The House of Representative Thieves?

JIBRIL AND DOGARA (2)

“The National Assembly is a reflection of the larger Nigerian society. Whether it is called budget padding or budget stuffing, they are all synonyms of corruption.

As of today, Nigeria cannot boast of any arm of government that is corruption-free… Is it the judiciary or the legislature or the executive? Sadly, the civil service is, incredibly, the

“Mother of Corruption”. And that brings us to the dilemma of the Nigerian nation. It brings us to why we are stagnant. Who is going to check who? Who is going to investigate who? Where are the checks and balances?”

– A Nigerian, reacting to allegations of budget padding in the National Assembly (The PUNCH, July 29, 2016)

Ever since a former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Lamido Sanusi (now the Emir of Kano), drew our attention to the financial recklessness of the National Assembly, all eyes have been on its members. We knew all along from the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo that the National Assembly members inflated their entitlements and were raking in even more money than the inflated entitlements.

We also knew that they were fond of inserting their own budgetary wishes into the national budget in the course of appropriation. To be frank with ourselves, the National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to modify the budgetary proposals submitted by the President, by deleting or adding particular items to the budget. It can also reduce or increase the proposed budget for particular items. It is in the course of carrying out these functions that their own pet projects are inserted into the budget. This is the origin of the ongoing budget padding controversy.

This practice is not peculiar to Nigeria. In the United States, Congress (consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives) adds billions of dollars of pet projects, known as earmarks or pork, to spending bills every year. In 2006, the Boston Globe reported that the Congress spent $10bn on 1,439 such projects in 1995. Ten years later, the figures had gone up astronomically to $27.3bn on 13, 997 projects.

By December 2015, as the appropriation for fiscal year 2016 peaked, virtually every member of Congress struggled to insert their own pet project into the bill. Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, had this to say about them: “Anyone who wants to get anything done, who has already been frustrated by a virtually non-functioning Washington, is trying to cram whatever they can into this (appropriation) bill” (The New York Times, December 9, 2015). The result is billions of dollars for thousands of pet projects.

What is peculiar to Nigeria is that most, if not all, of the funds emanating from the padding of the budget goes into the private pockets of their sponsors, whereas, in the US, they are spent on the projects for which such funds are earmarked. For most US legislators, the appropriate spending of such project funds is often the basis for re-election or rejection at the polls. This is so because the budget is transparent and line items can be identified and monitored, constituency by constituency, which is not the case in Nigeria.

Another significant feature of the ongoing budget padding controversy is that the insertion of projects worth over N400bn was done after the whole House had passed the budget. In other words, the padding took place on the budget’s way to the Presidency, after leaving the House floor. It is this aspect of the process that is criminal. There really isn’t much difference in law between such an act and the forgery of the Senate Rules by a clique, without the knowledge of the whole Senate. If the latter is considered a criminal offence, and it has been charged to court as such, then the former is equally criminal and should be charged to court.

What is worse, the padding of this year’s budget was wrong on three additional grounds. First, the amount was excessive, given the small number of alleged culprits, namely, the Principal Officers of the House and a few Committee chairmen. One of them allegedly asked for over N40bn of pork for himself alone.

Second, the whole country is in an extended financial drought due to the dip in oil prices, the vandalism of pipelines, and dollar scarcity for foreign exchange, leading to the devaluation of the naira.

Over 30 states have fallen six to 12 months in arrears of salaries, pensions, allowances, and/or required deductions. The multiplier effects on businesses and personal welfare are evident all over the country.

For example, petty traders cannot restock partly because civil servants, who bought on credit, could no longer pay up and partly because prices have soared beyond their capital outlay. Even small businesses are distressed because they can no longer afford to borrow from banks, which charge exorbitant interests on loans. Against these backgrounds, adding so much money to the national budget just to benefit a few people is callous and immoral.

Third, the culprits of the alleged fraudulent padding of the budget should have been mindful of the present administration’s fight against corruption. If the lawmakers involved could not think about the welfare of those who elected them into office, they should at least be mindful of their party’s pet project, namely, to fight corruption.
The whole nation is now watching the administration to see if it can successfully turn the fight against some of its own.

With the Department of State Services and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission after the alleged culprits, there are signs that the case will be investigated. I would caution, however, that reporters and commentators tread carefully until charges are formally brought against the alleged culprits.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, however, the alleged culprits have fallen short of the honour and respect due to their ranks, at least in the court of public opinion. They have made hollow the hallowed chambers of the Lower House. That’s why they all should resign once charges are brought against them on the padding of the 2016 budget.

And here lies the significance of the opening quote. Will the allegations be effectively investigated? Will charges be brought against the culprits? Will President Muhammadu Buhari insist, as in the case of the Senate President and his Deputy, that the law must take its course? Will the culprits sit tight like the Senate leaders in order to drag out the case so they could run out their tenure?

The answers to these questions lie with the Presidency, the law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies, the nation’s high profile lawyers, and the judiciary. Above all, whether or not the nation will be tortured through a protracted legal battle depends on the integrity of the alleged culprit. If they have a sense of shame at all (their integrity having been seriously questioned), they will resign before they appear in court.

Finally, let me crave the indulgence of the few honourable members of the House of Representatives that may be left out there. I thought about you when I adopted the title for this essay. However, I let it stand on the basis of a Chinese proverb: The fish stinks from the head.

by Niyi Akinnaso

 

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