Legislative Oversight: Fraud or Constitutional Duty? By Sam Uzoigwe



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Legislative oversight is defined by the United States’ National Democratic Institute as “the obvious follow-on activity linked to lawmaking”. Section 88 of our 1999 Constitution is also explicit. The oversight function puts government activities in public view to deter fraud and misconduct. It exposes and prevents waste. It protects the country from bureaucratic arrogance. It makes government more efficient and accountable.

Unfortunately, oversight function is dogged by incapacity, subterfuge and greed in Nigeria. The legislature investigates infractions but often rubbish their efforts with licentiousness. Oversight committees struggle to extricate themselves from corruption charges and prosecution. Their leaders are thus cast as accomplices if not orchestrators of corruption.

Enlightened self-interest demands that the legislature reinvent itself to deliver on their oversight mandate. A review of five legislative oversight initiatives which began as bold and transformational but ended rubbished shows why the image of the legislature is tarnished and why its rebranding is imperative.

The first is the Power Sector probe led by Honourable Godwin Ndudi Elumelu. This committee investigated the alleged misappropriation of over $16 billion allocated to the power sector to achieve 10,000 megawatts of electricity by December 2007. But just 2000 megawatts was being generated by 2009.  The Committee zealously handled the probe with strong recommendations. It indicted the then president, three ministers, the accountant general of the federation and others of complicity in misappropriation. They recommended EFCC investigation of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) contracts for rural electricity.

But in a twist of faith, an allegation of a N100million bribery was slammed on the Committee. Elumelu faced a 156 counts charge by the EFCC for corruptly enriching himself and his cronies to the tune of N5.4 billion from contracts awarded by the same REA they had investigated. Meanwhile, the ministers and accountant general the committee indicted went on to acquire the governorships of their states while the then president executed an expensive but failed third term agenda. One wonders if these political ambitions were not funded with misappropriated funds from the power sector.

Nothing became of the committee’s recommendations. Instead a seven-man review committee headed by the current Speaker Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal was appointed. That was the death knell of the Elumelu Committee report. Elumelu was recently cleared of wrong doing by a Federal High Court.

The second is Senators David Cobina Brigidi and Ahmed Lawan Probes of The FCT & BPE. The senate set up the committee to probe the Federal Capital Territory management following rampant allegations of malicious demolition of houses, dispossession of landed properties, nepotism and flouting of court orders against the Minister of the FCT.

 

The Senate had earlier indicted the FCT minister on circumvention of civil service processes on recruitment and payments of huge emoluments to some staff. The minister had responded with scorn and uncivil invectives like “I don’t give a damn”; and “I don’t care”, “silence is the best answer for a fool as they say”, and “I will not be accountable to anyone but the president“. The senate embarked on a two-day strike to demand the sack of the minister.  But the senate was soon placated. How? Don’t ask me. The incident cast the senate as a belligerent trade union resorting to strikes. It was unbefitting.

 

Again, the two senate committees set up over abuse of office in the sale of government houses, allocations of land, failure to account for FCT funds and disobedience of court orders indicted the FCT minister. The committee on the Bureau of Public Enterprises recommended the sack of the BPE Director-General and indicted some of her predecessors in office, including the same FCT minister who worked earlier in that capacity for breaches while in office. The reports recommended he is prosecuted and barred from holding public office. Apart from an on-going suit against the minister nothing is happening to effect the committee’s recommendations.

The third case is the Fuel Subsidy Probe Led by Honourable Farouk Lawan. Alarmed by the massive fuel subsidy payment scandal and huge protests against burdening citizens with the scam costs in the name of fuel subsidy removal, the House of Representatives investigated the fuel subsidy process and obligations. The public hearing revealed actual payments/obligations of over N2trillion against the budget of N245bn. Also public departments and agencies could neither agree on actual subsidy obligations and payments nor own up to the responsibility of overseeing critical accounts into which federation funds were lodged.

