by Egbo Mon-Charles
The call for the National Assembly Budget to be made public no doubt has assumed a dimension of public discourse.
Among the many issues for which the institution has lately been under criticism, this campaign has proven to be the major one. It is centred on the sentiment that because the information is shielded from the public, it is a mere tool of fraud in the hands of the legislators.
Though the agitation predates his chairmanship of the National Assembly, the apparent delay of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, to make good his series of promises to do the bidding of the advocates particularly as it related to the 2016 federal budget has added enough impetus to the sustained clamour.
It would be recalled that at the inception of the present assembly Saraki declared his resolve to strengthen the budgeting processes of the National Assembly and also has followed it up at least in three separate occasions with expressed willingness to place in the public domain the details of the budgets.
Nonetheless, several events seemed to have lent credence to the views of the towards the National Assembly but two are outstanding in triggering the heightened demonization of the National Assembly at the moment.
While president Buhari shocked the country with the revelation that his budget proposal to the National Assembly was criminally doctored and “padded”, as was later to be corroborated by Hon. Abulmumin Jibrin of the House of Representatives, former President Olusegun Obasanjo in his epistle to the leadership dismissed National Assembly as “a den of corruption”. Both episodes greatly embarrassed the National Assembly and still threaten the public trust and credibility that are the hallmark of the legislature globally.
Meanwhile, it is instructive that the breakdown of the National Assembly budget had always been readily available and accessible until 2010 when it suddenly became a single line item. Although the reason is yet to be established, the Senate President’s demonstrated disposition is an acknowledgement that it is the right of every Nigerian to have full knowledge of the details of the National Assembly budget.
However, what the advocates are yet to tell Nigerians is why of all the arms and tiers of government, the National Assembly budget has suddenly become an issue. It is not even that they question the size or champion proven infractions which perhaps require investigations.
Save for usual media prosecution or mere advancement of political interests this campaign, though legitimate, seems to be lacking clear-cut objectives and may not achieve a meaningful end similar to numerous ones in the past despite their wide acceptability at inception. It is clearly unlike the very one that outrightly opposes the size of the budget for which they call for either unicameral or part-time legislature.
And this is apparently catching fire in several quarters obviously fueled by the realisation that complete reform and strengthening of the institutions will naturally guarantee efficient and transparent political and economic systems.
Besides, the promoters should equally realise, among other things, that because the business of the legislature, particularly in developing nations, is largely interventionist and also shaped by sociological dynamics; it is nearly impossible to have a structured and streamlined budgeting process. The constantly-evolving peculiarities tend to disrupt a patterned implementation. It is the situation on ground or the exigencies of the moment that determine dimension.
In Nigeria, for instance, and following the decades of military incursion in her politics, the country is still grappling with abject poverty and under-development of various kinds. The ultimate reflection is the prevailing massive distortion of democratic norms and tenets especially by the governed. They exhibit a hazy understanding of the principles of separation of powers and of course, the workings of the legislature. They place a uniform burden of expectations upon all the public office-holders regardless of constitutional provisions. They mount over-bearing pressures on these officials particularly the legislators through incessant demands for attention by way of empowerment or poverty reduction as unemployment, diseases and acute infrastructural deficit evidently combine to make life difficult for the rural dwellers.
And given that the parliament is the closest arm to the people, the lawmakers feel the heat the more. Either out of compassion or fear for negative perception they overstretch themselves yielding to the aspirations of these electorates who incidentally are bestowed with enormous powers to influence the socio-political destinies of the parliamentarians.
At a time, the urgent need to always advance this symbiotic relationship between them and the people especially in view of the absence of an integrated development strategy on the part of the executive branch eventually necessitated the concept of Constituency Projects which are mere interventionist schemes that empower the legislature to complement the executive in grassroots development. This is an evidence of the reactionary nature of the legislature in the face of the myriads of peculiar challenges confronting third world countries.
Also, this initiative became imperative at an era governors and some cases presidents serially relied on state apparatuses to ambush and blackmail lawmakers before the masses. It was such that rather than assess the legislators statutorily, they are unfortunately and comparatively judged on the basis of the number of projects executed or numbers of lives touched side-by-side the executive performances.
