THERE’s no Nigerian who knows a National Assembly constituency project that is not a scam. Worse, less than one per cent of Nigerians would have ever encountered a constituency project of any kind in 17 years. So, it would not come as a surprise that the Buhari administration, not known for excessive generosity, had tried to talk the members of the National Assembly off their ‘usual’ back-pocket money.
The body language of President Muhammadu Buhari and his finance minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, tends to jell. There is no money for constituency projects this year they seem to have said without actually saying so. Mrs. Adeosun occasionally regales the nation with stories, anecdotes, to show there is no money. She is coping with a civil service in which there are sometimes 20 drivers employed and paid monthly by a department with only one serviceable car. Then she tells her frustrations with Nigeria’s friends who want to give the country I-phones whereas what Nigeria actually needs is infrastructure.
But the paranoia of both PMB and Mrs. Adeosun over spending money means little to members of the National Assembly to whom the Assembly is a grand bazaar, a bottomless pit; limitless resources granted them by the grace of the Nigerian Constitution. This explains the budget padding, the extra-car, the bloated expense accounts, the grand salary plus 17 different allowances, and the best legislative pay in the universe.
The Executive branch seems to have kept putting off the issue, hoping for an understanding by the legislature, pretending not to hear the persistent, insistent push to pay up or pledge or guarantee payment of constituency projects – projects of dubious economic value when they are not outright frauds. But then the $29 billion loan came down, then the virement, and the Shylocks sharpened his knives. The first day the loan issue arrived, National Assembly members were very open and they told the press that unless they were assured of the constituency projects they were not going to look at it, much less touch it. So in the Senate, Senate Leader read the covering letter introducing the issue and the Senate President called a vote immediately and the “nays” had it. Case closed. The House did not even bother. Indeed it was not tabled at all. The Senate peddled the “bicycle” tale of the loan application not being properly presented, not supported by appropriate documentation. We’ll reconsider it when the details are supplied, it said. President Buhari had to meet the Senate President, not once, not twice, but thrice. Then the long-awaited signal arrived. The news media reported that the government has struck a deal with the National Assembly and has commenced payment for the N100 billion constituency projects. Having thus been settled, the Assembly swung to life again. So when the Deputy Speaker Lasun put the virement motion to voice vote, he did not even wait to hear if there were any “nays” before he brought down the gavel. The National Assembly is actuated entirely by money.
Does the Executive Branch have a choice and can it overcome the National Assembly’s pointed, specific blackmail? In principle, yes. For one, in a showdown, President Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osibajo stand on a higher moral ground than the National Assembly, none of whom had the courage to declare his assets publicly, except for Senator Shehu Sani. Secondly, the Nigerian public views the National Assembly as not only the most expensive but also the most corrupt parliament in the world.
Yet the likelihood of an Executive-engineered showdown is unlikely. True, everyone knows the N100 billion is money down the drain. It will never be properly accounted for. What is painful is that when the country is going through economic recession, it is shelling out a N100 billion that could have been used to help the economy, not line the private pockets of a few Nigerians.
Secondly, a foreign loan cannot be an exciting project for a Nigerian populace that is by custom and tradition opposed to debts. The loans are the best of all the bad options available to the government for the rejuvenation of the economy, especially when other options are expensive. But it demonstrates our current economic predicament less than a dozen years after we became debt-free.
President Buhari seems reluctant to engage in any confrontation with the legislature for obvious reasons. Many Nigerians are feeling the economic pinch and may not wish to add a constitutional disagreement to their troubles. But the idea of the constituency project has been in dispute for years, and none but the direct beneficiaries, that is, the members of the National Assembly, seem to be in support of the scheme. Instances have been given where the projects have been nothing but the equivalent of free money. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has been one of the harshest critics of the members. He berates them for their dishonesty and their continuous obsession with making money.
But the principles against constitutional projects are many and fundamental. First, they breach the principle of the separation of powers. The legislature is assigned the duty of enacting the budget, and evaluating it. It is then left to the executive to implement. Constituency projects muddy the waters whereby the legislature gets involved in the implementation of the budget. It is akin to the referee determining the rules of the game and also getting involved, not just serving as the umpire but playing the game as well. Yet the wisdom of the separation of powers is to ensure efficiency in governance and reduce the risk of incompetence and corruption.
Anything that confers executive functions to the legislature in a separation of powers setting is bound to be dysfunctional. Spending by the executive is expected to be overseen by the legislature but constituency projects are designed, executed, overseen by the legislature, and that’s why it has always been considered a waste of money. The choice of the projects and their location tend to be based on the discretion of the legislator with little or no independent assessment of the cost-benefit analysis.
It has been found time and time again that when the voter weighs a legislator on the material things that he is able to bring to the constituency, there is a clear misapprehension of the role of the legislator. On the other hand when a legislator feels he must provide patronage, it demonstrates how politically insecure he or she has become.