George Oji is a journalist and the Executive Director, Friends in the Gap Advocacy Initiative (FGAI) – a parliamentary watchdog. In this interview with Anayo Okolie, he expresses concern that with the completion of the defence of the 2016 budget by the Ministries, Departments and Agencies of Government (MDAs), there was yet no peep into the budget of the National Assembly as their allocation is still shrouded in secrecy

As a parliamentary watchdog, your group has consistently advocated the need for the National Assembly to open up its budget for public scrutiny, was that objective achieved this time around?
Budgeting is one of the areas we have been trying to engage the National Assembly to ensure openness and transparency. This is because since the commencement of the current democratic dispensation, the budget of the National Assembly has consistently been shrouded in secrecy. At best, the only thing Nigerians get to hear is the amount allocated to the National Assembly; nothing is revealed about the budget breakdown. This is where our concerns stem.

But the National Assembly is supposed to be financially autonomous?  
Yes, only to the extent that the payment of the salaries and allowances of the lawmakers are drawn from the first line charge or the consolidated revenue fund of the federation.

If that is the case, then why do we still have National Assembly Budget?
The National Assembly budget covers the salaries and allowances of the entire bureaucracy that make up the parliament, including the National Assembly Service Commission, the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS), budget office of the National Assembly as well as the legislative aides and ironically some spurious allocations to the lawmakers.

So, what else is left out?
Like the case of the executive and the judiciary, Nigerians would want to know how the allocation to the National Assembly is shared among the various competing sectors and departments of the National Assembly. Nigerians are interested in knowing for instance how much was allocated for the maintenance the assembly grasses and flowers, how much was allocated for the purchase of cars for the lawmakers and the bureaucrats, how much was allocated for travels and trainings, how much was allocated for the purchase of computers, how much was allocated for repainting of the buildings, how much was allocated for maintaining security at the complex and so on and so on.

This is not asking for too much. After all, such details as the cost of providing food and entertainment for the Presidential Villa were made public by the lawmakers themselves during the last budget defence. The point we are making here is that the National Assembly, like the executive and the judiciary must come clean on its budget in line with the change philosophy of the present administration and the pledge of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki.

But the National Assembly has said that it budgeted the sum of N115 billion for its services this year?
That is exactly the point we have been driving at. Don’t forget that between 2010 and 2014, the National Assembly consistently had an annual budget of N150 billion for five years running, but nobody was told how those huge allocations were expended. The simple interpretation of that was that for five years running, the National Assembly spent the same allocation on the same sub-heads, meaning that if the sum of say N23 billion was allocated for the purchase of computers in the 2010 budget, the same amount was also budgeted for the same item in 2015, 2012, 2013 and 2014 budgets. That is the point we are making. The National Assembly has both a moral and statutory burden to explain to Nigerians how its budget allocations are utilized.

This is one of the promises that the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, made to Nigerians after his emergence in office as well as on a number of other occasions, including during the adoption of the document containing the pioneering senate’s legislative agenda. So, the National Assembly must come out and explain in detail, like the executive and the judiciary do, how its allocations would be utilised. It is not enough to say that the budget of the National Assembly is N115 billion, and that the amount is very infinitesimal compared to the N6.08 trillion national budget. The lawmakers must be able to explain to Nigerians how the budgeted amount will be applied. This is what representative governance is all about.
During the budget defence by the MDAs, the National Assembly was able to discover several anomalies in the document?
Yes, those discoveries were made possible because the process was made transparent. That goes to the root of our demands. But besides that, there were several other lessons that the public drew from the last budget defence exercise. First, it exposed the fraudulent nature of many Nigerian civil and public servants. What those workers simply did was to take advantage of the ministers who were new in their offices and tried to perpetrate those huge fraud. You saw instances where some of the ministers who are supposed to be the chief executive officers of the ministers openly disagreed with the budget of their ministries. What this means simply is that the ministers were kept in the dark about the entire process.  
The exercise also revealed that what we have been practicing over the years here as budgeting is simply plain fraud. We saw instances where the MDAs were simply repeating the figures and allocations year in and year out. If you are practicing real budgeting, there is no way the allocations will remain stagnant. Once that is the case, the entire exercise becomes suspicious and questionable. 
That is exactly the point we are making with the budget of the National Assembly. Like I pointed out earlier, for five years running, the budget of the national Assembly ran on a free wheel; from 2010 to 2014, the budget of the legislature was on auto pilot of N150 billion annually.
How come that the discoveries were not made in the previous years’ budgets?
I don’t think that it would be correct to sustain such an assertion. The experiences of my group engaging the National Assembly over the years revealed that these fraudulent manipulation of the budget were actually noticed by the lawmakers but were unfortunately negotiated. The issue of padding the budget for instance is not anything really new to those who are conversant with the working of the National Assembly. In fact, I dare say that it is actually the lawmakers that introduced this dubious practice. In the time past, it was actually the legislators who taught the civil servants to pad the budget, which were later negotiated when the funds were released. If you cast your minds back to about five years, the practice then was that each time the executive sends the budget to the National Assembly, by the time the legislators were done with it, the final outcome or figures were always usually higher than the figure sent by the President.
You know that the lawmakers will always rationalize their action by using the provisions of the law, in this case, the constitution to explain the law gives them the powers to restructure the budget the way they deem fit. You remember that it was in those years that it was really very rewarding becoming a member of the National Assembly. What is currently happening is in line with the change in government. The present administration of the All Progressive Congress (APC), which ascended to power on the philosophy of change and with a mandate to right the wrongs of the immediate past Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) administration, is trying to do everything to walk its electoral talks.

Many Nigerians also expects the change to include some thoroughness in the way the budget itself was prepared?
That is true. But don’t also forget the fact of the delay in the constitution of the Federal Executive Council by President Buhari, which impacted in the entire process.

But he gave the impression that he was looking for angels to work with him?

That is a matter for another time. The point to take away here is that because it took time to put together the ministerial team, which was not ready until about the tail end of October, after they had been screened and confirmed by the senate, the Government only had about one month to prepare the budget. 

Don’t forget also that there was pressure to send the budget to the National Assembly on time before the lawmakers closed shop for the year. 
Even though one is not trying to make excuses for the administration here, the truth of the matter is that all these factors combined, for an administration, which was for many years in opposition, to impact on the entire process.