What could you do with a Christmas bonus of N2 million? The response is faster if you are a Nigerian senator: not much.
In fact, some senators have described the amount — which is only a fraction of a regular stream of benefits accrued to them — as “a mere drop” in the vast ocean of their Yuletide expenses. Others threatened to cause the Senate leadership “some headache” upon resumption from their Christmas-New Year recess later this month.
“It was not enough to meet our Christmas needs,” one senator said. “In fact, some of us are already coming together to formally complain to our president.”
The lawmakers received the N2 million on December 18 from the Senate overhead and operations account, according to bank transaction alerts of two senators seen by PREMIUM TIMES.
The purpose of the transaction was not attached to the payments, but lawmakers had been told a few days earlier to expect the funds as their Christmas allowances, according to three senators who briefed PREMIUM TIMES on it. The senators spoke under anonymity as of the time they interacted with PREMIUM TIMES to avoid a potential backlash from their colleagues, but one of them said they may eventually go public with their complaints if their anger boils over.
“They said we should use the money to take care of our families and constituents,” one senator said. “I was just standing there without knowing what to say for many minutes.”
The senator decried “the failure” of Senate President Ahmed Lawan to understand the scale of responsibility that usually confronts them whenever they visit their constituency.
“There are many local government areas under my district,” the senator said. “How do I tell them that I only came back home with N2 million?”
“Even when I am travelling for an event or just to visit my constituency, I usually hold at least N50 million,” the senator added.
Another senator said lawmakers usually received far larger amount in Christmas allowances, wondering why the current assembly that has maintained a cordial relationship with the executive now finds itself receiving much less.
“We have been struggling in poverty since we came on board months ago,” the senator said. “I asked my distinguished colleagues why we have to be the one suffering the excesses of past assemblies.”
“We have given this administration every support and people on social media are angry and calling us a rubber stamp Senate,” the senator said.
“We have started gathering ourselves and we will make our position known to the leadership,” the senator said. “Otherwise, we may not have a choice left but to publicly call out the leadership and give them some headache when we resume plenary.”
Two former senators who served in seventh and eight assemblies told PREMIUM TIMES they received Christmas allowances well over N2 million, but could not recall the specifics.
“We received allowances for Christmas and Sallah holidays during our time in the Seventh Assembly,” a former senator from Ogun State said. “I am struggling to remember how much we received then, but I am very sure each one was far more than N2 million.”
The second former senator confirmed that he received more than N2 million in Christmas bonus, but warned that members of the current assembly should concentrate on their activities rather than complaining over payment.
“The N2 million may look small,” the senator said. “But I will advise them to remember the millions of Nigerians who cannot even earn a fraction of that amount throughout the year.”
The former senators insisted on speaking off the background to avoid offending their serving senators, many of whom they identified as friends and political associates.
While the senators were unable to categorically say how much they should have gotten as Christmas bonus, they expressed deep suspicion that the share of each member of the 109 body was more than N2 million.
“I have been struggling to reconcile the amount we received as National Assembly budget with the small-small stipends we have been getting from the leadership,” one senator said. “Unlike the Senate President, we are not entitled to many official benefits like private jets and free fuel for our vehicles.”
The National Assembly received N125 billion in 2019. Although down considerably from the N140 billion it received the previous year, many Nigerians were still highly critical of government’s priority in allocating such a vast amount to 469 people in a population hovering around 200 million. About 90 million Nigerians still languish in abject poverty, per official estimates.
Their appropriated budget aside, lawmakers are also seen as the primary beneficiaries of the so-called constituency intervention projects whose allocation usually suppasses N100 billion per year. Although the projects are implemented by federal agencies, lawmakers are often accorded sufficient deference in choosing contractors.
The opaque atmosphere under which contractors are nominated for constituency projectects allows lawmakers to push their own fronts who would then channel a large chunk of released project funds back to them — all done under the radar with little or difficult-to-prove paper trail.
But the lawmakers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES about the N2 million Christmas bonus said the Nigerian parliament had seen better days.
“Senators in the past left office as billionaires,” one senator said. “But things are no longer the way they used to be.”
Another senator said the growing awareness of their expenses by everyday Nigerians and civic groups has made it difficult to spend without any sense of accountability.
“It is becoming more and more difficult by every passing assembly,” the senator said. “I predict fewer people would be interested in this office in the next few years.”
As of 2018, senators were drawing N13.5 million per month in controversial running cost, amongst a slew of other consistent allowances known and unknown to the public.
‘Shameful sense of entitlement’
Ola Awoniyi, a spokesperson for the Senate President, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not aware of the complaints and could not immediately speak on whether or not his principal was aware either. Godiya Akwashiki, the chief spokesperson for the Senate, did not return calls and messages seeking comments about the grumbling senators.
While requesting for additional pay may not be inherently objectionable under labour principles, the manner with which the senators are going about their complaints could cast them as shamefully entitled, a political analyst said.
“It strikes me as a shameful sense of entitlement for senators to be complaining of receiving N2 million at a time of economic woes for the country,” Tola Adekoya, a former university lecturer, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Adekoya said it was provocative that senators would be complaining about N2 million when a vast majority of the population could barely feed.
“This is something that you hear and your brain would respond like it was hit with a hammer,” he said. “Do they have any idea how many Nigerians cannot even feed themselves for once per day?”
“They are out of touch,” he said. “Let us hope they desist from disrupting the activities of the Senate because of their selfish interest.”
Yet, Mr Adekoya said the Senate leadership should look into the complaints of the lawmakers in order to avoid undue drama that could slow down the progress of critical national assignments.
“They were elected to work for our collective interest,” the analyst said. “Efforts should be made to minimise complaints that they could use to sabotage the larger interest of Nigerians.”