Constituency Projects: Legislators Manipulating Nigerians

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“The number of times the courts have held that the National Assembly cannot suspend their members and the fact that the latter continues to disobey the judgment seems to confirm the hypothesis that such suspensions are merely face-saving as well as a device to punish all members who divulge secrets from which the group hugely gains materially”.

BY TONNIE IREDIA

 

Federal legislators in Nigeria especially senators imagine that they are the smartest people in Africa, South of the Sahara and even North of the Equator. Perhaps they are actually smart considering the ease with which they get away with a legion of transparently repulsive allegations. Indeed, no one has been able to hold our senators down to the undesirable financial transactions that people know and see about them as a group. When analysts raised the alarm many years back that Nigerian legislators were the highest paid in the world, they published their basic salaries which were not excessive but successfully hid their several secret allowances from sundry sources. They allegedly got paid for ghost legislative aides but no one could prove it beyond reasonable doubt; just as they virtually hypnotised public officers from going public with their dirty oversight functions.

Today, this column seeks to admonish them to watch their backs because as the saying goes, ‘every day for the thief; one day for the owner of the house.’ Many people who have followed the incredible modus operandi of our lawmakers are busy convincing many others that our legislators are a distraction to Nigeria’s development and that the day of the owner of the house is quite near. It is therefore time for our lawmakers to play down on their lucrative but expensive hobby which some of their members quietly deprecate. In fact, we need no soothsayers to perceive the impending doom which their albatross – budget padding, may sooner than they expect unleash on some of them. A review of the nature of their handling of budget matters can easily confirm the point.

Although the ongoing controversies surrounding this year’s budget are quite curious, budgets for previous years were no less contentious. The only difference now is that the nation’s poor economy is thoroughly illuminating the trend of budget manipulations in Nigeria. There is hardly any year in which duplicated projects have not been exposed by professional analysts such as BudgIT- a foremost civic-tech organization engaged in the advocacy for fiscal transparency and public accountability in Nigeria. In 2021, there were reports of as many as 316 duplicated projects inserted into the budget by the National Assembly. In 2022, BudgIT reported 460 duplicated items amounting to N378.9 billion. When these reports are put beside the trending derogatory 2017 remarks on legislators by former President Olusegun Obasanjo one cannot but fear for the lawmakers.

If Obasanjo is known to be hostile to legislators, what of former President Muhammadu Buhari a supposed friend of the National Assembly who last year had to publicly condemn what he called “worrisome changes” to the budget by the lawmakers amounting to 6,576 new items not previously discussed behind closed doors by the two arms. The argument that legislators have a right to review a budget before approving it becomes puerile when the power to review is abused by distorting the document with new incoherent items in which several projects are inexplicably lumped into the budgets of agencies that have no responsibility for such projects. For example, the National Agency for Great green Wall set up to prevent land degradation and desertification afflicting parts of the country suddenly found within its budget, N1.3 billion for purchasing motorcycles, street lights and other projects outside its mandate.

If budgeting is not appropriately directed to its proper target, it can be assumed that such distortion is a veiled attempt to budget for nebulous items that would in the end be diverted to private pockets. What was the rationale for crediting as much as N67.8 million to the Ministry of Environment for the construction of Gun Armouries when the Ministry is not a security agency? Bearing in mind that such anomalies were discovered in the past, why in 2024, are there fresh reports on the repeated trend of budgeting for boreholes and solar panels (at forex rates) when such items are in essence not federal projects? Can such insertions be justified with the argument that legislators had during campaigns promised their constituents of bringing goodies back home? How sincere is a legislator who promises goodies outside law-making?

The recent allegations by Senator Abdul Ningi (Bauchi Central) that certain items in this year’s budget were not clearly located and that some constituencies had more projects than others have summarily earned him a-3month suspension by the Senate. Here, a number of issues are thrown-up. Many legislators including hitherto non-conformist Ali Ndume (Borno South) have supported the suspension, some quite aggressively and others purporting to be persuasive. Yet, they all ignored the essence of process. Ningi’s allegations are too weighty to be concluded without a thorough investigation. Why were such huge allegations not first sent to the relevant committee for deliberation before positioning the Senate as a whole to make informed decisions? The agility of the senate this time around is a sign that when an allegation is troubling, the tendency is to face it with troubling posture.

In other words, the best way to know if the senators nurse some guilt about any allegation is to watch their body language and not necessarily their words. Under such circumstance it is very easy to see everyone falling on one another to quickly dispense with the allegation. As a result, due process is always sacrificed. This is most visible when the allegation concerns corrupt practices. In 2003 when Nasir el Rufai exposed two senators who demanded bribe to facilitate his clearance as Minister, the senate hurriedly met to say the story was false; yet quickly cleared el Rufai. The handling of the Ningi case got a good dosage of how the House of Representatives descended on one of their own, Abdulmumini Jibrin, who accused the leadership of the House of budget padding in 2016. It did not occur to the members that Jibrin being the then chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the House stood as the most credible source on the subject. His reading of the posture of the House leadership could hardly be challenged.

Once legislators have a feeling that one of them is exposing a guarded secret, the member must be quickly silenced. Whether or not the verdict is harsh is not considered. As former Senator Shehu Sani has confirmed, that is why many dissatisfied legislators remain mute. Also discarded, is the almighty subject of the rule of law. Almost every year our legislators find cause to suspend one of their members without remembering that each of such suspensions has always been quashed by the courts. Are our legislators suggesting that court orders are not binding on them? The suspension of Dino Melaye and others by the House of Representatives in 2010 was quashed by the court; the same thing happened with the case of Jibrin 2016 as well as the suspension of Ali Ndume by the senate in 2017. Does the National Assembly relish the disobedience of court orders?

The number of times the courts have held that the National Assembly cannot suspend their members and the fact that the latter continues to disobey the judgment seems to confirm the hypothesis that such suspensions are merely face-saving as well as a device to punish all members who divulge secrets from which the group hugely gains materially. Painfully, it is a subject on which the few courageous members follow the dictates of their hearts irrespective of the anticipated illegal verdicts. As we have seen in the Ningi case, Agom Jarigbe (Cross River, North) insists that although he is a ranking senator he did not get constituency projects worth N500 million which some senior senators secretly got. Tony Nwoye (Anambra North) says the value of the allocation he got was N250 million. Thus, that the senate placed certain constituencies above others shows that allocations were not for senatorial districts but for persons who are for the time being presiding.

As for the alleged plan to impeach the senate president, there is nothing special or new about that. The emotional outburst is irrelevant because it is senators that elected him and they too are empowered to remove or keep him there as they desire. It is neither a public matter nor does it justify discrimination in resource allocations. The Senate should find more befitting punishment for the legislators they wish to witch-hunt instead of suspending such persons thereby hurting an innocent constituency.

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