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Budget ‘padding’: An opportunity for change?

By Ochereome Nnanna
QUARRELS  in the legislative chamber are neither new nor strange. They are universal phenomena. They range from hot exchanges of words to fisticuffs.

Maces are often broken, chairs thrown, clothes torn and blood drawn. It did not start today. The boil-over of the crises of the defunct Western Region started when the mace was broken and police had to intervene to separate a fight between the supporters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Samuel Akintola.

We have seen how a lawmaker, Hon. Chidi Lloyd, “maced” the head of his colleague, Hon. Michael Chinda in the Rivers State House of Assembly in July 2013. Hon. Dino Melaye’s clothes were torn to shreds in a fracas in June 2010. Hon. Sidi H Ali pulled a gun on his colleagues over a sharia debate in the Second Republic and Hon. Aminu Safana died in a fight in the House of Reps in October 2007.

If you check these events, you will discover how money (or corruption) has degraded our legislative culture over the years. The 1962 fracas in the Western House and the Second Republic episode were, kind of, connected with loyalty and ideology. But all the fights in the legislature since 1999, including the numerous instances not mentioned here were tussles for power because power is MONEY.

When the APC Federal Government assumed power in May last year, party leaders (especially the main stakeholders in the merger that begat the APC, President Muhammadu Buhari and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu) decided to impose their handpicked choices to lead the two chambers of the National Assembly. But elements within and outside the APC challenged the imposition. Thus, Senator Bukola Saraki stepped forward to contest for President of the Senate and Hon. Yakubu Dogara went for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. These were elements of the “new” Peoples Democratic Party, nPDP, which changed the political equation in Nigeria when they joined the fledgeling APC merger put together by Buhari and Tinubu.

Fronting for Saraki in the Senate like Goliath at the vanguard of the Philistines was Dino Melaye, a legislative “war veteran”. On the side of Dogara in the House was Hon. Adbulmumin Jibrin, the Kano-born legislative hothead who takes no prisoners when he fights. They defended their principals before, during and after the 9th June 2016 National Assembly inauguration. As a reward for his role in the struggle, Dogara handed over the prestigious (or “juicy”) Committee on Appropriation to Jibrin. This was probably a pre-negotiated pact.

All was quiet while the going was good. Jibrin settled down to give himself the benefits of his support for Dogara. His colleagues in the Committee accused him of shutting them out while he “single-handedly” removed funds allocated to the proposed Lagos – Calabar railway project and transferred them to his own favoured projects in his native Kano State, and more specifically to himself.

The complaints from disgruntled members put so much pressure on Dogara that he realised that his very position was at stake unless he did something about his former Goliath, Jibrin. So, he bowed to pressure and removed Jibrin. Hon. Jibrin now unleashed his fighting talents on Dogara and everyone else. He had got wind of the plan to remove him, so he approached Dogara before hand and offered to resign. However, no evidence has been proffered to show he actually submitted a resignation letter.

Jibrin has gone to radio, television, newspaper houses and the social media in a campaign for the probe, prosecution and removal of Dogara and other principals officers. He did not stop there. He also sent petitons to the Police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission,EFCC. Emboldened by Jibrin’s fire-eating antics against a constituted authority he once defended with all his might, elements in the House that calls itself the Transparency Group, which says it is committed to the elimination of the age-old practice of “budget padding” in the National Assembly, has reportedly collected 100 signatures calling for the investigation of Dogara and other principal officers of the House of Representatives, including, of course, Jibrin.

Some legislators and legal opinion leaders believe that since the Legislature is constitutionally empowered to appropriate funds, it is technically incapable of “padding” budgets. As I see it, this storm in the House of Representatives has provided an opportunity for the APC Federal Government to effect Change in the way the Legislature has treated public finance in the name of power to appropriate funds. What exactly is this? Does it mean the lawmakers have the right to radically change the budget proposal sent to it by Executive and move allocations just as they like? If the interests of a multi-party legislature clashes with the vision/interests of a ruling party and the government it produced, which one should hold sway when it comes to the allocation of funds to projects in the budget?

As I see it, anything put in the budget by any lawmaker after the Appropriation Bill has been passed for the assent of the Chief Execuitve is a criminal act, and the culprit must be punished. Secondly, the appropriation committee MUST work together and present their work for the consideration of the general House. Any act of shutting out members is a rape on transparency and amounts to an attempt to commit a criminal act. The budget is a law governing the spending of public fund. Public officers must be held accountable for the way they handle public fund, even years after they have left office.

The invitation of the anti-graft agencies and ultimately the Judiciary to determine where the Legislature’s power of approptiation starts and stops will help put an end to the eternal squabbles between the Legislature and the Executive. This could prove beneficial to our democracy.

It is true that the abuse of the budgeting process is as old as our renascent democracy. During the President Olusegun Obasanjo years, many ministers were disgraced for bribing federal lawmakers to spike their allocations. But on the whole, the National Assembly enjoyed a measure of independence during the PDP years in power. Some say this enabled lawmakers to enrich themselves through the abuse of their power of appropriation and oversight.

With Buhari’s anti-graft war, virtually every aspect of Legislative activities is now subject to the scrutiny of the anti-graft agencies and the courts. Jibrin’s petitions have handed the National Assembly over to the Exective branch which can now use the Attorney General of the Federation, the anti-graft agencies and the courts to hold the Legislature to account for the way it carries out its power of budget appropriation. Because of this fight-to-finish, the National Assembly has voluntarily surrendered its once prized independence to the Executive.

This will have several dramatic effects. Number one is that for the first time, budget abusers will be detected and prosecuted. Those found culpable will lose their plum positions. The Executive will thus achieve its original wishes of getting these unwanted officials out and imposing the handpicks of the President and party leaders to head the National Assembly.

Though it might minimise corruption in the budgeting process, the Legislature may no longer be able to take its independence for granted. The Legislature might eventually become a rubberstamp for the Executive, and this could increase civilian dictatorship. If this takes place, it will be a legacy of the APC regime.

It is left to be seen if the President and the Party will be willing to cash in on this opportunistic opening. There are, however, indications that the Party is already wading in, perhaps to treat the issue as a “family affair,” PDP style.

 


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