The roles of citizens in the budget process cannot be over-emphasised, writes Sanni Onogu

Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki on Wednesday, February 10, 2016 took his pledge to make the 8th National Assembly open, inclusive, transparent and accountable a notch higher, when he opened the gates of the legislature to Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the labour to ventilate their thoughts, make observations and voice their recommendations on how best to ensure that the 2016 budget truly reflects the will and aspiration of Nigerians.

Saraki had in his inaugural speech on his election as Senate President and Chairman of the National Assembly on June 9, 2015, said the present National Assembly would do things differently. “It will no longer be business as usual,” he said, promising to ensure that the change agenda of the present administration is reflected in every undertaking of the National Assembly.

Towards the realisation of this objective, the Senate and House of Representatives respectively prepared and adopted a people-centred legislative agenda as a guiding light to make the members stay true and focused on their stated objectives. It was also meant to make the National Assembly a body that truly encapsulates the wishes and concerns of the ordinary Nigerian.

As a way of making the process of lawmaking, oversight and advocacy truly participatory, Saraki utilised every opportunity to engage Nigerians. One instance of such engagement is the use of Twitter and other new media platforms on a daily basis to inform, educate, explain the rationale for certain actions of the National Assembly and above all, to respond in real time to the genuine concerns of the people.
Besides, he had also ensured that the debates of the Senate at plenary are streamed live to Nigerians, who equally take advantage of the social media to make their contributions, ask questions and voice their concerns.

On Wednesday, February 10, 2016, on hand to receive the representatives of the over 100 CSOs to the National Assembly were Saraki, Chairman, Senate Committee on Diaspora and Civil Society Organisations, Senator Rose Okoh; Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ibn Na’Allah; Chairman, Senate Committee on National Planning and Economic Affairs, Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso; Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Lanre Tejuosho; Senator Olamilekan Adeola; Chairman, Senate Committee on Finance, Senator John Owan; Chairman, House Committee on Civil Society Organisations and Development Partners, Hon. Peter Akpatason, who represented the Speaker of the House of Representatives and other members of the House.

Some of the CSOs that participated in the interactive session included PLAC, CENCOJ, BudgIT, HOMEF, ActionAid, CODE, EiE Nigeria, FEPAR, BMGF, NNNGO, Oxfam, ONE Campaign, OSIWA, YIAGA, NDI, CSR in Action, among others.

The interactive session with CSOs which has been hailed both in Nigeria and in the international community as “historic and unprecedented”, according to the Chairman, Senate Committee on Diaspora and Civil Society Organisations, Senator Okoh, was meant to ensure citizen’s participation in the decision making process in the legislature, especially on the 2016 Appropriation Bill now being considered by the federal legislature.

Okoh, in her welcome address, said: “Through your capacities of reach, advocacy and data collection, your contribution to this document (2016 budget) will not only enhance our mandate of appropriation for government, but also ensure that there is citizen participation in the decision making process of government at this crucial level.”

Saraki, in his remarks, noted that the country has come a long way since its return to democracy in 1999. Undoubtedly, according to him, the road had been full of challenges. Consequently, he said, the task of members of the 8th National Assembly, as representatives of the people in government “is to work towards the actualisation of a more effective federal system of governance.”

He lamented that a cursory look at the budgets of the past 16 years showed that “ineffective implementation and abandonment of projects have caused excessive wastages that have negatively buckled the Nigerian economy.” He told the CSOs that in response to the unacceptable trend, the 8th National Assembly has stepped up its oversight functions to ensure that funds duly appropriated are spent ‘how’, ‘where’ and on ‘what’ they were earmarked for.

He further hinted that since economic diversification is crucial to the success of the nation’s economy, the National Assembly is working to enact laws that will “boost internally generated revenues by plugging the loopholes that exist in our system, and encouraging the small and medium-scale business owners in our communities.”
He commended the CSOs that participated in the interactive session for making themselves available while acknowledging that the National Assembly counts on the input of all Nigerians to move the country to the next level in her democratic journey.

“We know that the work ahead of us is necessary. We also know that the road ahead of us will be lined with challenges. However, we also know that we cannot do this alone. We need all hands on deck for this one,” Saraki said, adding that the session was meant to aggregate the wishes of Nigerians concerning governance and to address the concerns of Nigerians, who had often criticised the operations of the National Assembly as being opaque, which they contended often tend to various forms of corrupt activities.

