BUDGET 2008: WHAT NASS APPROVED FOR NASS
The anxiety and surprise that characterized the Budget 2008 has come and gone, but the lingering effect of its passage by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua recently, is still reverberating across the country.
The National Assembly (NASS) allocation officially, totaling N104 billion is one of the subjects of public angst. In the breakdown of over N100 billion approved for the divisions of the National Assembly, House of Reps got the highest allocation of N56.1bn; the Senate, N33.7bn, National Assembly Office, N8.5bn; General Service Office, N8.097billion, and NASS Commission, N1.3billion.
These colossal amounts of money are what will ‘run’ the National Assembly in 365 days, spread over four quarters. Now, the money, by all means, is not too much for the federal legislative arm to use in ensuring the business of legislature, setting constituency agenda and keeping their offices at their bases functional within the stipulated budget ear-marked for such projects.
Under the constitution, the legislative arm is empowered to study the budget figures sent in by the executive for their ratification and modification before the final approval. Unfortunately, conflicts of interest always set in. The 2008 budget was unnecessarily delayed due to disagreements between the Presidency and the legislators before President Umar Yar’Adua signed the amended version from the National Assembly in April, 2008.
In-as-much-as this is not the first time Nigerians would be finishing the first quarter of the year without the budget implementation in process, the unsavoury situation smacks of the legislative/executive face-off reminiscent of the Obasanjo’s years.
Past experiences during the last eight years have clearly shown that the budget is more or less a “Pandora box” where all kinds of expenditure are conjured, probably to hoodwink the Nigerian public into having a smokescreen as a referral with the real spending diverted elsewhere.
However, the bone of contention in this dispensation solely has to do with what the National Assembly members in their hallowed confines, felt in their wisdom ought to be allotted to them in the 2008 budget. Hence their legislative obligations prodded them to amend the monies allocated to them in the original budget with more befitting figures to the tune of billions of naira.
Of course, the President’s refusal to go ahead and sign the ‘new’ budget bruised the ego of the wise men in the National Assembly whose contributions in exercising their constitutional rights appeared not to be respected by the executive.
Different opinions could be proffered as to how their allocations in the 2008 may have any direct bearing on the living standard of Nigerians. But the breakdown of the miscellaneous expenses leaves much to be desired. Under serial number 021005002501001, the refreshment and meals for Senators is N1.5billion, while under serial number 02101000251001, the refreshment and meals for the House of Reps is N6.2 billion.
What we are talking about here is N7.7billion for eating and drinking in the office of the National Assembly members. It may be incongruous to think about the nature of roads in our rural areas, drinking water, healthcare and schools’ conditions and what N7.7 billion can do to alleviate the situation. But that is the refreshment money of the people’s representatives.
There are other allocations like serial number 021011000100010 for salary and wages which is N4.9billion; 02101000110001, total personnel cost, N4.9 billion, and 02101001100011 for consolidated salary N4.9 billion. One may easily confuse the figures as a mistake but the serial numbers clearly shows that the amounts involved are for the aforementioned allocations that appeared more as duplicity than anything else.
These are for the House of Reps members while that of Senators under serial numbers 021005001100001, 021005001100010 and 021005001100011 also stand for total personnel cost, salary and wages, and consolidated salary with N1.9 billion, N1.8billion being their respective amounts. What is, however, baffling are the benefits and allowances-general under serial numbers 0210050001200020 for the Senate and 021010001200020 for Reps.
While the Senate has N400.6million, the Reps have zero-nothing was allocated to them. How this could be arrived at is anybody’s guess. The Economic Confidential investigation has discovered seeming duplications in some items approved for the National Assembly (NASS) in the 2008 Budget.
For the library alone, the National Assembly Office (NASO) would receive N52.5million for books and periodicals and N50million for purchase of books for NASS Library; the Senate has N166.2million for books and periodicals and N350 million for NASS Library; House of Representatives would receive N308.8 for books and periodicals and N100 million for NASS Library; and the National Assembly Commission is allocated N6.2 million for books and periodicals and N20 million for Library Development.
The staggering amount for the library where record in research and intellectual depth in legislative matters in the past was nothing short of being ridiculous. This could be seen in the number of members who always control the discourse on the floors of both the upper and lower houses with several bench warmers whose business in the NASS was, “Sidon look”.
Majority of such members are known for demanding for allowances meant for travelling to attend seminars, workshops and the legislative activities within and outside the country but divert for personal benefit.
