By Simon Kolawole
IN 2011, a brilliant, fine gentleman from the south-south was elected into the Nigerian senate. He was full of hopes and dreams. At a dinner with journalist friends, he outlined his vision and spoke enthusiastically about pursuing “developmental legislative agenda”. He would make a difference, he promised. Two months after inauguration, the senator came to see his friends in Lagos with his tail between his legs. He said in a defeated voice: “If development is this way (he pointed forward), we are facing this direction (he pointed backward). Since our inauguration, all we have been discussing is money, money, money. It is all about our individual account balances.”
I recalled this story as controversy broke out over President Muhammadu Buhari’s protest that the 2018 budget was severely distorted by the lawmakers with the reduction in allocations to priority projects and addition of over 6,000 new projects. The lawmakers also allocated nearly N140 billion to themselves which, God willing, will be disbursed to the last kobo since it is a first-line charge on the federation account. However, the lawmakers have stoutly defended themselves and sought to justify the alterations. They said the changes were meant to reflect “federal balance”. After listening to both parties, I am still inclined to join issues with the national assembly.
Let us first settle some arguments. One, the national assembly has the power of appropriation. The executive proposes and implements budgets but the legislature must first approve through appropriation. It is in the spirit of checks and balances. Two, the national assembly is not a rubber stamp. It is not as if the executive will send a budget to the legislature and they will just stamp it. Under military regimes, the executive and legislature were one. They were at various times known as the Supreme Military Council, Armed Forces Ruling Council and Provisional Ruling Council. They did everything at once. We always had the budget approved by January 1 every year.
Three, the representation function of the parliament comes into bold relief in the budgeting process. While the president is representing the whole country, legislators represent individual constituencies, and they have a responsibility to factor in the interests of their constituents — and in a way balance the national and the local. Four, the constitution empowers the national assembly to make laws for “peace, order and good government of the federation”. Appropriation offers a powerful opportunity for them to do this. I don’t think we need to be arguing over this. It is therefore logical and legal for the lawmakers to make inputs into the budget in the national interest.
In the national interest? Now, this is where the problem begins. Does the national assembly do anything in the national interest? This is where the argument starts. The parliament has three primary responsibilities: one, representation; two, lawmaking (including appropriation); and three, oversight. These powers are so awesome that if they were properly and patriotically exercised by the lawmakers, Nigeria would have been a much better place. Just imagine all the appropriations to infrastructure, education, health and water from 1999 till date; just imagine a proper parliamentary oversight function; and just imagine how Nigeria would have been transformed.
Based on my observations since 1999, I can safely conclude that the motive behind most budget alterations is anything but national interest. When Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, two-time minister of finance, said in her book, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, that the national assembly was “bribed” with N17 billion to pass the 2015 budget, some lawmakers raised hell. They deliberately interpreted that to mean bribe was shared among lawmakers, but they knew what she was saying: the executive had to allow the legislature to add that amount to its own budget before the bill was passed. That was the deal maker. This year, lawmakers added N14.5 billion to their budget. Nothing new.
When the president sends the appropriation bill to the national assembly, committees invite chief executives and accounting officers of the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to defend their proposals. This is usually at a high cost. Some sessions are televised live. Refreshments are served. Precious time is spent on budget defence. After the whole show when some form of agreements might have been reached, the budget goes to the appropriations committees which then, in a dictatorial manner, begin to alter the budgets. The figures are usually allocated arbitrarily. So why waste time and resources on useless budget defence sessions? What’s the value?
Has anyone ever wondered why the executive will propose a budget of N8.612 trillion with a crude oil benchmark of $45 per barrel and the parliament will raise the benchmark to $51 and increase the budget to N9.12 trillion? Setting a lower benchmark is a wise way of saving in the excess crude account so that when the rain comes falling — as it certainly must do cyclically — we will have something to fall back on. It is common sense to create a fine balance between the need to spend and the need to save so that we do not witness the kind of calamity that befell us between 2014 and 2017 again. A prudent parliament will always consider this fact with a sense of responsibility.
Has anyone also ever wondered why despite all the budget defence by the MDAs, the budget still comes out heavily distorted? The idea of budget defence, which usually goes on for months, is for the executive and the legislature to consider the fine details and arrive at some compromise. Budgets are prepared based on the policies and programmes of a government. The executive has its priorities and goals. So, for all those things lawmakers are unilaterally inserting into the budget, how did they do the costing? They do not execute projects so how did they arrive at those figures? What is the basis for cutting down on priority projects?
