The Sun News

2018 budget, lawmakers and constituency projects

Last Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari, fulfilled his yearly ritual. He presented the 2018 budget proposal to both chambers of the National Assembly. On paper, the budget is the biggest ever in Nigeria’s history. In reality, it is far from what it sets out to achieve.

The funfair, which heralded the presentation of the N8.6 trillion budget, has faded. Uncertainty has set in. It may not be an easy ride for Buhari. Anyway, he has never had it easy with the National Assembly. It appears the president has earned a reputation for himself. Getting his annual budget passed is now synonymous with the camel passing through the eye of the needle.

Buhari inherited the 2015 budget from President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. His first budget was passed in April 2016. For months, it was a tug of war between the legislature and the executive over claims that the budget was padded. At least, the Senate was insulated from the scandal. 

The leadership of the House of Representatives, spearheaded by Yakubu Dogara, got its fingers burnt. Famous Abdulmumin Jibrin, former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, who is probably paying for his sins in suspension, blew the lid.

For months, the National Assembly was in the news for the wrong reasons. If former President Olusegun Obasanjo was still in charge, he would have aided the impeachment of Dogara. At least, he did it in the past. 

While the controversy over the alleged budget padding lasted, Nigerians endured the biting hardship. In the end, fences were mended and Buhari who earlier rejected the budget, finally appended his signature.

Nigerians were yet to recover from the unnecessary face-off between the two leading arms of government, when the phase two of alleged budget padding popped up. For over three months, it was a case of motion, without action. 

After a behind-the-scene deal was struck, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who was the then acting president, while Buhari was away on a medical vacation in London, signed the Appropriation Bill into law in June this year. 

This is the third budget Buhari is presenting since he was sworn in in May, 2015. Like others, the 2018 budget may not get a soft landing. If lawmakers go ahead to carry out their threat, we may not have an early approved budget in 2018.

Few days before Buhari presented the budget, there was a grand conspiracy to rubbish and boo him on the floor of the House of Representatives, venue of the presentation. Angry lawmakers, who have been reduced to non-performers because the Federal Government did not fund their constituency projects, threatened to take their own pound of flesh.

On Monday, Senate President, Bukola Saraki and Speaker Yakubu Dogara, held series of meetings to find a soft landing for President Buhari, ahead of the budget presentation the next day.

At some point, Buhari contemplated postponing the presentation of the budget by one week, to allow key actors meet with aggrieved lawmakers to resolve areas of differences.

But Saraki and Dogara succeeded in assuring Buhari that aggrieved members would be prevailed upon to hold their peace. 

On Monday evening, Buhari, still perturbed that he might be booed by angry lawmakers, invited Saraki and Dogara to the Presidential Villa.

At the meeting, he pleaded with the two leaders to prevail on their members to shelve their planned protest during the presentation of the budget proposal.

As a follow up, the new Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, also met with Saraki the same day to further calm angry lawmakers.

After the meeting with the SGF, Saraki and Dogara, also met with principal officers of both chambers separately, while influential members in the House of Representatives were also contacted to prevail on their colleagues not to embarrass the president.

On the D-day, some lawmakers who vowed to defy pleas from Saraki and Dogara, went into the chamber with placards. Their plan was to interrupt Buhari and display the placards while he was still delivering his speech. However, they failed to make true their threats to scuttle the presentation of the 2018 budget by Buhari.

Well, Saraki and Dogara saved Baba Buhari who would have been embarrassed before a global audience. Thank God that shame was averted.

Can you remember what played out two Thursdays ago, when a mild drama occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives? Speaker Dogara had announced that there was a letter from the president on the 2018 budget. 

As soon as he concluded, lawmakers began shouting “no” to show their displeasure with the request for a joint session with the Senate.

Dogara had stressed, in his intervention, that lawmakers could not stop the president from addressing the joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“I wish we have the constitutional right to say no. But unfortunately, we don’t have it. This House is the custodian of the Constitution. The president has the right,” Dogara had said.

