By Tonnie Iredia
One of the puzzles yet unraveled in the Nigerian game of politics is why our annual budget has been a source of quarrel between the legislature and the executive since the nation’s return to democracy in 1999. With the 17-year old quarrel operating as a yearly matter without exception, it seems obvious that how to grab money is a prime objective of the squabble. Following the inability of the Federal Executive Council last Wednesday to say when the 2016 budget would be signed into law, hopes of many citizens looking forward to the budget have been dashed. The current phase of the usual cat and rate game does not show that even an early submission of the budget in the future would resolve the matter. It appears obvious that irrespective of when it is submitted, the budget will always be delayed for as long as it takes those hustling for personal gains to achieve their targets. What keeps the hustling game alive is the claim by the legislature that it has the power of appropriation. Citing relevant provisions of the constitution, legislators insist that they can alter, reject or even rewrite the budget. Of course, such a claim of the legislature that every other contribution to the budget depends on its own whims and caprices is incorrect because that would injure the spirit of checks and balances.
Even the claim by legislators that they are best positioned to know what their constituencies really desire is also defective. To start with, they often forget that there is no constituency that solely belongs to them. In a state, every constituency also belongs to a governor. At the federal level, the President was voted for in every constituency throughout the nation. For this reason, the daily claim that a constituency belongs to a legislator is ridiculous. In addition, the argument that they are closest to the people is similarly incorrect in a country which runs a constitutionally approved local government system. If the local government system is not stultified now and again by governors with the active connivance of legislators, no politician can be closer to the local people than their councillors. Thus, if anyone by virtue of proximity to a terrain were to be considered most appropriate to nominate projects that the common people yearn for, it is the local councillor.
Consequently, the argument that legislators must tinker with the budget in order to insert what they call constituency projects makes it hard to discern the exact meaning of the term constituency project. For now it is used to mean a project in any community that is nominated into a budget by a particular legislator. Any similar project articulated by an agency or ministry for another community is not seen as a constituency project but a “budget project”. Put differently, although several constituencies would benefit immensely from the Calabar-Lagos rail project for instance, it is inferior to projects nominated by legislators from the affected constituencies. For this reason, other projects must be used to displace the rail project. That is precisely the fate of the Calabar-Lagos rail project. All other stories such as missing or padded budget or that the project was not in the original budget are contraptions.
The present system where a legislator lays claim to ownership of a project in his constituency is no doubt wrong. Last December, the immediate-past Senator, who represented Ogun East Senatorial District, Senator Gbenga Kaka and his successor, Senator Buruji Kashamu, were engaged in a verbal war over the ownership of constituency projects in the area. One accused the other of going to the extent of erecting ownership sign boards at the sites of the projects. This posture could confuse people into thinking that the projects concerned were donated by the claimants. Since that is not the case, the National Assembly should allow a well articulated budget that is premised on a policy direction in line with the election promises of the President who was elected on the basis of such aspirations of the people
There is also the issue of who actually implements constituency projects. Is it the legislature or the executive? While receiving the Yoruba Community in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in June last year, Sulaimon Lasun, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “We don’t get cash for any constituency project. Once a lawmaker suggests a project, the execution of such projects is the prerogative of the Executive branch,” Not many are persuaded by this claim because it is an open secret that some legislators are also the contractors selected to execute their nominated projects. According to a recent investigation by a national newspaper, “although constituency projects are advertised as required by law, lawmakers have devised dubious ways of ensuring that only companies fronting for them or those belonging to their cronies are pre-qualified”.
Perhaps this explains why there is more interest in what is called constituency project. This should not be so as every project in the budget is located in Nigeria and every part of Nigeria belongs to a constituency which means that every project is a constituency project. Whether or not a project is nominated by a legislator, once it is in the budget, the legislator in whose constituency it is located ought to show the same patriotic interest in every such project. Indeed, with a proactive oversight strategy, legislators are better positioned to act as a check on the execution of projects. But if they get too involved in the execution, they can easily be compromised and become incapable of calling government officials to order
An unbiased research into the feelings of people about what legislators call constituency project is likely to reveal an overwhelming opposition to the concept. It will also be shown that the reason for the opposition is that law makers have a common body language which makes us all feel that the only thing that is important to them is monetary gains. For example, not many people can identify the constituency offices or staff of those hustling for constituency projects. For the Nigerian legislator therefore, this is the best time for introspection and value re-orientation