the last two weeks, Nigerians have been inundated with nauseating information on the details of how principal officers in the House of Representatives allegedly abused the privileges of appropriation and lawmaking. They allegedly turned the public power of appropriation into an instrument of pettiness, oppression, corruption and thereby contributed in no small measure to the pervading economic adversity. My first reaction was one of shock, disbelief and outrage but later calmed down to the clear headed recognition that things of this nature happen so that the right lessons may be learnt and the system strengthened.
This has brought to the fore many of the questions that have always been at the background in the appropriation process. The posers include: What is the extent of executive and legislative powers in the appropriation process? What level of collaboration is needed at the initiation process between the executive and legislature? At what stage is a project ripe to be inserted into the federal budget? What is a constituency project and how does it get into the budget and who takes charge of its implementation? Should just any project nominated by a legislator be allowed into the federal budget? Whilst this discourse may not provide answers to all of these posers, it will attempt to provide some clues on these posers and the way forward.
The key challenge I see with this budget fiasco is that laws and regulations made under them have been ignored by both the executive and the legislature. The Fiscal Responsibility Act is one clear law that will have provided the road map in the appropriation process if the authorities were minded to obey the law. In accordance with the FRA, the appropriation process should properly start with the preparation of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and its underlying Medium Term Sector Strategies. Both the MTEF and the MTSS are three year medium rolling frameworks in which the provisions of the first year of the framework determine the budget of the next financial year. Section 18 of the FRA is unequivocal in making the MTEF the basis for the preparation of the annual budget, including the need for the budget to be consistent with its sectoral and compositional distribution and its medium term developmental priorities.
The MTSS reviews high level national policies in the sector, ongoing and new projects and seeks to determine the ones that will best facilitate the realisation of government’s objectives in the sector in view of limited available resources. The sector team that prepares the MTSS will include the officials of the MDAs concerned, representatives of the committee with oversight in the legislature, organised private sector, labour and the civil society, among other. Thus, major stakeholders are represented in the sector team and the chances of special interests hijacking the provisions and allocations are quite remote. Assuming that the legislature and the executive agree on a certain amount for constituency projects, it is at this stage that the legislators will select their projects in view of the priorities and policy thrusts of government. This project will compete with others in the planning process and if it survives, it will be part of the MTSS which informs the sector’s budget. If the project does not fit into priorities, the legislator will have the opportunity of choosing one that aligns with the priorities and top policies of government.
The foregoing is in view of the fact that background studies, soil tests, environmental impact assessments, technical drawings and samplings are done before a project qualifies for implementation and some of these need to be done months before the budget is ready for implementation. Some of the projects may involve land acquisition and other community issues. Introducing a project that needs these background checks into the budget in late December or in the first quarter of the year during legislative consideration will definitely not make them ready to go with the New Year’s budget. Further, some of what we see as constituency projects have no business in the federal budget. Boreholes, solar street lights, town halls, sewing machines and tricycles allegedly purchased for poverty reduction are not the best ways to reduce poverty or to spend federal resources. These projects at best qualify to be undertaken by local governments, not even state governments.
But what happens in practice is that the executive and legislature do not engage in sufficient dialogue at the preparation process. The legislature is kept at bay and the executive does its thing and then, the legislators will wait to do theirs at the other end and this leads to this kind of unconscionable acts. Another part of this drama of the absurd is that the rules of the House of Representatives do not in any way empower the leadership of the House or any special committee (including Appropriations) to take any unilateral action not approved by all the members at a proper sitting. Having gone through these rules, it is unfortunate that members of the House of Representatives allowed their leadership to allegedly shortchange them and keep resources that should have gone round to a few. Under no condition should the allocation to constituency projects made to the House be hijacked by a few. This happened because the members slept over their rights; a Speaker is the first among equals. No one was elected by his constituency as a Speaker and being a principal officer is a mere opportunity to serve at the sufferance of all the members.
There are unconfirmed reports making the rounds that in the past, legislators found their way to nominate contractors or even in some instances got constituency project money released to them. Of course, they failed to implement the projects most of the time. But who released these funds to the legislators? To the best of my knowledge, federal resources are not in the possession of the legislature. It will therefore take a collaboration of the executive and legislature before such a fraud can be committed. It needs to be made clear that no legislator is entitled to transform himself into an implementing agency or contractor after nominating a constituency project. The best the legislators can do is to exercise oversight over the implementation of the projects.
In the event of the legislature coming up with new projects not already in the executive proposals, there must be sufficient dialogue and a case made out justifying the new project and legislative executive agreement before such a project should be part of appropriation. Of course, the sources of funding such a project must be clearly identified; every expenditure must be accompanied by the requisite revenue. There is the need to distinguish between projects inserted with the approval of the entire legislature and those unilaterally inserted by the leadership of the legislature in abuse of their office. If after the House had finished their work and now asked the appropriate officers and committees to get a clean copy for presidential assent and in between that decision and submission to the President, some officers introduce further projects, this is clearly fraudulent and needs to be punished even if it slipped through executive scrutiny before the assent.
With the disclosures, the House of Representatives upon resumption should go through the budget again and in partnership with the Senate, amend the budget to expunge those parts inserted by a few officers in contravention of the decisions of the majority of the House members.