There is also N500 million for the establishment of a TV/Radio station for the Senate and another N350 million for the House of Representatives, the resource allocated for the same purpose. A total of N850million for the simple setting up of sub-stations for television and radio within the NASS.
The public may wonder as to why such large amounts are allocated doubly for the establishment of radio/TV substations within the NASS. Another controversial allocation in the budget of the NASS is the N1.7 billion for the purchase of vehicles for presiding officers of the senate, oversight enhancement vehicles, departmental utility vehicles, buses, ambulances and firefighters; and N2.7 billion for the House of Reps.
A breakdown of how these vehicles for presiding officers would be shared is as follows: Each of the 70 House of Reps committees will get five cars ranging from a Peugeot 407 car to other brands, while the Senate committees get two 2007 model of Camry cars each. However, nearly all federal lawmakers are either Chairmen or Vice-Chairmen of committees and may all get their share of the over 420 cars to be distributed.
An item that received a lot of mention in the budget for the National Assembly is Information and Technology where computers and their maintenance receive huge amount of money. For National Assembly Office (NASO) computer materials/supplies is allocated N154m, Maintenance of Computer and IT Equipment N405million, Intergrated IT projects and purchase of Computer, N150million. On the other hand, in the Senate, the computer materials/supplies has N1.5billion, maintenance of computer and IT equipment, N150million; and IT Consulting, N450million. The Federal House of Representative too has its own provision for computer material/ supplies, N828million, maintenance of computer and IT equipment N360million and Intergrated IT Project and purchase of computer, N600million. These expenses exclude other subheads like purchase of office equipment, security equipment; intercom connectivity and their maintenance. One cannot help but wonder if equipment such as computers, intercom connectivity, security equipment purchased for the National Assembly in the last eight years were personalized and carried away by the former lawmakers. This is a possibility that can only be curious in all ramifications as equipment like that are officially procured for official functions of the National Assembly and not to be personalized. On the other hand, if such office items are monetized and paid for by the former members, including intercom connectivity, then the returnee members who have been members of the NASS for the third term running, ought not to benefit from such allocations. The truth is all the monies approved in the past for legislative aides, constituency projects, and other concocted services under miscellaneous expenses mostly did not get expended as approved during the last administration. The evidence being the personal changes in most of the past legislators life styles… a lot of who could hardly afford a new car when they were elected but suddenly acquired chains of exotic cars, houses, changed their children schools, travelled to overseas for medical check-up and indulging in all manner of ostentatious living. More so, the incriminating evidence against them was the neglect of their constituencies, where projects were hardly executed and the constituency offices left in deplorable conditions by lack of funding. The general impression has since been that of a National Assembly where its members are not averse to personal aggrandizement and or self pursuits, at the expense of the citizens they represent. Such accusations were daily buttressed through their activities via committees’ overseeing ministries, a lot of hoopla was made over the accountability and anti-graft stance of the last administration, a cliché that became the ‘big stick’ committees readily employed in garrulous fashion to checkmate the ministries with pretentiousness for probity. At the end, hardly was there any committee known to have exposed the ‘dealings’ in such ministries, lending credence to the claims that such dust was normally a ploy to arm-twist the ministries to fall in line, whereby projects tours were arranged with huge allowances, contracts and other perks were allegedly given to the National Assembly members to induce the silent treatment. Under the present administration of President Yar’Adua, due process has become the guiding principle of every public office holder, member of the sprout, the National Assembly, inclusive. But the reality on ground since the inception of the present administration points otherwise. Pointers to the voracious nature of the present NASS began to sprout with the former Speaker, Hon. Patricia Etteh, who was disgraced out of office over N600 million alleged scandal for the renovation of her official residence. In answering newsmen over the padding of the budget by the National Assembly that led to the delay of its passage, Hon. Daniel Reyenieju rationalized this thus: “We have the constitutional right to pad the budget where necessary provided it’s for the good of the people”. Such ideals are quite commendable but the squalor in the land and the level of suffering Nigerians are undergoing which ever way one turns to, tells a different story. While waiting for the passage of the budget, the suffering increased and is yet to abate. Prices of foodstuff sky-rocketed. A sack of rice went up from N6,000 to more than N10,000 in some places. A rice seller answering questions said, “Na bicos dem no release budget”. Apparently, the President is not in support of an expenditure that would guzzle down money in white elephant projects. A reason that could also be adduced to be the clincher that led to the sleeze in the Ministry of Health being exposed. The default in returning “unspent budget” for 2007 fiscal year cost the Minister of Health, Professor