Funds for constituency projects should be streamlined and justified

In signing the 2018 Budget into law two weeks ago, President Muhammadu Buhari did rather grudgingly as he complained of serious alterations by the National Assembly. While we understand the predicament of the president, we do not subscribe to scapegoating the lawmakers. To the extent that the federal government is made up of three arms – the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary–it will be myopic to contend that only the executive has sole prerogative on the budgeting process.

All three have a role: the executive proposes and presents the estimates to the National Assembly which has the power to pass the budget into law, then goes on to oversight its implementation. The judiciary can be called upon to make judicial pronouncements when any ministry, department or agency (MDAs) or its officials is found to be in breach of the legislation.

Indeed, the presidential system of government that we practice in Nigeria today comes with a constitutional provision that no expenditure shall be incurred except in pursuance of an appropriation 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 due essentially to what many see as its abuse, and creates a picture of an institution that is self-serving.

We believe the whole budget controversy is unfortunate as it has created confusion in the minds of many Nigerians about the power of the legislature to appropriate money for public expenditure. Although the 2018 appropriation bill (now act) 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. While 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 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. Therefore, whilst there might have been 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.

 Going forward, we believe the appropriation committees of the National Assembly should be armed with budget and economic experts who can make forecasts on key factors likely to influence spending in any fiscal year. Part of the budget defence by revenue agencies should also include revision of their revenue targets, following which the appropriation committees could sit with the budget office to negotiate and arrive at estimates acceptable to both arms of government. Right now, what the legislature does is ad hoc and is tied to allocating more funds to constituency projects. But it can be streamlined and justified if the legislature knows what it is doing.

The executive should also push for reforms and proper monitoring of budget implementation. A way out will be to strengthen the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) to monitor constituency projects, or get the MDAs to use their procurement units to carry out this function in order to ensure that contracts for such projects are properly awarded and executed. Another measure is for the law enforcement agencies to prosecute officials of MDAs and legislators who collude to divert funds allocated to constituency projects. Making scapegoats of those guilty of diverting public funds would go a long way to ending the cyclical budget controversy.