how to better the lot of Nigerians and how to enhance democratic practice. Jide Ajani of the Vanguard Newspapers described it most succinctly. It is about the verb ‘to eat’.

Oh yes, the fire this time is about the constitution of the House Committees. A lot of work, arguments, sleepless nights and tension-soaked days went into the composition of those committees. I saw a lot at close quarters. I saw a lot of lobbying. I saw palpable pressure and at a point the House leaders had to relocate out of their residences to avoid the pressure and ensure they did a good job.

But there really is no way you can share 72 committees among 359 members without stepping on toes. The Speaker, Hon Patricia Olubunmi Etteh and her men did their best, tried to maintain a balance between the old and new members. But how do you divide 359 by 72 without ruffling feathers?

As the House leaders have since discovered, there is a powerful group in the Lower Chambers whose words have been law since 1999. They don’t take kindly to being told to Chair such lowly committees as education, culture and tourism.Theirs by right are the juicy committees like Niger Delta Development Committee, Gas and Appropriation.

But Etteh and her men decided fair was fair. The new members did not come to sell popcorn and groundnut and doesn’t Nigeria belong to all of us? So they attempted to be just to all. And they ran headlong into trouble with this powerful group.

As soon as Madam Speaker left for the Conference of Parliamentarians association (CPA) meeting in South Africa , some people started meeting and while she was abroad to rest and do an overdue medical check-up in America , they seized the media and went on to have multiple orgasms on the pages of newspapers. And do they know what to do with the media and how to play to the gallery? What they know is impossible on the floors of the House, they took to the theatre of the absurd.

They vilified Madam Speaker, the same woman they eulogized to high heavens in June. The same man who went across religion, region, party and gender lines to nominate Patricia Olubunmi Etteh as Speaker on June is championing her removal less than 90days after the historical event. Curious on his list of choice of committees he filled Appropriation as first, second and third choice. It was Appropriation or nothing. But there was no way they could explain to Nigerians that the education sector is less deserving of attention than ‘appropriation’ or Gas. What to do? They hit town with stories of how Madam Speaker awarded contract for the renovation of her official residence and her deputy’s.

She was also supposed to have bought 10 jeeps, all for a whopping N628m. Ah, every learned person who knows the workings of the National Assembly knows that the Speaker does not award contracts. The National Assembly Management has said that DUE PROCESS WAS FOLLOWED AT EVERY POINT. Alhaji Nasir Arab, the Clerk of the National Assembly, has said both at a press conference on September 2 and while testifying before the Probe Panel that financial regulation of the Federation was followed. He also said that the meeting of the Body of Principal Officers that held on July 12 was not different from what had happened in the past. 

The Director of Legal Services said Due process was followed. The Director of Finance said funds for the project was provided.

However with strangely and curiously misleading stories still doing the rounds, it has become pertinent to explain things so that those whose balloons are steadily losing air can be put where they belong.

As at today only N59.7m which is 25% of the N238million has so far been paid. This payment was also backed by a bank bond and the cheque was released in the third week of August two weeks after the Speaker left the country. This fact was widely advertised in the National Assembly advertorial on this issue. In addition none of the Jeeps for principal officers have been paid for or supplied to date.

The Speaker elected to stay in her private residence and also directed the Deputy Speaker to do same thereby saving the nation over N237.6 million as at 17th September, 2007, at about N2.284 million a day (for 102 days) which would have been paid as hotel bills for both presiding officers and their aides alone, excluding guests and entertainment. The hotel accommodation is an entitlement due to her while the Apo residence was being renovated. In addition, neither the Speaker nor the Deputy Speaker collected any amount in lieu of hotel accommodation.

To emphasize the enormity of the upgrading of the facilities in the Speaker’s residence and the peculiar nature of handling such jobs, the main mansion (only) of the Senate President’s complex (which is similar in size to the Speaker’s) was renovated in 2005 for N400million but the payment was only budgeted for in the 2006 Appropriation Act, one year after the job was executed, without the contract ever being advertised.

On like-for-like basis, the upgrading of the entire complex of the Speaker’s official residence in 2007 cost N162 million less than what that of Senate President’s mansion alone cost in 2005.

The Clerk to the National Assembly and not the Speaker is the Chief Accounting and Administrative Officer of the National Assembly. All documents bordering on contract and payments are prepared by the management led by the Clerk.

The Tender’s Board was as statutorily composed and the political leadership were only called upon to deliberate on what has been prepared by the professional bureaucrats. There was quorum before the meeting commenced and the chair and membership is as stipulated by government regulations. Award of contracts is the function of management and the tender’s board not that of the legislature.