Truth be told: while the executive is not blameless, our legislators have turned budgeting to an instrument of blackmail to further personal interests. Budgeting is seen as harvest season. I don’t know if this culture still persists, but the MDAs used to be extorted by the lawmakers ahead of their budget defence in order to facilitate “smooth” passage. When Professor Fabian Osuji was minister of education in 2005, his otherwise sterling reputation was destroyed when lawmakers extorted N50 million from him for “smooth” passage of his ministry’s budget. Some of the criminals went on to become governors and some are today party executives. So it goes.
It is no secret that if the MDAs can “settle” lawmakers very well, their budgets will be increased beyond their wildest dreams. For example, an agency would propose a budget of N10 billion and the lawmakers would promise to increase it to N20 billion if they can “settle” in advance. The increase will be presented as “national interest”. That is one of the reasons the budgets are always bloated every year. They extort during budget defence, extort during oversight function and extort from contractors. In some instances, they will even insist on bringing the contractors for the projects. I don’t know if these practices have stopped but that used to be the untold story.
The lawmakers actually need to examine their consciences. They have turned the concept of separation of powers upside down. They prepare their own budgets and refuse to release the details to the public. How can you perform oversight function on your own budget? Does that make sense, fellow Nigerians? It took a courageous Senator Shehu Sani to reveal to the world that senators legally take home over N13 million a month. Up till today, the house of reps has not told us how much they take home every month. National interest indeed! The lawmakers have over the years successfully arm-twisted us into accepting the so-called constituency projects.
The bigger picture we are not seeing, however, is that as it is in Abuja, so it is in the states and local governments. We focus our attention on Aso Rock and national assembly, but these shenanigans are replicated at local level. Budgets are padded and ballooned. Non-existent projects are “funded” and money shared by those who matter. MDA executives and state lawmakers are having fun with public funds and there is nobody to question them. The controllers of public discourse in Nigeria are more interested in “true federalism” as defined by them; they deliberately ignore the bazaar going on under their noses in their states and councils. So it goes.
The underdevelopment of this country is not accidental. We cannot continue to do things this way and expect progress. At some point the political elite will have to repent. If half of the budget for education or healthcare or roads actually goes into what it is theoretically meant for, we would have overcome most of our daunting challenges by now. If leadership is driven by competence and patriotism, all the oil windfalls since 1999 would have meant something more than ballooning overhead expenditure and distorting the budget for personal benefit under the pretext of “national interest”. I hope that one day, our leaders at all levels will change their ways.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
So many things sadden me about Nigeria, and one of them just manifested in the proposed training of railway engineers in China. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) had said it would provide scholarships for Nigerian students but, as things turned out, it is only on paper. Applicants who do not have godfathers were shocked to realise on the day of interview that only those nominated by powerful Nigerians were allowed inside. This country continues to kill the spirit of its citizens. This is why resentment and frustration set in. How do you expect these young men and women to believe in Nigeria? We run an unfair system. Depressing.
Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe was arrested on Friday. The general belief is that he was picked up by the Department of State Services (DSS). Typically, DSS would neither confirm nor deny. It does not have a spokesperson. We don’t know why he was picked up; we can only speculate. This is very disturbing. If a senator can disappear in this manner, what is the hope for ordinary Nigerians? If DSS continues to operate this way, I hope this will not open the door to unexplained disappearances in Nigeria for which nobody will take responsibility. The DSS needs to modernise its mode of operation. It is one thing that scares me stiff about this Buhari administration. Alarming.
Alhaji Abdulazia Yari, the Abuja-based governor of Zamfara state, has finally told us what we knew all along — that he is not in charge of his state. Zamfara is arguably the state that has witnessed the most bloodshed in Nigeria in the last three years (it is not headline news because, frankly speaking, the politicians and their puppets cannot make a Muslim vs Christian business out of it). Yari says he is giving up his position as the chief security officer of the state. Except he refunds all the security votes he has collected since 2011 and stops collecting more henceforth, we will continue to regard him as the CSO of Zamfara. This has nothing to do with fornication. Incompetence.
Who said “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”? The person deserves a Nobel for wise saying, if there is any such category. After Nigeria lost to Croatia at the FIFA World Cup, I saw videos on social media showing angry fans burning the beautiful Nigerian jersey. And then we bounced back and beat Iceland on Friday — and suddenly the Super Eagles are the best thing since pounded yam with egusi and bush meat. Hearty congratulations to Ahmed Musa, the two-goal hero. Within minutes after the match, memes of Musa as the presidential candidate of APGA were already trending! More heroics and we will nominate him to be UN secretary-general. Ecstasy.
Simon Kolaole is the founder and CEO of The Cable. He tweets @simonkolawole