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 response from the National Assembly. My worry is that the relationship might be too cosy and the National Assembly could begin to act as 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 – “Uproar over N37 billion National Assembly Renovation Cost” focused on how Nigerians were shocked that such a huge amount is allocated to renovation and why the President did not even scream at the excessive cost. In an earlier epoch, the President would have complained bitterly that that it’s a waste of public resources. I am aware that the Senate President has explained that there has been no major renovation since it was constructed twenty years ago and that the whole place is dilapidated. There must be something wrong with me, I was there recently and I was thinking, maybe in my ignorance, that they must have been investing significant amounts to maintain the place because there did not seem to be visible signs of dilapidation. The shock for people was that the edifice was constructed in 1999 at a cost of just 10 billion Naira so how come mere renovation is costing a massive 37 billion Naira.
For this budget, there was no crisis over constituency funds or padding and if there was I missed it. I do recall that the President bitterly complained that so far 1 trillion Naira has been wasted on so-called constituency projects by legislators and the ICPC has been investigating the massive corruption associated with the projects. I was therefore expecting that the Executive would challenge the funds provided for it in the budget but all I saw were smiles and patting on the back. Has the battle over who writes the budget ended and if so who is the beneficiary?
Throughout the 8th National Assembly, legislators have re-written the budget, not to improve it, but to privatise it by infusing it with thousands of personal projects through which they plan to make money corruptly to enrich themselves. In so doing, they essentially debased the budget by imposing on it the logic of self-serving primitive accumulation that has characterized 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 347 billion Naira in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to 578 billion Naira. The President argued that many of the projects cut were critical and may be difficult, if not impossible, to implement with the reduced allocation. In the 2017 budget, the National Assembly had inserted 1,170 new projects in the budget of the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. They had increased the budget from 364.2 to 586.6 billion Naira. In massacring the budget of the ministry, they simply removed monies allocated to key national projects such as the Abuja-Lokoja dual carriageway, the 2nd 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 had turned the budget into a completely incoherent set 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 the legislators have been putting projects into the budget that have not been designed, surveyed and costed and simply putting figures that are meaningless because pet projects that have not been processed are simply not real projects. This process embarked upon by legislators simply turns the budget into an instrument for destroying good governance because monies are allocated to “non-projects,” It is in this context that some legislators go behind and collect monies they have inserted for what everybody knows is a non-project. 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 budget because many nationally/regionally strategic infrastructure projects such as counter-part funding for the Mambila Power Plant, 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 11.5 billion Naira 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 7.5 billion Naira.
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 does nothing to improve the movement of goods and services. It is shameful that the National Assembly increased its own budget by 14.5 billion Naira, from 125 billion Naira to 139.5 billion Naira. 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 because in essence, the National Assembly has established its “right” to mess up the budget 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 9th 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 4th to the 8th legislature, there has been a contest about who has ultimate responsibility for finalizing 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 a three-year plan 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 simply putting 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 9th Assembly. What issues about the culture of our budgeting are being addressed and how? There is currently a Bill before the National Assembly proposing the establishment of a Constituency Development Fund to which 2,5% of the national budget would be allocated. What is the attitude of the President to the Bill?