Tuesday 17 November 2015

Senate Probes: Between Duty and Hysteria

National Assembly
by: Eniola Bello

Since Nigeria embarked on the present democratic experiment in 1999, the National Assembly has always been quick to resort to probes of government ministries, departments and agencies at the drop of a hat. Indeed, in the exercise of its oversight functions, the National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to direct any of its standing committees to probe any institution or activity of government. 

The problem, however, is that more often than not, it is difficult to draw a line between the genuine probe set up to expose fraud and malfeasance and the not-so-genuine one deployed to fight political battles or used as a weapon of extortion. We haven’t forgotten, for instance, the subsidy probe in the House of Representatives that was marred by a $3million bribery scandal involving Messrs. Farouk Lawan and Adams Jagaban. There have been so many other probes that have, like the subsidy probe, achieved nothing more than raise national hysteria. Nonetheless, our House members and senators have, in the last 16 years, somehow managed to pay more attention to their oversight functions than their primary duty of lawmaking.

Now the Senate decision last week to probe the processes of revenue collection into the Treasury Single Account (TSA) is a clear evidence, if any is still needed, why so many probes embarked upon by our lawmakers usually achieved very little outside of the initial media frenzy. The laziness and lack of rigor so easily evident in the preparation of the motion moved by Senator Dino Melaye, for the probe of the TSA collection, only showed how unserious the lawmakers take themselves and their legislative duties. The points on which the motion was presented could not pass the test of fidelity to facts. Let us examine the series of falsehoods the pegs of which Melaye anchored his motion.

The first falsehood, Melaye claimed that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) appointed a company, Remita, as the operations agent for the TSA. Not being a bank, Melaye argued, with every force and bravura he could muster, that “the activities of Remita is a gross violation of the BOFIA Act 2007…” Such an open display of crass ignorance should have been enough, in a Senate where members take themselves and their duty seriously, to shoot down the motion. For the fact is, Remita is not a company but the product of a company. It is a software application developed by SystemSpecs to capture all inflows, and an apps available, at a fee, to governments and companies and institutions and organizations that require it. The CBN signed the Remita Service Agreement with SystemSpecs because its own software arm, NIBSS (Nigeria Inter-bank Settlement System) has not been able to develop the apps required to operate the TSA. With the Remita apps, all the payments into the accounts of the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) in all the commercial banks are zerorised, that is picked up, at the end of every business day and electronically transferred to the TSA in CBN. Therefore calling Remita a company is as ignorant as calling Bournvita, a beverage product of Cadbury Nigeria Limited, a company. This point may appear minor. But it is an indication of how much work, or lack of it, Melaye expended on research while preparing for his motion. Where is the attention to details? Getting the fact is not such a difficult thing to do. It is as simple as pressing the buttons on a computer keyboard - Google search.

The second falsehood, Melaye authoritatively claimed that, “in the course of the operations of TSA, the federal government on the 15th of September, 2015 (one single day?) mopped up N2.5 trillion through its e-collection agent…” N2.5 trillion in one day? How outlandish! If N2.5 trillion could be “mopped up” into the TSA in one day, how much would be mopped up in one month or six months or one year? This Distinguished Senator from Kogi State did not have the circumspection to find the figure incredulous? It has since been made known the cumulative collection into the TSA is within the range of N1.5 trillion, out of which only about N1 trillion went through the Remita platform. And the said collection was not mopped up in one day but over the period the TSA became operational. For a senator of the Federal Republic, getting such information shouldn’t be rocket science. A simple phone call to the CBN governor should have done the trick.

The third falsehood, Melaye claimed the 1% fee due Remita (sic) from the “N2.5 trillion mopped up on the 15th September 2015 ALONE (my emphasis) amounted to N25 billion largesse…” To make that kind of money in one day? Again, an outrageous claim, even by the travesty that has become the Nigerian situation in the last few years. A man with a sense of proportion and balance ought to have questioned this figure and run a check with the institutions that should know. In any case the details of the 1% fee were not codified in official secrecy. The signing of the Remita Service Agreement was reported in the media sometime in December 2013, with details stating the 1% of all revenue collections shall be shared among Platform Owner/SystemSpecs 50%, Collecting Agents/DMBs 40% and Introducer/CBN 10%. A simple Google search could have availed Senator Melaye these facts.

The fourth falsehood, Melaye alleged that Remita (sic) was paid for doing nothing, thereby insinuating a fraudulent collusion between the e-collection agent and CBN officials. It took SystemSpecs more than four years to develop the Remita electronic platform. That would necessarily have required heavy investments in training, in equipment and in manpower. The NIBBS, a company incorporated in 1993 by the CBN, the banks and discount houses to promote electronic payments in Nigeria, has not been able to develop a software application for the operation of TSA. Therefore without the Remita apps, the government would not have been able to implement the TSA, except of course if it was going to outsource the service to a foreign firm. If Melaye could be paid for peddling falsehood on the floor of the Senate in the name of a motion, when not acting as a bodyguard to the wife of the Senate President, why should a company which has a unique service to render and legitimately won the bid to so do be denied payment for its services? Does Melaye not know that in a knowledge economy, you need not defraud government or any institution to make money?

Senator Melaye ought to be embarrassed by the evident lack of rigor that went into the preparation of his motion. As a constituent of Kogi West that he represents in the Senate and more particularly an indigene of the same community he comes from, I’m embarrassed for him. Melaye describes himself on his twitter page as a private investigator and democratic evangelist. I expect anybody with the discipline of the former to be thorough and painstaking in all his undertakings. And as an evangelist, even if for democracy, I commend to him Apostle Paul’s words to “shun profane and old wives’ fables.” I’m even more embarrassed for the Senate; it is difficult to understand how such a poorly prepared motion could be so easily passed. Who were the 35 co-sponsors of the motion? Were there no lawyers or bankers or journalists or computer analysts among them? What has happened to their residual knowledge? Don’t they read newspapers? How come none of them carried out a little research, some cross checking of the facts? What do they do with the bogus newspaper allowance and all other allowances they collect to employ aides and research assistants? How could what would amount to no more than beer-parlor rumor be allowed to pass as facts for a motion? Is it sheer laziness or carelessness? Or is the Senate working on a different agenda?

Is there any truth to some report that the Senate wanted the National Assembly accounts excluded from the TSA? Have some MDA chiefs, unhappy at the implementation of the TSA and their subsequent inability to run secret accounts, recruited some senators to kill the initiative? Or is it that some lawmakers, realizing that the TSA has brought a death knell to inflated MDA budgets for under-the-table deals, want the project slaughtered and buried even before it has properly been sired? Or is it about helping bank directors, who have been denied cheap government funds and hefty commissions they have taken for granted over the years? What exactly is the Senate agenda?
Senators ought to know that they need some degree of discipline and intellectual rigor to perform their duties effectively. I have had reason to argue on this page (Before the Ayes Have It…) that the title, “Distinguished” has a long history and comes with a weight of responsibility. Senators need to earn that nomenclature not simply by winning elections, but by effectively applying themselves to their duties. Banding falsehood in a motion is not the way to go.

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