Let me tell you why the 2018 budget may not have a smooth sail in the National Assembly. The lawmakers are angry because of the refusal of the executive to release the 2016 and 2017 allocations for constituency projects for both chambers.

The aggrieved lawmakers who are due for party primaries next year are demanding the release of the N200 billion budgeted for constituency projects in 2016 and 2017.

If you think these lawmakers are kidding, just relax and watch the drama unfold. Constituency projects are a part of our democracy that will hang around for a long time. Let me explain why.

Nigeria is in the class of third world countries. Our healthcare, roads, schools, houses and other key areas are all underdeveloped. Unfortunately, we lack the needed resources to develop these critical sectors and join the big boys’ comity of developed nations. 

This is the sad, but true picture and this is where constituency projects come in. Constituency or intervention project is both a political and development tool. It depends on the side of the divide you belong.

In the past, there were unverified claims that funds earmarked for constituency projects were siphoned by lawmakers. There were mere claims. Nobody was ever charged to court. Those who were accused did not put up any spirited effort to discredit these claims. So, they are still in the realm of rumours.

But rumours not challenged take the place of truth over time. This was how constituency projects were rubbished. Lawmakers had a free ride when Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan held sway as presidents. But not with Buhari. 

For President Buhari, constituency project is corruption. He has not openly kicked against it, but his lieutenants are doing that on his behalf. The executive is not funding constituency projects and that does not augur well for lawmakers who would have no projects to point at and campaign with ahead of their reelection in 2019.

During the last campaigns in 2015, lawmakers made promises to their constituents. They promised roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, fund for weddings and burial ceremonies, supply of fertilisers to farmers, build boreholes, among others.

Their constituents voted for them. Two years and five months into their tenure, they are yet to fulfill these promises. And next year, they will face party primaries and in another 15 months, they will face reelection. 

These politicians will be held to account by their constituents. They will be reminded of the unfulfilled promises In the end, elections will be won and lost. This is the sad reality awaiting the lawmakers in 2019.

Now you understand why they are angry, right? In over two years, the administration of Buhari has not released about N200 billion budgeted for constituency projects in the 2016 and 2017 Appropriation Acts.

If you are hoping to see a budget passed before January, don’t just sit back and watch. You may join in whispering to President Buhari to release the funds.

The lawmakers must remain politically active and relevant and their lifeline is the constituency project. There are people who always argue that lawmakers have no business with project execution. In fact, they have gone further to advocate that the practice should be abolished. For them, lawmakers are elected to make laws and carry out oversight functions. 

In theory, this is true. In our defective democracy, however, it will not happen. As long as Nigeria remains underdeveloped, lawmakers will continue to make a case for constituency projects. As long as our presidents, governors and local government chairmen remain sectional, constituency projects will remain relevant.

There are some communities in Nigeria that have never been captured in any government’s development plans. Either for religious, political or primordial reasons, these communities are always neglected. Whenever they are lucky to produce a senator or a member of the House of Representatives, fortune smiles on them. Through their representatives, these abandoned communities get federal presence.

Yes, I have issues with some aspects of constituency projects. Maybe we need to be more transparent and ensure that the projects executed are solid. But to call for its scrapping outright, I say a big NO! 

For the peace of Nigeria, I sincerely hope that funds are released for the execution of constituency projects. This is my prayer. This is my wish.

I so submit!

One more thing

…Chaos in the National Assembly

Have you been to the National Assembly lately? Well, if you are a ‘trekker’, you may not understand the point I am trying to make. But for car owners, the National Assembly is a wrong place to be during week days. The chaos is unbearable.

For over three weeks, the deplorable car park reserved for ordinary people like me, has been under lock and key. According to managers of the National Assembly complex, the park is under construction. 

The alternative car park cannot accommodate more than 100 cars. Ironically, over 1,000 car owners visit the National Assembly everyday. Getting a space to temporarily park your car is almost impossible. Whenever you err and park wrongly, overzealous security agents either deflate or clamp your tyres. This is an appeal. Those in charge should up their game and quickly fix the designated car park. The chaos is terrible and the harassment is no longer golden. Thank you in advance and God bless you quickly too.

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