Adenike Grange her job, and led to her being docked in court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for alleged fraud. This is an offence for which Senator Iyabo Obasanjo is also haunted by the EFCC, having partaken in the sharing of N300 million unspent budget of the ministry. Feelers across the country after the release of the 2008 budget have pointedly accused the National Assembly members of not being in touch with the people. Former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Professor Tam David West said that he is not happy with the attitude of the legislators. In a chat with news men, he advocated a radical cleansing of the system… “Look at the living condition of Nigerians and the level of unemployment in the country. The budget is most irresponsible. They are now horrible and not honourable members,” he stressed. Others may not agree with his views but the federal legislators have begun to get their first and second quarter allocations totalling N17billion. The faith Nigeria could have reposed on the National Assembly to ensure that budgetary allocations to ministries are duly spent on the projects earmarked for, is virtually non-existent. There is no indication, whatsoever, that probity and accountability can be entrenched in the ministries by the lawmakers for the simple fact that, ‘he who must coms to equity must do so with clean hands’. According to former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Wale Olanipekun (SAN), he is not particularly surprised about what is happening in the National Assembly, “After all most of them emerged in a curious manner as lawmakers”, he observed. It seems members of the NASS do not see anything wrong with the budget. Honourable Aribisala postulated that “The cars are not personal but for committee work, they were budgeted for in the 2007 fiscal year.” He went on to dismiss as untrue the allegation that they padded the budget”. “It is false and unfounded. The present house is different. It is focused to work for Nigerians”, he concluded. A cross-section of Nigerians believe that going by some of the allocations approved in the budget for the National Assembly like purchase of cars and the committees guest houses for the Speaker and his deputy it is the President’s way of appeasing the lawmakers to ensure cordial relationship and put an end to the delay of the budget passage. Contrary to such views, Hon. Reyenieju said “I do not agree that the vehicles were bought by the house leadership to appease the legislators. The vehicles are not personal but for committee work”. On the budgetary provision to purchase guest houses for the speaker and his deputy, Hear him, “the guest houses are intended for the use as residential houses for the speaker and his deputy when they travel to the Lagos axis. It is cheaper than staying in hotels”. This submission may have some substance in it but the argument against it is what happens when the Speaker and his deputy travel to other regions where there’s no guest houses provided? Can they carry the ones bought, along? Similarly for the vehicles which Reyenieju said are for committee work: what happens if any committee has oversight functions, say in Maiduguri or Lagos: would they drive the cars all the way to other destinations from Abuja? When newsmen sought the views of the Media Assistant to the Speaker, Mr. Kayode Odunaro, he said he was not competent to comment on any of the issues raised, noting that the house was not doing anything inappropriate, and also made reference to Hon. Eziuchi Ubani, Chairman, House Committee on Information for further clarification. Although no senator or the leadership of the Senate was able to comment on the 2008 budget as of the time of going to press, the figures of the complete breakdown of allocation to the National Assembly had reached the desk of Economic Confidential to authenticate what accrued to every section of the National Assembly. Economic Confidential investigations also revealed that, the figures in the allocation due NASS had to be stepped down before the President agreed to sign the budget. This alleged development was widely applauded by the public but completely denied by all members of NASS contacted. What remains sacrosanct in achieving an objective and people-oriented budget is a selfless approach by the NASS members in performing their constitutional duties in whatever area that can usher in an era of tangible development and progress befitting the Nigerian state, a dawn that can only be realized when the right intellectual depth is used in putting together the dynamics and mechanics of authentic budgeting. Until the appropriate approach is adopted and with the public interest in view, the 2009 budget would not be anything different from the 2008 budget. The era of wishful thinking that Nigeria is the giant of Africa is long gone. Countries as South Africa, Ghana, Cote Ivoire and even Togo are miles ahead in terms of development. In the areas of public services i.e. electricity, transportation, health care, road network and education amongst many others, Nigeria is way back, still groveling in the woods and indulging in the illusory woes of self delusion. The reality, sadly, is that the resources are available. It is only the National Assembly that offers hope to the common man...the hope of picking up the gauntlet and fostering the building blocks of becoming a 21st century power house. This can only be made plausible by beginning from their jurisdiction and ensuring that self-aggrandizement is kept in abeyance. Probity, accountability and sincerity must form the bedrock of what the legislators implement. These indices must become the guiding principle, if ministries must be made to tow the line of not diverting public funds and enriching a few in the civil service and selected political cronies of those in power. Only then can Nigeria begin its march toward an economic eldorado.