A House Divided Against Itself

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Budget padding is just one of the haunting scandals of a troubled National Assembly

The presidential system of government that we practice in Nigeria today comes with a constitutional provision that no expenditure shall be incurred except authorised by the legislative arm. This provision also gives the lawmakers, in our present circumstance, the National Assembly, what is usually described as the power of the purse. But that power is coming under increasing scrutiny, especially given recent revelations from the House of Representatives where there were allegations and counter-allegations that monumental corruption may have been institutionalised in the budgeting process.

Already, the House of Representatives Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, has issued Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin (whose removal as House Committee on Appropriation chairman started the war of words), a seven-day ultimatum to retract allegations that linked him (Dogara) with illegally inserting projects into the budget after passage. Meanwhile, Jibrin has also countered that he would neither withdraw his allegations nor back down in his bid to have the three principal officers he accused of corruption removed from their offices. In fact, Jibrin has released more damning allegations against the speaker in recent days.

We believe the whole controversy is unfortunate as it has further dented the image of the National Assembly while creating confusion in the minds of Nigerians about the power of the legislature to appropriate money for public expenditure.

Although the 2016 appropriation bill (now act) – mismanaged by both the executive and the legislative arm – may have caused the latest controversy, there has always been a contentious issue that borders on the meaning and essence of separation of powers that is yet to be resolved.

Although the power of the legislature to initiate projects through appropriation has over the years been challenged by the executive, we believe the lawmakers indeed can. What the legislature cannot do is to be executing projects. But the real problem in Nigeria is that our lawmakers, in most cases, have also become contractors with “constituency projects” now effectively another byword for corruption.

Indeed, the misconduct of many past and present legislators has tended to justify public resentment of their role in the budget process. While there might be nothing wrong with the appropriation of money for projects in their constituencies, the way and manner several of them harass the executive to award the contracts for such projects to their proxy companies is unethical. This is at the heart of the current crisis in the House of Representatives.

Whenever the National Assembly resumes from its current recess, the House must quickly rise above the controversy by using its internal conflict resolution mechanism to deal with the situation and move on to its primary job of lawmaking and oversight of the executive to ensure good governance. But if there are criminal issues in the investigations being conducted into the sundry allegations being traded by the parties to the crisis, the relevant authorities will have to deal with them.

Unfortunately, as sordid as the “budget padding” brouhaha may be, we should not look at it in isolation but as a symptom of a bigger malaise. For instance, section 63 of the constitution requires the Senate and House of Representatives to sit for not less than 181 days in a year. But they hardly meet that requirement.

In fact, there are reports that the Senate actually sat for 96 days while the House sat for 104 days during the first legislative year which ended on June 9, 2016. Padding of budgets, purported execution of constituency projects and collection of money to pay “ghost” staff are a drain on the lean resources of the nation. If you add that to the 21 ex-governors and deputy governors on pension for life who are also collecting salaries and allowances in the Senate, you get a picture of an institution that is mostly self-serving.

Quote: As sordid as the ‘budget padding’ brouhaha may be, it is a symptom of a bigger malaise. Section 63 of the constitution requires the Senate and House of Representatives to sit for not less than 181 days in a year. But that requirement is often breached