Tendering was done by the bureaucracy and at the meeting the Speaker sought to know if due process was followed to which they replied in the affirmative.

Document for the tender were vetted by the relevant department and an in-house bill of quantities must have been prepared by them.

The official residence is a security building where access must be controlled and such repair could not have been given to open tender otherwise the security of the premises would be compromised. Imagine 30 contractors bidding and having unlimited access to a secure site where only one of them would win the contract.

There were six separate contracts considered and awarded for N579 million by the Tender’s Board. These contracts include renovation/upgrade of the official residences of the Speaker & the Deputy Speaker, furnishing of the residences, purchase of vehicles for the Deputy Speaker and 8 principal officers as stipulated by the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Allocation Commission. The Speaker did not award any contract by herself.

The clerk controls the vote and organization of the House finances and only advises the Speaker. The building in question does not belong to Hon Patricia Olubunmi Etteh but to the State. It is the official residence of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Responsibility for maintenance of the residence is that of government agencies- FCDA or National Assembly.

In older parliaments the presiding officer’s residence is usually within the parliament complex. Even in Nigeria , the President’s office and residence is within the Villa, whilst residence of the Chief Justice is directly opposite the Supreme Court. It is a result of several years of military rule that underdeveloped the legislature such that the official residences of presiding officers are about 20km from their offices.

The Speaker’s official residence is not just a building but a complex of 8 separate buildings where the main mansion alone has 10bedrooms and 7 sitting rooms.

The structures and facilities in the building have always been considered inadequate when compared with those of equivalent officials of other parliaments even in Africa . For instance it has not been possible to host any dinner for visiting Heads of Parliament inside the residence. This contrary to usual practice even within the continent. Functionally, the residence was just like a big private house rather than a state residence.

The foregoing necessitated the upgrade and it was for a similar reason that the banquet hall attached to the Villa was built because there was no facility within to host state dinners as it is the case in other countries.

Thus the scope of work was borne out of need and national image, and at the behest of the National Assembly and not the Speaker. The Speaker is not expected to know the details of contracts, specifications of work or pricing of items. The Speaker’s interest in this whole issue is that her official residence be made ready for occupation as quickly as possible so that she can move out of her private residence where security is not adequate and neighborhood facilities are ready being overstretched due to heavy traffic of visitors.

The contracts also include that of the supply of vehicles of principal officers as recommended by Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission.

There have been reports that the Clerk or NASS management have disowned the Speaker. How does Alhaji Arab’s admission that the management may have made a few mistakes but actually didn’t do anything new or unusual translate to denying the speaker?

When the NASS management said two weeks ago that, THE TOTAL COST OF COMPREHENSIVE UPGRADE OF THE CLUSTER OF STRUCTURES AT THE HONOURABLE SPEAKER’S RESIDENCE IS N187,478,279M AND NOT N628M AS IS BEING BANDIED AROUND, I thought the figures in headlines will start reflecting it but the figure remains N628m. If N59.7m only has been disbursed on this contract, why are Nigerians being told that the Speaker took taxpayers money? The Speaker’s Residence has a cluster of eight structures. It is not one building.

Other Speakers in other countries can host head of delegations of Conference of Parliamentarians in their Residences but in Nigeria , huge sums are spent to rent space in five-star hotels each time the Speaker has to host a dinner of more than 20 people. Is it not just cost effective to upgrade the house once and for all? Why are we making it sound like the Speaker will take this National Asset to Ikire after her tenure?

If those in charge of the maintenance of National Assembly Complex have admitted openly that THE SCOPE OF WORK BEING CARRIED OUT IN THESE RESIDENCES IS PROVIDED FOR IN THE 2007 APPROPRIATION ACT, why are Nigerians being told that Nigerians have been shortchanged?

On September7, this woman who is supposed to have bought 10 jeeps was stranded at the National Assembly after sitting because the last of the cars she inherited from her predecessor broke down. She had to be ferried home in Honourable Ndudi Elumelu’s car. Nigeria’s Number 4 citizen is ‘carless’ and ‘houseless’ but she is being vilified because a few men and women did not get what they have come to see as their birthright.

It is not Etteh who is on trial. We all are on trial. The honour of Honourable members is on the line. If the House cabal can remove a Speaker because she took their toy or cake, then this democracy has let us all down or we all have let democracy down.

• Funke Egbemode`
Special Adviser (Media) to the Hon. Speaker

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