NASS Budget: Bearing The Burden Of Change And Executive Deception -By Emmah Adah

Filed under: Political Issues |
The Nigerian National Assembly

The Nigerian National Assembly

Two very important issues with serious financial implications for the polity have alarmed Nigerians in the last few days. One was the revelation by President Muhammadu Buhari that some former Ministers had illegally lifted one million barrels of oil daily and shared the proceeds among themselves.  The second one, which equally attracted several debates, was about the President himself:  the cost of his visit to the United States, as a guest of President Barrack Obama, was about NGN2.2 billion.  These two scenarios will help us to put into practical context the vexed issue of budgetary allocation to the National Assembly.

The lawmakers have been entangled in allegations that bother more on financial issues, such as remuneration, allowances, spending and other benefits.  I intend to situate these allegations into two major contexts for the purpose of clarity: excessive legitimate earnings and illegitimate earnings.  I will use the two scenarios earlier painted revolving around the President to put these earnings into proper perspective.  Maybe this would further allow us to appreciate whether public criticisms against NASS members have been fair, not misplaced and truly reflect the reality in the polity.  We must not forget that democracy rests on three major institutions – Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary.

Although President Buhari did not specify the cost of the crude oil stolen daily, but a moderate estimate could be in the region of NGN10 billion daily based on the fluctuation in global oil price and the unstable value of naira.  Assuming the President was correct with this figure and successfully established this allegation through the court of law, that will amount to a whopping NGN300 billion stolen monthly by a clique of Ministers under the executive arm of government alone. Note that the entire budget of NASS for 2015 is NGN120 billion.

The second issue was the alleged spending of the sum of NGN2.2 billion by a delegation of about 50 persons who visited the U.S. for four days. That is an average NGN40 million per person for 96 hours, minus cost of transportation but including subsidized feeding as guests of America. This figure is yet to be controverted by the federal government; but some Nigerians have risen to defend and  justify it.

Since May 29, 2015, when we sauntered into the change era as canvassed by the All Progressives Party (APC) and President Buhari, public scrutiny has been on the rise while the bar of expectation from the federal government is at the highest level since independence.  However, there have been subtle attempts to divert the attention of Nigerians to focus only on the National Assembly for whatever reason. Even when the budget of the federal lawmakers has been reduced from NGN150 billion to NGN120 billion in the 2015 Appropriation Act, pressure continues to mount on them.

There is absolutely nothing bad in scapegoating the National Assembly if it will serve public good and further deliver good governance in Nigeria.  After all, the legislature is the ultimate symbol of any democratic setting: it is the people’s representative. The legislative arm is unarguably the major institution that distinguishes democracy from military rule in our governance experience. However, provided the clamour to reduce the cost of governance is an all inclusive fair process for all the arms of government, there shouldn’t be any major cause for concern.

In subjecting the legislature to public scrutiny to reduce or cut the cost of governance, critics must be fair and avoid the trap of what looks like an ongoing deliberate agenda to make the legislative arm suffer public opprobrium alone to cover the recklessness of the executive. For instance, in what could be classified as an attempt to quickly stave off public pressure, some members of the executive arm recently embarked on a deceptive populist agenda to reduce their salary and allowances by 50 per cent.  In fact, a particular governor was quick to beckon on his state lawmakers to emulate this gesture. This was celebrated by some unsuspecting members of the public.

As expected, some Nigerians bought into this contrived agenda without searching deep and asking relevant questions. At the federal level too, the President and the Vice President announced a similar cut in emoluments, giving further opportunity to pile up pressure on the Federal Lawmakers. Note that there have been a deliberate media and public onslaught against the National Assembly by some Nigerians not pleased with it leadership composition.  And in fighting an enemy, sometimes several things come handy. The issue of NASS budget has been seriously exploited to cast aspersions on the lawmakers. Unfortunately, the legislature too has not enjoyed much of public support arising more from its seemingly opaque financial system. Transparency is key.

However, in the collective campaign to cut the cost of governance, it should not be done in such a way that will undermine the functions of one arm at the expense of the other. For instance, some members of the executive who cut their earnings by 50 percent still enjoy the benefits of free accommodation, free transportation and almost everything free including their immediate families. They are serviced by the government through state house or government house allocations.  In essence, if they decide to forfeit all allowances and salaries to the state, nothing has changed?  They also have access to security vote that is constant.  In reality, a good percentage of this vote is kept for personal use. Mind you, they also enjoy benefits using cronies to execute contracts.

We must realise that the 2015 NGN120 billion budget is for: 469 members of NASS with a minimum of five aides each; the National Assembly Service Commission and it staff and the National Institute for Legislative Studies.  Aside allowances and emoluments, the budget also covers committees work, oversight activities, foreign parliamentary engagements, trainings and other important and sometimes unforeseen expenses. Now, if about 50 persons who traveled with the President to the U.S. could be said to have spent about NGN2.2 billion in four days, it may therefore be necessary to reevaluate the pressure on the legitimate earnings of the lawmakers. Interestingly, the budget of NASS is less than three percent of the entire 2015 budget.

Assuming without conceding that the allegation of illegitimate earnings is true against the federal lawmakers, how can the grievous allegation of financial recklessness now common in the public domain be validated or substantiated? Do the lawmakers have the opportunity to steal 1,000 barrels of oil per day? Are they in a position to award huge contracts to their cronies? Even if some members are interested in securing contracts, they have to go cap in hand to the incumbent executive heads and the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) in the executive arm.  This is, however, not to justify any corrupt act. Corruption, by any standard, is unacceptable and should be severely punished; but in dwelling on the reality that exists in our nation, the facts must be laid bare.

It is true that as a nation, we have suffered enough from impunity and financial recklessness across the three tiers of government in Nigeria. It is also true that there is pervasive corruption and lack of transparency and accountability in rendering stewardship to the people. But when push comes to shove, there is every possibility that NASS is actually in need of more fund-financial augmentation- if they are to operate and function like other lawmakers in the developed world.  Legislative business is very expensive globally.  However, if the campaign to cut the cost of governance must be sustained, it should be holistic through a total reform and not the executive deceptively reducing its salary in order to put pressure on the lawmakers.  The burden of change should be borne by all.

Mr Adah, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Congresswatch magazine, sent this piece from Abuja.

 

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