On Tuesday, November 30, 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan approved the sale of the official residences of the presiding officers of the National Assembly. The Senate President, the Deputy Senate President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, have all been given leave to purchase their current living quarters, presidency sources told NEXT over the weekend.
The 2011 Appropriation Bill, which is yet to be brought to public notice, has already made N1.5 billion available for the construction of replacements for the yet-to-be sold properties.
Till date, the presiding officers of the Assembly have not enjoyed the monetisation policy put in place by President Olusegun Obasanjo which would have entitled them to reside in their private homes and thus receive accommodation allowances as other legislators do. Rather, the federal government provides official residences for the four officials. Human Rights lawyers however say that it is a contradiction for the federal government to allow presiding officers benefit from the old policy and in the same vein spend public funds to replace those houses.
“You cannot in a seeming fitful adherence to the monetisation policy at the same time approve money for the construction of new houses. It is contradictory and does not make sense. This is abuse of office,” Jiti Ogunye, a Lagos based human rights attorney said.
Some legislators, who are offended by Mr. Jonathan’s actions, believe that the president is trying to garner a more robust support base ahead of the 2011 Elections in the light of recent divisions in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), on whose platform, President Jonathan hopes to run.
Ima Niboro, the spokesman of the president however denied any knowledge of such an approval for the sale of these houses to the lawmakers.
“I cannot confirm. You may have to speak to the FCT minister,” Mr. Niboro said in a text message.
Further enquiries at the Federal Capital Territory Administration indicated that the officials are not aware of the current deal between the presidency and the lawmakers.
“The president is desperate. You know, there are so many things that he wants from them so they are taking advantage of the situation,” a legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity said to NEXT in Abuja.
Mr. Ogunye agrees with the legislator’s conclusions.
“Given the timing of the unholy gesture, I would be right to suggest that it is an attempt to curry support for the 2011 project. What is going on now is nothing but a grand abuse of office which to me is coming at the time when Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is interfacing with caucuses in the National Assembly and begging for their support for his attempt to govern the country again,” he said.
Building new houses
Last week, the minister of finance, Olusegun Aganga, met with committee chairs in the Senate during which time many believe he shared with them details of the 2011 Appropriation Bill. Although the bill is yet to be read on the floor of the Senate, a copy of the document obtained by NEXT shows that provisions have been made for the building of new living quarters for the principal officers of the National Assembly.
This document also carries the signatures of the chairs of the Committee on Appropriation in the Senate and the House of Representatives, Iyiola Omisore and Ayoade Ademola respectively.
The bill indicates that N1.5 billion is the budget for the:
“Design and Construction of National Assembly Presiding Officers Residence (Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker and Deputy Speaker House of Reps).” Spokespersons for the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives however vehemently denied any knowledge of the move by their principals to purchase the said properties.
“Not to my knowledge. It is not possible now. If it is sold, where will the next person [speaker] stay? Will he stay under the bridge or in a hotel? It is not possible,” Musa Ebomhiana, the chief press secretary to the speaker of the House of Representatives, said.
“I’m not aware about bidding. I’m not aware of any approval by President Jonathan. I’m not aware at all,” Kola Ologbodiyan, the spokesman of the Senate President said.
This is not the first time that public spending on the residences of the NASS officials has raised questions.
The first public uproar came in 2007 when the House of Representatives, under the leadership of Patricia Etteh, awarded contracts to the tune of N628 million for the renovation of her house and her deputy’s.
The controversy led to her resignation later in the year. In 2008, the federal government approved a total ofN200 million to be spent in renovating the residences. The officials only recently moved back into their official residencies after the massive renovations that were carried out.
Mr. Ogunye says that it is irresponsible of the government to keep making a fuss of the residences of the lawmakers.
“We are talking about a government that is not building roads. So what then is the case of perpetually renovating, building and selling of legislative quarters?” he said.
Just another largesse
Should the sale of the houses be made to the leaders of both chambers of the Assembly, it will be an extra largesse for them.
Mr. Mark, who became the Senate president in 2007, has been a Senator since 1999. He, alongside other serving legislators between 2003 and 2007, benefitted from the sale of the Apo legislative quarters, residence to the legislators. Same for Mr. Bankole who was also a member of the House of Representatives when the Apo quarter houses were sold to serving federal lawmakers. Mr. Bankole lived in his Apo quarters house until early this year when he moved to his official- now to be bought- residence.
“These national assembly leaders apart from owning houses in Apo quarters also own property in choice areas in Abuja. Why then would the President want to give them largesse now,” a visibly angry former lawmaker, who benefitted from the sale of the Apo quarters said.
Need to work together
The decision by President Jonathan to sell these houses to the presiding officers may also not be unconnected with the need for all of them to work together in order to benefit from the PDP zoning arrangement.
Except President Jonathan returns as President in 2011, there is hardly any chance that either of the four house leaders will remain in his position. As it currently stands, Mr. Jonathan is from the South South; the Vice President, Namadi Sambo is from the North West; Mr. Mark is from the North central; his deputy Ike Ekweremadu is from the South East; and Mr. Bankole is from the South West.
By implication, should the PDP ticket be secured by a northern aspirant, who may go ahead to win the general elections, both Mr. Mark and Mr. Bankole, if they return to the national assembly, may lose their leadership positions. While Mr. Mark has signified his intention to return to the senate, his House of Representatives counterpart is yet to declare if he will return to the house or contest for the Ogun State governorship election.
Both Eseme Eyiboh, the spokesman of the house of Representatives; and Ayogu Eze, the Senate spokesman declined to pick their calls or respond to text messages.