SERAP sues Lawan, Gbajabiamila over failure to cut unlawful N228.1bn NASS budget

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By Chimezie Godfrey

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit against the Senate President, Dr Ahmad Lawan and Speaker of House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila over their “failure to cut the unlawful National Assembly budget of N228.1bn, including the N30.17bn severance payments and inauguration costs for members.”

The suit followed the move by the National Assembly to increase its 2023 budget from N169bn proposed by President Muhammadu Buhari to N228.1bn. The approved budget shows an increase of about N59.1bn. The country’s budget of N21.83tn is based on a N10.49tn revenue, and N11.34tn deficit.

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/152/2023 filed last Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, SERAP is seeking: “an order of mandamus to direct and compel Dr Lawan and Mr Gbajabiamila to review and reduce the budget of N228.1bn the leadership and members of the National Assembly allocated for their own benefit.”

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SERAP is also seeking: “an order restraining and stopping Ms Zainab Ahmed, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning from releasing to the National Assembly the budget of N228.1bn, until an impact assessment of the spending on access to public goods and services and the country’s debt crisis, is carried out.”

SERAP is also seeking: “an order restraining and stopping Dr Lawan and Mr Gbajabiamila from demanding or collecting the National Assembly budget of N228.1bn, until an impact assessment of the spending on access to public goods and services and the country’s debt crisis, is carried out.”

In the suit, SERAP is arguing that: “It is a grave violation of the public trust and constitutional oath of office for the members of the National Assembly to increase their own budget at a time when some 133 million Nigerians are living in poverty.”

According to SERAP: “The National Assembly budget of N228.1bn is higher than the statutory transfer to the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), which is N103.3bn.”

SERAP is arguing that, “The increase is unreasonable, as it would substantially increase the cost of governance, and exacerbate the country’s debt crisis. It is unlawful, and unfair to the Nigerian people.”

SERAP is also arguing that, “Cutting the National Assembly budget would reduce the growing budget deficit, address the unsustainable debt burden, and serve the public interest.”

SERAP is arguing that, “by increasing its own budget, the National Assembly has unjustifiably and disproportionately reduced the budget for the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).”

SERAP is also arguing that, “This is a travesty, especially given that Nigeria currently has over 20 million out-of-school children, and half of all poor people in the country are children.”

The suit filed on behalf of SERAP by its lawyers Kolawole Oluwadare and Ms Atinuke Adejuyigbe, read in part: “The budget should reflect national development priorities, and not serve as a tool to satisfy the lifestyle of lawmakers or provide them with severance payments or parting gifts.”

“Rather than exercising its oversight functions to check the persistent borrowing by President Muhammadu Buhari, and scrutinising the apparently unlawful overdrafts and loans obtained by the Federal Government from the Central Bank of Nigeria, the National Assembly is increasing its own budget.”

“The increase in the National Assembly budget, including the unnecessary proposed spending of N30.17bn on ‘severance payments’ and ‘inauguration expenses’ is a fundamental breach of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended] and the country’s international human rights obligations.”

“It is unjustifiable and unreasonable for the National Assembly to arbitrarily increase its own budget when the Federal Government and many of the 36 states are clearly in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress.”

“The National Assembly budget of N228.1bn would increase the country’s borrowing and debt crisis. Growing debt burdens and debt repayment difficulties will have negative impacts on the ability of poor and vulnerable Nigerians to enjoy basic socio-economic rights.”

“Long-term unsustainable debt can be a barrier to the government’s ability to mobilize resources for human rights, and may lead to taxes and user fees that impact negatively on poor and vulnerable Nigerians.”

“The leadership and members of the National Assembly ought to properly discharge their constitutional and fiduciary duties to Nigerians by ensuring judicious spending of public funds, especially given the current economic and financial realities of Nigeria.”

“Nigerians have a right to honest and faithful performance by their public officials including lawmakers, as public officials owe a fiduciary duty to the general citizenry. All those who hold the strings of political power and power over spending of Nigeria’s commonwealth ought not to use their entrusted position for personal gain.”

“Section 14(2)(b) of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended] provides that, ‘the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.”

“Under Section 16(1)(a)(b), the National Assembly has the obligations to ‘harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, a dynamic and self-reliant economy’, and to ‘secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen.’”

“Section 81 of the Nigerian Constitution makes clear that it is the constitutional responsibility of the President to prepare and present estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the country before the National Assembly and not for the lawmakers to unilaterally and arbitrarily allocate public funds to themselves.”

“Nigeria has also ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognize legally enforceable economic and social rights, such as the rights to education, health, safe food and clean water, security, and shelter.”

“Section 51 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act provides that, ‘a person shall have legal capacity to enforce the provision of this Act by obtaining prerogative orders or other remedies at the Federal High Court, without having to show any special particular interest.’’

Joined in the suit as Defendants are President Muhammadu Buhari; the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN; and the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed.

No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.

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