National Assembly and the President: Please Start Fighting, By Jibrin Ibrahim
We got to know all these details about the budget process because the presidency and the legislature were fighting and releasing information. Now that the fighting has ended, we know much less about what is going on… Nigerians are therefore wondering whether the Ninth legislature is about collusion. My expectation was that if indeed there is cooperation, it should be conducted in a manner that would promote good governance, not cover up and collusion.
On Tuesday, the president signed the budget, signalling a new phase in his relationship with the National Assembly – no more bickering. This should indeed be the standard relationship and I recall that throughout the four years of President Buhari’s first term, I pleaded for a more harmonious relationship between the two arms of government. It never happened. Too many issues that could have contributed positively to national development were blocked for the four years. This time, virtually all requests and Bills from the president have received quick and favourable responses from the National Assembly. My worry is that the relationship might be too cosy and the National Assembly could begin to act like the State Assemblies. If that were to happen, their capacity to contribute positively to national development would be even more diminished than it currently is.
Reading the headlines in yesterday’s newspapers, I was struck by the Daily Trust‘s “Uproar over N37 billion National Assembly Renovation Cost”, which focused on how Nigerians were shocked that such a huge amount has been allocated to the renovation of the National Assembly buildings and how the president did not even scream at the excessive cost. In an earlier epoch, the president would have complained bitterly about how this was a waste of public resources. I am aware that the Senate president has explained that there has been no major renovation since the buildings were constructed twenty years ago and that the whole place is dilapidated. There must be something wrong with me, as I was there recently and I was thinking, maybe in my ignorance, that they must have been investing significant amounts in maintaining the place, because there did not seem to be visible signs of dilapidation anywhere around the structures. The shock for people was that the edifice was constructed in 1999 at a cost of just N10 billion. So, how come mere renovation is costing a massive N37 billion?!
For this budget, there was no crisis over constituency funds or padding and if there was, I must have missed it. I do recall that the president complained bitterly that so far, N1 trillion has been wasted on so-called constituency projects by legislators and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) has been investigating the massive corruption associated with the projects. I was, therefore, expecting that the executive would challenge the funds provided for this in the budget but all I saw were smiles and patting on backs. Has the battle over who writes the budget ended? And, if so, who is the beneficiary?
The culture that has developed in the National Assembly is that legislators have been putting projects into the budget that have not been designed, surveyed and costed, and are simply meaningless figures, because pet projects that have not been processed are simply not real projects.
Throughout the Eighth National Assembly, legislators had re-written the budgets, not to improve but to privatise them by infusing those appropriation bills with thousands of personal projects, through which they planned to make money corruptly to enrich themselves. In so doing, they essentially debased the budgets by imposing on them the logic of self-serving primitive accumulation that has characterised much of Nigeria’s legislative actions. While signing the 2018 budget, the president drew attention to the following: That the National Assembly made cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own, amounting to N578 billion. The president argued that many of the projects cut were critical and may be difficult, if not impossible, to implement with the reduced allocations. In the 2017 budget, the National Assembly inserted 1,170 new projects in the budget of the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. They increased the budget from N364.2 billion to N586.6 billion. In massacring the budget of the Ministry, they simply removed monies allocated to key national projects, such as the Abuja-Lokoja dual carriageway, the Second Niger Bridge, the Mambila and Zungeru Hydropower projects and the Katsina Wind Farm Energy project. They then replaced these key national projects with thousands of petty projects, mainly in their constituencies. Essentially, the National Assembly then turned budgets into completely incoherent sets of monetary allocations designed to boost the egos of legislators and swell their bank accounts.
The culture that has developed in the National Assembly is that legislators have been putting projects into the budget that have not been designed, surveyed and costed, and are simply meaningless figures, because pet projects that have not been processed are simply not real projects. This process embarked upon by legislators just turn budgets into instruments for destroying good governance due to the fact that monies are allocated to “non-projects.” It is in this context that some legislators go behind and collect monies they have inserted into the budgets for what everybody knows are non-projects. The question before President Buhari has been what strategies he could deploy to resist this type of legislative rascality.
Returning to the 2018 budget, there was a big fight over the document because many nationally/regionally strategic infrastructure projects, such as counterpart funding for the Mambila Power Plant, the Second Niger Bridge/ancillary roads, the East-West Road, Bonny-Bodo Road, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and Itakpe-Ajaokuta Rail Project, had their funds cut by an aggregate of N11.5 billion from the allocations. Similarly, provisions for some ongoing critical infrastructure projects in the FCT, Abuja, especially major arterial roads and the mass transit rail project, were cut by a total of N7.5 billion.
From the Fourth to the Eighth national legislatures, there was a contest over who has the ultimate responsibility for finalising the budget, with the legislators saying they have the right and they were right. However, the problem is that there is a budget process and legislators cannot just do what they like because they have the power.
All these projects were replaced by personal pet projects. Virtually every legislator added pet projects to build roads in their constituencies. It is madness to build roads in your village that are not in any way linked to the national grid, because it means you are not improving transport infrastructure but simply engaged in ego trips that do nothing to improve the movement of goods and services. It is shameful that the National Assembly increased its own budget by N14.5 billion, from N125 billion to N139.5 billion. Clearly, their concern was to increase their elections war chest budgets, rather than the development of the country. In spite of all these anomalies, the president signed the budget because, in essence, the National Assembly has established its “right” to mess up the appropriation document as they please.
We got to know all these details about the budget process because the presidency and the legislature were fighting and releasing information. Now that the fighting has ended, we know much less about what is going on. In the campaign for the current leadership of the National Assembly, the presidency came out strongly in support of Ahmad Lawan, who had the campaign promise of cooperation, and against Ali Ndume, whose campaign manifesto emphasised independence of the legislature. The same thing happened at the level of the House of Representatives. Nigerians are therefore wondering whether the Ninth legislature is about collusion. My expectation was that if indeed there is cooperation, it should be conducted in a manner that would promote good governance, not cover up and collusion.
From the Fourth to the Eighth national legislatures, there was a contest over who has the ultimate responsibility for finalising the budget, with the legislators saying they have the right and they were right. However, the problem is that there is a budget process and legislators cannot just do what they like because they have the power. There are foundational principles and budgets are supposed to have their origins in the party manifestos and programmes of the ruling party. The issues proposed are then processed into three-year plans designed to achieve set objectives that have been defined by the government. Based on these plans, ministries, departments and agencies then develop multi-year projects that are then processed through architectural, engineering, ecological etc designs and surveys, as well as costing. These are then broken into annual budget estimates. When legislators disregard all the preparatory work that has been done and then insert pet projects, they are destroying the national plan of their own government. Even more serious is the fact that they are putting projects into the budget that have not been designed, surveyed and costed and are just figures that are meaningless, because pet projects that have not been processed are simply not real projects. It would be great to know where the conversation is on this process between the executive and the Ninth National Assembly. What issues about the culture of our budgeting are being addressed and how? There is currently a Bill before the federal legislature proposing the establishment of a Constituency Development Fund to which 2.5 per cent of the national budget would be allocated. What is the attitude of the president to the Bill?