The committee proved that monumental fraud and inefficiency escalated fuel subsidy costs. It identified several individuals and organizations that perpetrated and benefited from the fraud. It recommended reform of the subsidy process and prosecution of the fraudsters. Nigerians were enthralled. But soon investigations and possible prosecution over lurid allegations of bribery against the committee leadership soon rent the air. Meanwhile most of the people and organizations indicted over the fuel subsidy fraud continue to manipulate the justice system. The citizenry continue to suffer undue hardship.

The fourth one is the Capital Market Probe led by Honourables Herman Hembe and Ibrahim Tukur El-Sudi

It sought to unravel the roles of persons and institutions in the capital market crash with recommendations to restore investor confidence. The probe revealed a dysfunctional executive management of Securities & Exchange Commission, SEC fueled by a group of bureaucrats content with the failed status quo and opposed to change contending with an alien and presumptuous DG who was contemptuous or unschooled of SEC’s procedure.

While globally, national economies are articulating critical regulatory responses to challenging economic terrains, other motivations took pre-eminence at SEC, CBN or elsewhere. Hence legislative oversight was imperative. But again, revelations at the probe were diverted when the committee’s leadership was accused of fraud and bribe taking before being swept away for prosecution. The committee leadership was changed but their report is not attracting attention or being implemented. Rather the federal government appointed a consulting firm to review the crisis and used it as a basis to recall the indicted and suspended DG. Again the legislature re-enforced its public perception as gold-digging, shallow and uncoordinated thieving troublemakers.

The fifth but certainly not the least of failed oversight efforts is the recent budget implementation activism led by Honourables Gbajabiamila & Zakari Mohammed. The legislature engaged in activism, attacking poor and selective implementation of the federal government capital budget by the executive. The House of Representatives threatened to impeach the President in event that the budget is not 100% implemented by the third quarter, end-September 2012. The activism seemed to have achieved more than public probes as it gingered the executive to render public account of how the budget was being implemented, constraints and plans. There was more frenzy to execute projects followed by performance contracts for public officers.

It showed that the executive ought to ensure greater inclusiveness by broader and timely participation in the budgeting system. The timing and pattern of budgetary reports and reviews must not be at the executive’s discretion but a matter of duty, law and regulation. Periodic reports (monthly, quarterly, half year & annually) must be sent to the legislature and general public.

But by their comments and threats, legislators displayed inadequate engagement with and understanding of the budgetary system. Giving a three-month ultimatum to execute the budget 100 percent is naïve because budgets are predicated on several variables as availability of funds. Even in rare cases of absence of financial constraints, a big bang implementation of all capital projects could be dysfunctional and might induce macroeconomic instability especially inflation. The legislature needs therefore to build capacity.

In summary, there must be new approaches and strategies to enhance legislative effectiveness and credibility. For instance, the executive and legislature should agree on policy priorities and proposals on constituency projects at the early stages of budget preparation.

The tendency of the national assembly to fall into infamy due to poor values and ill preparedness must stop. It is time to adopt the right values, build capacity and right the tools. In this regard, the legislature must use effectively, oversight tools of committee hearings, hearing in plenary sessions, commissions of inquiry, signaling, interpellations, public account committees with external professional support of experts, ombudsmen and auditors generals to confer credibility, independence and objectivity in handling the issues they review.

The legislature should hasten to create an independent Parliamentary Budget Authority to provide objective analysis directly to the legislature on the nation’s finances and a Federal Accountability Bill to ensure periodic reporting on budget performance. The oversight responsibility should be made to stretch beyond the legislature to the wider society. Civil society and the media must be fully engaged in overseeing Executive’s superintendence of resources. Also legislative and public hearings should be introduced to critical nerve points of the economy such as oil licensing rounds and concessions to ensure they align with the development aspirations of the country and to staunch corruption. The legislature should periodically review the executive’s compliance with legislation and guidelines to ensure transparency and efficiency in the management of key resources of the economy such as the cabotage laws and Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).

However in spite of their largely negative image, legislative activism in Nigeria deserves encouragement to entrench overarching public interest. The legislature should equip itself better and put more bite into its resolutions so that they can be taken seriously. With greater participation, transparency, accountability, the legislature will ensure value for money and better quality of life for Nigerians.

 


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