EDITORIAL: Reforming the Corruption-ridden National Assembly Budgetary Process
On July 20, Speaker Yakubu Dogara announced the removal of the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin. Initially, it appeared to have been a non event because there is a long tradition of appointing and removing committee chairs in response to in-house politicking.
This one turned out to be different. It opened the floodgates to major revelations about the inner workings and mega corruption within the National Assembly. That bastion of secrecy that has hidden the remunerations of its members from citizens who have every right to know was finally breached from within. The day after his removal, Mr. Jibrin, in his opening salvo, announced that his removal was linked to a culture of corruption and that Speaker Dogara had padded the controversial 2016 budget with 30 billion naira. Thereafter, ‘padding’ became an important element in Nigeria’s political lexicon.
Mr. Jibrin sought to take the moral high ground, claiming that he had disagreements with his colleagues in the leadership of the House because he was opposed to immunity for legislators and was an advocate for cleaning up the system of corrupt budget-making practiced by his other colleagues in the leadership.
PREMIUM TIMES, however, believes that there is no way Mr. Jibrin can extricate himself from the acts of commission and omission by his former close friends and collaborators in the House leadership but if the friction between them is leading to major revelations about mega corruption, then our investigative and prosecutorial agencies must jump on these revelations themselves and use the opportunity to sanction the guilty and bring the culture of good governance into the management of the National Assembly.
Mr. Jibrin claims that Speaker Dogara, Deputy Speaker Lasun, Chief Whip Doguwa and minority Leader Leo Ogor have been presiding over a process of large-scale illegal actions and do not have the moral uprightness to lead a body as important as the House of Representatives.
He claims that these principal officers of the House allocated to themselves alone 40 billion out of the 100 billion naira granted to the entire National Assembly. He argued that his removal from office was not unconnected with his refusal to accept an additional 30 billion naira personal requests from Mr. Speaker and the three other principal officers.
All of these officers have denied Mr. Jibrin’s accusations and they insist that they have done nothing wrong. They added that the allegations were fabrications, lies, and mere afterthought manufactured simply because the House relieved him of his position. His removal, they claimed, was based on sundry acts of misconduct, incompetence, immaturity, total disregard for his colleagues and abuse of the budgetary process, among others.
In their response, they also say that he was in the habit of collating, warehousing and manipulating sensitive information to blackmail people, sometimes apparently for pecuniary purposes. And by virtue of his position as Appropriations Chairman, he usually met with very high and senior public officers at all levels. One clear example they gave is the insertion of funds for the so-called Muhammadu Buhari Film Village in his Constituency in Kano without the consent or solicitation of Mr. President.
It appears clear therefore that all five of them have a collective history of engagement in illegalities and corruption. As is well known in police circles, when thieves are fighting, it becomes easy for law enforcement agencies to find out details of how their crimes were committed. There have been many instances of revelations of wrong doing in the National Assembly and we all remember the “Ghana must go” bags of bribes for the National Assembly displaced on the podium during the Obasanjo Administration. For the first time in the Fourth Republic, however, we now have significant evidence of systemic in-house corruption revealed in the public arena.
All the allegations made on both sides are serious and grave and cannot be allowed to go without comprehensive investigations. The ethical conduct of legislators is the foundation of democracy. The revelations have already placed on the public agenda widespread belief that legislators are corrupt, selfish, self-serving and above all, have no record of acting in the public good.
Today, the general belief is that there must be a review of the laws that govern the funding of the National Assembly to vest more power in the accountant general and the auditor general of the federation to monitor financial flow to the lawmakers in order to make it even more difficult for the them to access money from public coffers.
PREMIUM TIMES is concerned with process issues emanating from the revelations. First, there appears to have evolved a process in budget making in which about 20 percent of yearly budgets are “allocated” to the National Assembly for “sharing”. This is in total contradiction with the principle of zero budgeting whereby estimates are based on real expenses rather than “envelopes” that are allocated and shared. The allegations from Mr. Jibrin that the leadership of the National Assembly have been allocating billions of naira to themselves, as illegal allowances, must be addressed. Legislators must be constrained to legal remunerations alone.
The most disturbing revelation is that after committees have processed and submitted final estimates and the National Assembly has approved same, a cabal sits down after the legal process and “re-allocates” a lot of the estimates, mainly to themselves. This is criminal behaviour that erodes all legitimacy and credibility from the budget.
The revelations have also drawn attention to the growing trend in which legislators have crossed the red line between law making and law execution by choosing contractors to execute the projects they have inserted into the budget. Our laws are clear that it is the prerogative of the relevant ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to design, award and supervise projects and contracts. This practice of dabbling into contract allocation and execution has been on-going during in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and now eight Assemblies. This must stop.
The powers of the National Assembly on appropriation are clearly spelt out in Sections 4, 59 and 80 (4) of the 1999 Constitution. Section 4, empowers the National Assembly to make laws for good governance of the federation, while Section 59 confers on the Legislature the final say on the budget. Section 80 (4), on the other hand, which appears to confer on the legislature absolute power of control over public funds, states that: “No money shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or any other public fund of the Federation, EXCEPT IN THE MANNER PRESCRIBED BY THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY”. The word “MANNER” confers absolute legislative discretion on the parliament. The interpretation of the National Assembly is that they have absolute powers to do whatever they want with the budget. They are absolutely wrong.
The Constitution in Section 81.(I) gives the Executive the power to make and submit budget estimates to the National Assembly. This is because the MDAs have the experts and the cumulative knowledge to complete existing projects and design and propose new ones. What has been happening is that the National Assembly has been trespassing on the powers of the Executive of making budget estimates; they must stop. They can finalise estimates submitted to them but they cannot design and insert projects.
Mr. Jibrin himself has been accused of designing and inserting numerous road projects in his constituency into the budget. This type of illegal behaviour has created anarchy in the budgetary system and, above all, made nonsense of all accountability mechanisms, as people without expertise or mandate determine appropriation. The return of good governance would require serious investigations into the illegal acts outlined above. Even more important is the clarification of the budget making process so that each institution remains within its area of constitution competence.