From N17bn loaded into the national budget during the Goodluck Jonathan era, the National Assembly has now ‘advanced’ such loadings to N578bn in the 2018 national budget – more than enough to generate nightmares for citizens who naively thought that the change mantra will rub off positively onlegislooters.
Former Finance Minister and Coordinator of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, tried to make light of the serious matter of corrosive and corruptive budget padding in the national legislature when she came to the lawmakers’ defence following allegations that her book spanked them for ‘importing’ extra-budgetary items worth over N17bn into the 2015 documents before it was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan. In fact, Okonjo-Iweala’s book, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines accuses the federal legislators of being a bunch of selfish individuals whose main concern is how to grab as much as they can from the national till. Describing their modus operandi, at least under Jonathan, the renowned World Bank chief says they appropriate needless powers to themselves on the shape, form, size and details of the budget such that they have become a major clog to the Executive’s bid to implement a workable budget.
Specifically, she points out that: “The legislature was concerned largely about three things—the size of its own budget; the nature and the size of the capital budget, particularly investment projects; and the number and geographical location of the projects. Senators and Representatives felt that their role as appropriators of the budget was not just to vet and approve budget parameters and oversee budget implementation, but also to shape the size and content of the budgets, including details of specific projects.”
The same National Assembly, through its various committees, she notes, “sought to add more to individual projects or create completely new, un-appropriated major projects, thereby distorting the budget”, while they rebuffed all entreaties by the executive to trim down on their huge budgetary allocations in line with economic realities of that period, which happened to be an election year. Instead, through a flurry of disguised, sometimes brazen, arm-twisting and blackmail, the executive had to overlook a N17bn input into that year’s budget so that the ruckus that precedes every budget signing ceremony can be avoided. Although Iweala would, in a rejoinder to what she described as ‘lies’, refute the N17bn as bribe but merely an increment that the government “accepted in order to move on”, it does not preclude the fact that what happened was budget padding in its raw form. It is an illegality that has been sustained over the years—a recurring malaise that has plagued Nigeria’s appropriation policy since May 29, 1999 when this democratic experiment started.
And with what happened on Wednesday during the 2018 Budget signing ceremony at the Presidential Villa, it is obvious that Okonjo-Iweala’s admonition and subtle plea to the legislators to display the highest degree of patriotism and commitment in discharging their responsibilities especially on appropriation has fallen on deaf ears. She may have to wait a bit longer before her dream of seeing a change in our warped culture of pumping up budgets for personal gains as it was manifestly clear that the few good eggs among the lot have not been able to stop the rot. Where one had thought that the book would appeal to the sensibilities of the lawmakers to “clear up and clarify the budget process for the future to improve”, it turned out that President Muhammadu Buhari had to reluctantly append his signature to that bulk of convoluted documents with one arm tied to the blackmail stake and with a loaded gun pointed at his head in an election year. And so, as it was with Jonathan, so it is with Buhari.
It is my belief that the lawmakers were up to some mischief in latching on to the constitutional provision that empowers them to appropriate funds to the executive’s budgetary items. Clearly, they misread that to mean that they can carry out a complete turnaround of the budget and simply force the executive to implement on the pretext that they represent a particular section of the electorate. It is high time we told them that, in a constitutional democracy such as ours, the legislature is not an alternate government. They should stop the posturing. That is where our problem of perennial budget brouhaha lies. Personally, I consider it jejune, irreverent and tendentious argument for the National Assembly to insist that the significant change noticed in the form, size and figures of the document signed by Buhari was informed by their desire to “balance in the six geo-political zones” and inculcate projects that are relevant to the needs of the people. They just don’t get it. That is not how these things should work. It is a crude way of arm-twisting and blackmailing the executive which has a short span within which the budget can be implemented to a reasonable level before the elections.
By the way, it is to our collective shame that, yearly, we normally come to this sorry pass where the executive would reluctantly sign a budget with one hand and submit a supplementary budget with the other hand to the National Assembly shortly after going through the ritual of smiling for the cameras. The 2018 budget is not in any way different from the same rites of passage in the past even if Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah was quoted as saying that Buhari has no option than “implement it to the letter.” How, if I may ask, is that going to be possible with the kind of criminal alterations the President listed as being perpetrated by the lawmakers in his pre-budget signing speech?
You ask: in what way has the 8th National Assembly distinguished itself from the one described by Okonjo-Iweala? The answer is none. It is as simple as that. If the ex-minister was making so much fuss over a-N17bn illegal injection, what would she say about this horde of ‘people-friendly’ lawmakers who just topped their annual appropriation with extra N14.5bn? What would be her reaction when she gets to know that, in one fell swoop, the Federal Government estimates for 4700 projects were cut by over N347bn while, in its place, the National Assembly injected fresh 6403 projects worth N578bn? This is the budgetary documents that they are insisting that the executive must implement ‘to the letter.”
Let’s interrogate the legislative interventions to see if we can justify the argument that it was meant to address the aspirations and yearnings of the masses who are always the victims of the laughable governance structures here. While drastically reducing estimated figures in vital projects like the Mambilla Power Plant, Second Niger Bridge, East/West Road, Lagos/Ibadan Expressway, the United Nations Building in Abuja, Rail projects and the Construction of the Enugu Airport, the National Assembly would rather deploy the smuggled N578bn in funding ‘laudable projects’ like the supply of industrial sewing machines including the supply of tricycles/motorcycles for youths and women. Amazingly, these wise men in the hallowed chambers believe that buying grinding machines and supplying Volkswagen Golf cars for youth empowerment are more germane to national growth than the projects listed by the executive. Others, according to reports, include building of culverts and drainages in some communities, provision of entrepreneurship training for some youths, upgrading of pathways and driveways, construction of VIP toilets in designated primary schools and purchase of motorcycles for extension work. Maybe we should just scrap all the federal agencies and cede their responsibilities to these distinguished and honourable lawmakers!
In her rejoinder, Okonjo-Iweala said ‘lies obscure the country’s problems and do not allow us to improve.” I concur. But lies, in this context, refer to the hilarity and cynical ingenuity which the National Assembly employed to pad up the budget to the dizzying figure of N578bn. It makes one to puke! From past experience, such funds often find their ways into the pockets of the lawmakers in connivance some persons in Ministries, Departments and Agencies. The former Chairman of the Finance Committee of the House of Representatives, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin, said this much in his well-documented outcry on how the National Assembly leadership corrodes the budget with projects that are mainly for self-aggrandizement. Quite unfortunately, the list for the 6403 projects that was exposed by Buhari looks like a rehash of Jibrin’s expose which fetched him a long suspension to leak his wound. For now, it is like the raid on the national till via this arm-twisting module has come to stay. Or has it not?