On the purpose of inviting the CSOs by the National Assembly, Saraki said it was in response to citizen’s concerns and public expectations. “The 8th National Assembly, through this platform and the various others that we have set up online, will continue to be accessible to you. We will work tirelessly to address your concerns, after all, we are only here because of you,” he said.

Furthermore, the Senate President said the maiden interactive session between the National Assembly and CSOs on the 2016 budget was convened to allow both members of parliament and the CSOs to “explore new angles, consider fresh opinions and weigh new suggestions on the reasonable changes that need to be made, and on the best way to forge ahead with the 2016 appropriation process.

He said, “This is not only an opportunity for you to air your views, it is also a window that has presented itself that will allow all of us to work together to pass a budget that we can all be proud of. Therefore, I urge you all to feel free to point out your genuine concerns about the budget. Know that your relevant input is crucial towards ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the National Assembly to pass a document that we can all be proud of.
“When the civil society of a nation is strong, loud and empowered – we are all better off for it. When the civil society is a part of the process – with seats of their own at the decision-making table – governments become more responsive and accountable,” he said.

After the tone for the novel engagement had been set with the above remarks, it was time for the CSOs to bring to the table their observations aimed at making the 2016 budget a realistic and implementable document. During the session that lasted about four hours, the 2016 budget was subjected to independent and intense scrutiny and analyses by the CSOs following which they made observations and recommendations to assist the National Assembly in their role of exposing corruption and ensuring that the funds appropriated were not only realistic but that the budget is faithfully implemented in totality in the interest of the people.
The Executive Director of Centre for Global Solutions and Sustainable Development, Adebowale Adeniyi, in the executive summary he wrote on behalf of the CSOs that partook in the event, noted that the exchange was “indeed a great session, first of its kind, and a great demonstration of inclusivity and participatory governance in Nigeria by the National Assembly.”
He said the CSOs had discovered that from time immemorial, budgets in Nigeria have been an up-bottom approach, which is against the democratic principle and practice world-wide. “We recommend that henceforth, budget in Nigeria should be a bottom-up approach, open, transparent, all inclusive and participatory, especially at the formation stage, even at implementation and evaluation stages. That is: everybody must have a voice in it.”
Adeniyi said the need to establish an open, inclusive and participatory budget formation is not negotiable and cannot be over emphasised. “We applaud the effort by the National Assembly towards the determination to ensuring increased participation in the process that governs our activities especially the drive towards ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the Senate to pass a document that we all can be proud of.”
Globally, according to him, there is a growing government involvement of CSOs in budgeting “and in Nigeria, we have begun the process with this interaction with the Senate. We appreciate the partnership hands extended to us by the National Assembly towards formally institutionalising the CSO-Legislative relationships. As CSO, we shall continue to engage the government in constructive and intellectual ways in ensuring that things are done in the right manner, especially in conformity with the international best practice,” he said.
He further declared that the CSOs that attended the event were satisfied that the National Assembly has taken it upon itself by doing the needful in ensuring that the remaining process of the budget is now open, inclusive and participatory. “We hereby applaud the opportunity given to us by the National Assembly in opening partnership channel with us, the CSOs, recognising us as important and critical elements or components to good governance and democracy at large. Also, trusting our input and seeing us as voice to the voiceless and the intermediary between the government and the governed,” he said.
On his part, the Senate President pledged that the observations and inputs on the 2016 budget made by the CSOs at the session would form part of the report of the National Assembly Committees on Civil Society Organisations to the Committees on Appropriation for onward submission to Senate and House of Representatives in plenary.
He called on the CSOs and Nigerians to continue to support the National Assembly, as it strives to “acquire and execute critical and suitable programmes that are highly beneficial to every citizen of this nation. Everyone here will agree – we have come here today with the determination and resolve to ensure increased citizen participation in the processes that govern our activities here at the legislature.
“Today’s session on the 2016 Budget is the first of these series of engagements, but I assure you all, it will not be the last. As my colleagues and I have stated on multiple platforms, on previous occasions, and at various events – the National Assembly is actively working towards repositioning its efforts.
“These steps, though not as complete as some of you may want, and these endeavours – which may not be as perfect as all of us may wish for – are fully intended to ensure that this National Assembly works for and on behalf of every Nigerian, and for the present and future successes of our collective ‘Nigerian Project.’ These sessions might be baby steps to some, but know that little steps are the beginnings of greater outcomes that lead to the positive change that Nigerians voted for at the polls,” he said.
-Onogu is the Chief Press Secretary to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki