The refusal of the executive to release funds for the execution of constituency projects despite appropriation, has made federal lawmakers uncomfortable and ‎is threatening the fragile relationship between them and the executive, writes Damilola Oyedele

It is no longer news that under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, the executive and the legislative arms of government have not enjoyed a relationship that can be classified as smooth and cosy. The genesis of the cat and mouse relationship can be traced to the manner which the leaders of the National Assembly emerged, much to the consternation of the presidency and some chieftains of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The matter of the constituency projects has however been another source of constant friction between them.
The constituency projects , implemented under an annual N100 billion Zonal Intervention Fund, are social intervention projects facilitated by lawmakers to their constituencies during budget cycles. The general belief among executive appointees is however that much of the N100 billion end up in the pockets of the lawmakers who lobby same executive appointees to ensure the contractors they choose get the contracts for the constituency projects. It therefore remains a ‘carrot’ between both arms of government.

The first indication that the constituency projects may be a cause of friction under this administration was when the sacked Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal in 2016 said the government had no money to implement them, and that they were not a priority. He repeated his statements when summoned before a committee of the National Assembly.

Since the statement was never disowned by the presidency, it may be safe to assume that he was speaking the mind of his principal. In any case, subsequent events lent credence to the posture that the presidency would not release a dime of the ZIF, if it had its way. Infact in late 2016, it was only after members of the House of Representatives insisted they would only approve executive requests for a $30billion external borrowing plan request of the Federal Government, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), and virement of N180 billion in the 2016 budget to fund capital and recurrent items, that Buhari began to release the N100 billon ZIF.
About 80 percent of the funds was eventually released for implementation of the projects after intense negotiations, THISDAY gathered.

In 2017, there has however been zero releases so far, a development, which holds dire consequences for lawmakers, particularly first timers. The 2017 budget was only signed into law in June 2017, and with the proposal for the 2018 budget to take effect from the beginning of next year, the 2017 implementation level is put between 15-22%. The 2017 budget is however very significant for lawmakers because it is the last budget before the campaign year (2018 is considered campaign year). The non execution of the constituency projects therefore means they have little (from previous years) or nothing to show on ground in their constituencies to justify retaining their seats.

Disenchantment at 2018 budget presentation
The president’s audience for the budget presentation was therefore to a disenchanted lot, who were miffed at the zero release of the ZIF. There were reports that some dissenting voices were planning to boo the president at the presentation, while there were also reports that some members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party were planning to raise protest placards. These were however shelved after intense lobbying by the leaders of the National Assembly. Murmurs were however palpable during the president’s speech resulting in his being interrupted several times.

Lawmakers Speak
Senator Ben Murray Bruce (Bayelsa PDP) in a phone interview with THISDAY before the budget presentation, wondered why the constituency projects wee being demonized, particularly when the projects are meant for the citizens.
“Last year my constituency project was providing solar power, so children can do their homework at night. This year, its agriculture (fish, corn, rice) , people have to feed. If I do these, how would that have a negative impact on the economy, and why would the government not fund such projects? None of the projects benefit me, they benefit the people who voted me into office. So constituency project is not a bad word, not a bad thing to do and I am glad we have it in the budget. I hope they fund it,” he said.

Bruce added that failure to implement the projects pitches the people against their representatives.
“If you promise a link road that costs N20 million, and you do not have the link road, then people are angry. If you promise a borehole because people have dirty water and they have monkeypox, because of the dirty water and dirty environment, and you cannot provide clean water, then they are angry, because they put you into office and you cannot provide them clean water,” he said.

“In a place like Bayelsa which is riverine, no toilets anywhere, people use the bathroom (ease themselves in the waters) and drink it at the same time, are you surprised there is monkey pox? So something as simple as water, which does not benefit the senator or the House of Rep (Representatives), it benefits the poor man who needs clean water, and then you do not deliver, first you have sick people, you have an epidemic, you have angry people, people who cannot understand that in a modern economy, some people do not have clean water to drink, who do you blame?” the Senator added.

Hon. Kingsley Chinda (Rivers PDP) accused the executive of using the constituency projects alongside allegations of jumbo pay, to sabotage and blackmail the legislature, as part of a scheme to cow the parliament.
This, he said, has constantly caused the friction between both arms of government.

In an interview, he emphasized that the constituency projects were for Nigerians and not for the members of the National Assembly, who are only sponsors. To deliberately refuse to implement the projects is unfair and therefore an offence against the people, he said.

In any case, since the projects are part of the appropriation law, refusal to release the ZIF translates to infringing on the law, Chinda argued.

“The executive prioritizes projects in the Appropriation Act which is not lawful and of course constituency projects no matter how good and dear to the people are not the priority of the executive. Heads of MDAs (Ministries, Departments and Agencies) also have their personal projects, and since they execute, such projects are of greater interest to them. The constituency projects therefore suffer, and the legislators who have made promises to their constituents, of course will frown at that,” he added.

The lawmaker however noted that while the proper execution of the constituency projects may enhance the chances of a legislator at retaining his seat, it takes more than just that to be re-elected.

Similarly, Hon. Dennis Agbo (Enugu PDP) also described as unfair the refusal to release the ZIF. Speaking with THISDAY, Agbo said the projects were the most widespread dividends of democracy, which the Nigerian people could enjoy across the 360 constituencies and 109 senatorial districts.

“It is the expenditure of government with the greatest mileage and beneficial impact. The projects are close to the people and are selected based on the representative’s assessment of priority needs of the people. Whoever does not appreciate this fact about ZIF is definitely not fair to the Nigerian people and is not serving their best interest,” Agbo said.

“Imagine that a total amount of N100 billion Zonal Intervention, representing a mere 4.5% of the capital budget, will have such a significant impact! Contrast this with the amount of benefit we expect from the balance of 96% capital budget,” he added.

Agbo argues that no matter the number of bills or motions a lawmaker gets passed, he does not stand much chance to retain his seat if there are no projects on ground with direct impact on the people.

Conclusion
The constituency projects, when implemented do indeed have a direct impact on the beneficiaries at the constituency. Instead of the continued cat and mouse relationship over it, the executive has the responsibility to block whatever leakages it perceives are being perpetrated through the projects. In any case, the executive needs to look inwards; it if insists that legislators pocket some of the money from the ZIF, it should realize that this is only possible through connivance with its own members.

Quote

The constituency projects are for Nigerians and not for the members of the National Assembly, who are only sponsors.