Opinion: 10 million agric phones: The National Assembly should act now

by Eze Onyekpere

There is no empirical evidence showing that there are 10 million farmers in Nigeria who need telephones and how the ministry arrived at telephones as the priority of farmers is best left to the imagination of the minister alone.

The beauty of democracy is the ability of its institutions to take steps to correct obvious wrongs in the system. It is also about acting proactively to stop illegalities and wrong policy options that will retard the development of the people and fritter away public resources. The above provides two options; the first being action to nip illegalities in the bud before they occur while the second is to seek to correct a wrong or have a guarantee of non repetition after an illegality has occurred. The first course of action, which is to be proactive, is preferred because of the apparent poverty of remedial justice, which most times, may only declare the correct position of the law and probably guarantee damages (where feasible) and promises that it will never happen again.   It is in this context that recent public announcements of apparently wrong and illegal steps by two federal ministries will be situated.

The first is the decision of the Minister of Agriculture to deploy N60bn for the procurement of 10 million GSM phones for farmers existing in his imaginary data base, and the second is the proposal by the Ministry of Aviation to acquire 30 aircraft for private Nigerian airlines, also deploying public funds. In the telephone-for-farmers case, when the project was announced by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, the minister later clarified the issue to state that there was no N60bn anywhere waiting to be deployed. Rather, the project would be funded through a public-private partnership with government subsidising the phones. The funds are expected to come from the Universal Service Provision Fund through collaboration between the Ministry of Communications and the Agriculture Ministry, he assured. When asked the exact amount of the government subsidy, the minister declined to give a figure while stating that government was still working out the exact figures.

The obvious facts arising from the phony telephone case is that there is no appropriation for this project in the 2012 Appropriation Act and there is also no legislative approval for the project in the 2013 Appropriation Bill awaiting presidential assent. However, the funds to be spent are public funds within the contemplation of Sections 80 to 82 of the Constitution. Section 80 (3) of the Constitution provides that no funds shall be withdrawn from any public fund of the Federation other than the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation, unless the issue of those monies has been authorised by an Act of the National Assembly. By subsection (4) of the same Section, no monies shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or any other public funds of the Federation, except in the manner prescribed by the National Assembly. Section 81 firmly puts the power of appropriation in the hands of the legislature. There is no information available to the public that the National Assembly has approved this proposal or prescribed the manner of expending the fund for telephones.

Therefore, the funds are not the private funds of the minister or his Permanent Secretary. Even if the funds are entirely to be raised from the goodwill of the government in the private sector; by that exercise of goodwill, the funds so raised have also acquired the quality and character of public funds which can no longer be solely managed and decided upon by the minister at his discretion. The funds are not just a pittance of a few millions of naira but N60bn! Further, there is no empirical evidence showing that there are 10 million farmers in Nigeria who need telephones and how the ministry arrived at telephones as the priority of farmers is best left to the imagination of the minister alone.

In the second case, which is about acquisition of aircraft, the minister, Stella Oduah, has not indicated how she intends to fund the project. Like in the previous case, the approval is not contained in the 2012 Appropriation Act and cannot be found in the 2013 Appropriation Bill awaiting presidential assent. Nigeria had some years ago liquidated its national carrier while Vision 2020 articulated government’s policy in the industry as one to be led by the private sector. Indeed, there are already existing instances of the ability, capacity and willingness of the private sector to take over the commanding heights of the aviation industry.   Wherever the funds to acquire the 30 aircraft will come from, whether from an existing fund or from a loan, the funds earmarked will still be public funds requiring appropriation within the contemplation of Sections 80-82 of the 1999 Constitution.

Against the foregoing background, it has become imperative for the National Assembly to act proactively, not to wait until these resources have been withdrawn and spent for an illegal and unlawful purpose that contradicts the policy positions of government. It should act to stop the illegality before it occurs. The respective ministers should be summoned to provide the details of how much money exactly are involved in their proposals, the part of the funds that will come from any public funds of the federation, the justification(s) for the proposed expenditure and any prior legislative approvals. The merits and demerits of the proposals should be thoroughly and meticulously reviewed by the National Assembly and a decision which obviously will lead to stopping the frivolous proposals will be put in place. The issues that will be raised in the review by the National Assembly may include how the proposed projects will lead to advances in the sectors, create jobs for teeming unemployed Nigerians, add value and lead to increased sectoral contribution to productivity in Nigeria. In the interim, the National Assembly should by resolution, draw the attention of the President to the need to halt any expenditure until a final decision is taken on the issues.

The two cases remind Nigerians of the findings of the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee led by Ibrahim Bunu, a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, which reported the existence of over 11,886 abandoned capital projects which will require N7.78tn to complete and the messy dealings of public officials in the abandoned contracts. The report indicated that contract awards for most of the projects were procurement-driven rather than being development-driven. Essentially, there was no need for some of the projects but someone high up in the government wanted to award a contract, and, maybe, derive some unearned pecuniary benefits therefrom. The present scenario smells of huge contracts to be awarded soon if the National Assembly decides to keep quiet.

Nigerians and Nigeria can no longer be used as guinea pigs in a laboratory to test half baked and ill-digested policy proposals. Policy consistency, integrity, the quest for development to create jobs, add value, among others, must guide vital national decisions especially when huge sums of money are involved. We should be saying goodbye to the days of grandstanding and a few individuals in the corridors of power taking steps that run against the public interest.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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