By Peter Claver Oparah
For Nigerians, it should not be difficult to understand the reason why the country’s budget process has become so controversial since the present Muhammadu Buhari government came on board. Nigerians saw all the melodrama that attended the budget process last year, with all the hype about budget padding. The budget padding drama so delayed the passage of the budget last year such that the budget was signed just at the stroke of full time, when the previous budget had ran its full course and a new budget year was about to start. Without allegations of budget padding this year, the budget even took longer time to get approved. The National Assembly held on to the budget proposal till after the previous budget’s operational year ended and the nation was well into a new budget year. What this shows is that there is more to the budget process since Buhari came in with a determination to stamp out corruption.
Before Buhari, the budgetary process was less contentious. It was a staid, dour ritual where the executives and the legislature agreed before time to share out the budget amongst themselves and their interests. Before Buhari, budgets had no impact and sparked no interest among the common man whose interests were neither captured nor represented in that yearly ritual. The common man was so powerless and meaningless in the budgetary process that he took slight interest in either the process or its implementation. That was the era of huge constituency projects where legislators; elected to make laws for the good governance of the country, became contractors who directly or indirectly executed the many projects they insert in the budget through the infamous constituency project scheme. The pay-off was that the members of the executive were free to do whatever they liked with the huge budgetary allocations in the various ministries and parastatals they superintended without attracting the constitutional checks the legislature should exert. It was a rub-my-back-I-rub-your-back scheme that left the citizenry, and indeed the entire country, holding the shortest ends of the stick.
In the sequel captured above, projects got huge allocations every year but with little or no work done at the end of each budget year. The so-called constituency projects, being a sham scheme by legislatures to corruptly enrich themselves, ended up siphoning public funds into the pockets of legislators with no projects done at the end of the day. The payback was to the huge corruption the members of the legislature perpetrated and the country bled from this gargantuan corruption complex as it endured.
In the vicious circle captured above, Nigeria witnessed a scandalous infrastructure deficit, despite the hefty revenue that accrued to the country. Huge monies and resources allocated to diverse projects found their ways into the pockets of dubious state officials, the poverty index widened and the scepters of a failed state loomed so large that Nigerians became hopeless for a redeeming factor that would track this sordid state. Certain projects became permanent features in each year’s budgets and uncompleted projects littered the Nigerian space as they became ready conduits for stealing the people’s resources through yearly allocations in the budget. The poverty index widened, even at the period Nigeria enjoyed unprecedented oil boom and corruption grew in leaps and bounds.
But it took the coming of President Buhari with his anti-corruption commitment to reverse this negative trend. Buhari knew that one area that must be paid more than a passing attention in fighting corruption is the budgetary process, where the huge resources of Nigerians were made available for the enrichment of just few individuals in the executive, the legislature and the executive. He knew that with the dereliction of duties by the legislature in the budgetary process through the cornering of constituency projects, the national budgets have always come awry at the end and the huge allocations stolen each year through a tripartite scheme by the executives, the legislature and the civil servants. This, he felt, must stop and what better way to stop than stop using the budget as a feel-good project than to strip at source, those illicit practices that prevents the law makers from carrying out their constitutional roles in the budgetary process?
What we are witnessing with the budget since Buhari came is a determined effort by the legislature to retain the corruptive features that have made our national budget unproductive for many decades now. The National Assembly wants the retention of the old, sordid order that has short-changed the country for years and enriched its members. That has brought it in direct conflict with the Buhari executive that wants to change the rotten order and make yearly budgets, its approval and implementation processes a project for the people. This commitment accounts for the heightened interests Nigerians have, for the first time, shown to the budget process and the implementation. It has been the cause of the controversy budgets have been immersed in for two years now. It is no more a quiet, dour, process through which money is shared between the members of the legislature, the executives and civil servants. It has become a people’s process and Nigerians=s are taking more than a passing interest in the evolution and implementation of their yearly budget, and that is how it should be.
So, the altercation over who should do what with the budget arises out of the gritty fight to either retain the budget in its utterly corrupt former form or chart a new paradigm whereby budgets should make more impact and meaning to the people. The legislators don’t want constituency projects to go because that is a source of tremendous illicit enrichment for them. To be sure, no one will argue that the legislature has critical and important role to play in the budget process. I don’t think the executive, in their present stance argues this. If they do, they would not have taken the proposals to the legislature and made the country endure several months of anxiety before the budget was finally passed. But there is everything wrong where the legislature creates new projects and inserts them in the budget. There is everything wrong in a situation where legislators mutilate the budget proposals sent in by the executive, shred it out of context for the purpose of carving out funds to allocate to phantom constituency projects. There is everything wrong in a situation where the legislature either removes critical developmental projects proposed by the executives or drastically reduces funds from them so as to create funds for their self-fangled projects which have no impact on the national development index, which is the ultimate end of a budget.
We have witnessed the barrage of exchange between the National Assembly and the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Fashola. The disagreement is premised on the complaint by the Minister that the National Assembly drastically cut the proposed budgets for such critical infrastructures like the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Mambilla Power project, etc and re-directed such funds to flimsy projects like motorized boreholes, health centers, street lights, etc which were captured as constituency projects. This is as atrocious as it is absolutely illegal. The implication in this gross violation of constitutional power is that the nation will prepare to suffer continued infrastructural and developmental decay so that legislators will satisfy their crave for illicit money. Also by this dubious action, which is not limited to Fashola’s ministry alone, is that Nigeria’s developmental growth will remain a myriad because the tongs of corruption amongst our law makers must be met by all means necessary. This is as self serving as it is unpatriotic.
I have witnessed the exchange of words between the minister and the National Assembly and I am surprised that while the minister makes compelling and unputdownable arguments to express himself, the National Assembly, clearly oblivious of the untenable nature of its actions, has rather resorted to name calling, blackmail and insults in responding to Fashola’s challenge. The one line that comes from the National Assembly and its supporters in defending this horrible action is that the constitution grants it power to do whatever it wishes with the budget; an argument that is hollow, unreasonable and not backed by any provision of the constitution. Even as they have not shown the provision of the constitution that grants them such wide powers, it leaves us to wonder that if indeed they have unlimited power to do anything with the budget, to the extent that they will mutilate and replace a sizeable part of the budget with their own whimsical project, why did the law not give them the power to each year, work out a budget and throw it at the executive to implement?
The law grants the executive the power to propose budget estimates. In doing this, it brings all the available expertise in determining the possible revenue accruable to a country at any given year and allocates such revenue to the needs of the country. This is an exclusive executive function and for which we pay professionals in that regard. This is why we fund a huge ministry responsible for budget and National planning. There is no where the law gives this power to legislators, constitutionally mandated to make laws for the order and good governance of the country. What the constitution provides for the legislature is the power to scrutinize, question and approve these proposed budget estimates presented by the executive. It cannot mutilate the budget beyond the developmental intendments of the executive, as was done in the present budget. It cannot hack projects by itself and insert same in the budget because it is neither empowered nor is the legislature equipped with the faculties to do so. In other words, no law grants the legislature the power to introduce a new budget head in the budget, approve same by itself and pass as national budget. By usurping the power to propose and adding to its power to approve, the legislature clearly breaches the law of separation of power. It generates, proposes and somehow, executes these so called constituency projects. There is no country where the legislature proposes new projects and inserts them in the budget. It is an aberration. It is unexplainable and it is illegal. Both the law and commonsense cannot provide this aberration that clearly vitiates the principle of power separation.
Peter Claver Oparah writes from Ikeja, Lagos. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.