Buhari, National Assembly Spar over Constituency Project

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Femi Gbajabiamila

President Muhammadu Buhari’s allegation last week that federal lawmakers within ten years squandered one trillion naira on constituency projects elicited prompt reaction from the two chambers of the National Assembly, report Deji Elumoye and Adedayo Akinwale

The much touted ‘cordial’ relationship between the Executive and legislative arms of government appeared threatened last Tuesday, when President Muhammadu Buhari openly accused federal lawmakers in the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth National of misusing funds voted for their constituency projects.

The President, who indicted the legislators while speaking at a national summit on “Diminishing Corruption in the Public Service” in Abuja, disclosed that a report had confirmed government’s fear that constituency projects did not get to the ordinary people as initially envisaged.

According to him, the first phase report of tracking the constituency projects by Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) confirmed the fear that the benefits of the projects were not trickling down to the common people at the grassroots despite the huge sums appropriated for constituency projects since inception.

This is the first time the Presidency will complain about the execution of constituency projects, which was introduced during the second term of President Olusegun Obasanjo as a form of gentleman’s agreement to settle the rancour persisting then between the Executive and legislative arms.

Subsequent administrations of Umaru Musa Yar’adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari sustained the constituency projects idea, initiated by the federal legislators to be sited in their respective constituencies while funds to finance the projects which are to be executed by the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are usually included in the federal government’s budget for the fiscal year that covers the projects.

Among those indicted over the constituency are the Senate President, Dr Ahmad Lawan, who has been in the National Assembly since 1999 and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, who has been a member of the Green Chamber since the last 16 years as well as other serving Senators and House members.

It, however, took the leadership of the two chambers more than 24 hours to respond to the allegations made against the current and past members of the Assembly over the execution of constituency projects since 2009.

The Senate, on Wednesday, claimed ignorance of the verbal attack on them by President Buhari, who accused them of wasting one trillion Naira on constituency projects in the last ten years.

Senate spokesman, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, told newsmen after plenary that the upper chamber was not aware of what the President was quoted to have said about lawmakers’ constituency projects.

“I just read it in the dailies this morning but officially the Senate is not aware of this and we can’t react to what we don’t know about,” adding that there were official mode of communication between the Executive and legislature, which in this case has not been exploited.

“Mr. President has not written to the National Assembly officially on this matter. We have modes of communication and I want to believe if he has anything, he will write to us. The President is the President of this country. He spoke as Chief Executive but you people sometimes you can be funny,” he explained.

Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, in his reaction, however, declared that the PDP caucus in the upper legislative chamber is not worried by the President’s remarks over the legislators’ constituency projects.

He said, “The reason why our Caucus is not worried is because we know that it was a statement that was erroneous as somebody must have written a speech and then put false information in the speech. “

Abaribe stressed that the President should know better as the execution of the constituency projects were carried out by government agencies.

“We have always said the constituency projects are not done by the Senators or members of House of Representatives. They are domiciled in the executive, who executes it. If the President said he has not seen anything, he should ask his ministers and the agencies under him as the executive as they are the people who have been executing these projects”.

It was, however, a different ball game in the House of Representatives, as members did not find the statement credited to the President funny. They were up in arms at the plenary last Wednesday saying the ICPC should have endeavoured to explain the difference between amount budgeted and amount released.

House Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, while commenting on the matter following a point of order raised under privileges by the Minority leader of the House, Hon Ndidi Elumelu, expressed concern about the unintended consequences of the statement.

He stated: “I think it is a breach of our collective privilege as a House and not one person. My concern is the unintended consequences of words spoken. These are words emanating from a report by ICPC. There could be unintended consequences that could come out of it. You put peoples well being at risk.

“I feel it is okay to use the National Assembly as the weeping boys. The fact is that there is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The ICPC could easily invoke their power of investigation and look at releases as compared to what was budgeted. The ICPC that made the report, I don’t think they will appreciate if the House, in discharge of its constitutional responsibilities did an oversight on ICPC based on what was budgeted as opposed to what was released to them. When you break an egg, it is going to be difficult to put it together.”

Against this background, the Speaker therefore called on ICPC and other anti-graft agencies to carry out a proper investigation on it, stressing that there is a difference between money budgeted and money released.

The Minority Leader stated that he had been inundated with calls from his constituents asking him to give account of the money since the President made the statement.

Elumelu quoted Section 4 of the 1999 constitution as amended, which says that budget should be made and if passed in the House, the onus lies on the executive to implement and award contract, stressing that he doesn’t know of any member, who is a member of the tenders board.

Elumelu, who frowned at the report said, the information was capable of giving him a bad name before his community. He lamented that the ICPC that wrote the report failed to tell the truth of how much was actually released, adding that if N1 trillion was budgeted like the President said, if that money was released completely, there would be value commensurate to the money.

“I had so many calls and it was difficult for me to explain. My worry and why I am bringing this up is that, yes, I got N100 million budgeted but actual releases was not up to 50 per cent. In actual sense, even this year, we never got release more than 40 per cent. I can conveniently tell you that only about 30 per cent has been released.

“I wonder why the ICPC man failed to look at what was released. Why should ours be a subject of debate that they will tell Nigerians we received N1 trillion, when that was budgeted, but not released? My message is that we should let them know that while N1 trillion was budgeted for constituency projects, by way of releases, we did not receive that, because what was released was less that 40 per cent.”

On his part, the Deputy Minority Leader, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, said about 50 per cent of the project fund had been released in the last ten years, stressing that the reason why there are so many abandoned projects was because of lack of releases.

“The issue is very important, because words have meanings. In all the papers, report says N1 trillion wasted on constituency projects in 10 years.

Of course, Mr. President would have been responding to information given to him. I am a student of public policy analysis. I understand that projects and policies of government go through interrogation.

“When you say N1 trillion is released, it presupposes that the equivalent value of that money should be on ground. There is also a presupposition that this money is given to members. Our responsibility is to make laws and pass budget and once that is done, it goes to the Executive and the execution is the responsibility of the executive.

“You award contract and you pay 50 per cent. What happen to the remaining 50 per cent? How can you complete them? In the 2019 budget, about N220 billion was budgeted for roads and what was released was N45 billion. If you are expecting the value of N220 billion when you give N45 billion, I don’t know what you will see,” Okechukwu said.

Beyond the buck passing, it will be apt for the leadership of the National Assembly to critically study the ICPC report on constituency projects, which informed the President’s statement and see what they can make out of it with a view to making necessary adjustments ahead of execution of constituency in the coming years.