Consequently, responsive legislators perhaps as a sort of political survival mechanism became more constituency focused – honouring social invitations, organising outreach activities and engaging in sundry philanthropic ventures – all in a bid to perfectly identify with their ultimate sources of mandate for continued relevance, acceptance and cooperation.
Verifiably, these constituency projects are taken care of through the Zonal Intervention Fund provided for in the federal budget contrary to the general misconception that legislators receive the monies and directly finance the projects. After interfacing with the affected areas, they identify and recommend priority developmental needs for executive sponsorship and implementation. This fact must be noted and internalised for fairness and objectivity.
Interestingly, the demand or burden of expectation that these representatives at all times contend with is multi-faceted, ranging from personal through social to infrastructural. But of all these, individual or family pressures far outweigh the rest. They are quite irresistible, even if not completely met. As an instance, compelling needs that border separately or cumulatively on school fees, hospital bills, house/shop rent/general accommodation, litigations, grants/tools/equipment, family up-keep, bereavements and terrorism cannot be ignored.
They must be considered at least on compassionate grounds especially the fact that these are the very persons that defied every odds to get these lawmakers elected and of course also that the latter “are unfortunately and comparatively judged on the basis of the number of projects executed or numbers of lives touched side-by-side the executive performances”.
They are therefore challenged to make desperate efforts and sacrifices in favour of these needy constituents and certainly, these experiences would influence the budgets of subsequent years.
Another form of persistent demand involves rural electrification and water projects, church/mosque, schools, hospitals, markets renovation. Communities these days celebrate lawmakers who donate transformers, solar street lights, boreholes, teaching and learning as well as healthcare facilities as an open acknowledgement of the executive’s lack of capacity to independently and effectively take governance to the doorsteps of the masses especially the hinterlands.
That is why today there are incidents of lawmakers getting re-elected against the wishes of the chief executives who due to weak institutions equally control the parties’ machinery. They happen because the people use elections as payback time to those who ‘represented them’ well.
To illustrate the truth of this assertion it would be recalled that “the breakdown of the National Assembly budget was readily available and accessible until 2010 when it suddenly became a single line item”. And also, according to a report “the National Assembly budget started swelling in 2003 when it was jerked up from N23.347 billion to N32.229 billion in 2004 and the following year it went up to N55.422 billion.
The budget that covers the salaries and allowances of the 109 senators, the 360 House of Representatives members, their aides as well as the budget of the National Assembly Service Commission (NASC), the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS) dropped to N39.810 billion in 2006.
In 2007 when Senator David Mark became senate president N66.488 billion was budgeted; N104.825 billion for 2008; N96.052 billion for 2009; and N154.2 billion for 2010. Since 2010, the budget of the federal legislature stood at N150 billion for four years until last year when it was slashed to N120 billion and this year (2016) N115 billion”.
Arguably, therefore, the development gap created by the executive albeit unwittingly, with the attendant hostilities and apathies that necessitated the burden of excessive demands heaped on the legislature that in turn continually alter the budget structure of the National Assembly and translate to increased allowances packaged for the lawmakers.
As such it becomes an aberration when lawmakers are found wanting vis-à-vis judicious utilisation of the allowances which indeed ought to have formed the basis of the campaign under review.
Also from the foregoing it is still safe to believe that except for political expedition the idea to single out the National Assembly for exclusive fiscal analysis though in form and content well-intended, is ill-timed and wrongly-approached because there is no defined goal guiding the agitation.
And once again, the Senate President’s several hints about his commitments to open up the processes in this regard apparently in recognition of the zero-tolerance for corruption stance of this administration is a sufficient indication that it is not out of place to demand such information despite whatever purpose.
But the drift here is that using blackmail to arm-twist him to hurriedly change a system that has operated for over six years amounts to being unfair to him. We should also appreciate the enormity of distractions he has faced since inauguration.
But in the interim the major preoccupation should rather be for national interest by way of advocating holistic review of the overall federal budgeting system on sector by sector basis, coupled with sustained socio-political re-orientation of the citizenry particularly the political class, relative to the principles of separation of powers. This is a major step towards strengthening the institutions because it has the capacity to change all the expectation and obligation narratives and properly locate them within the ambits of the laws for ordered development and stability.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Egbo Mon-Charles, a public relations practitioner wrote in from Abuja,