Constituency projects are not decidedly bad if managed transparently

The recent declaration by President Muhammadu Buhari that there was nothing to show for the over N1trillion budgeted for constituency projects by National Assembly members since 2009 has generated a lot of controversy between the executive and the legislative arms of government. While the Presidency has continued to blame the federal lawmakers for mismanaging the funds budgeted for these projects, the lawmakers are also not keeping silent. The president, they argue, was misled because constituency projects were usually funded and executed by the executive and that what was released was less than 50 per cent of the total amount voted for these projects.

It was under the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo, especially during his second term, beginning from 2003, that the constituency projects identified by lawmakers were incorporated into the annual budget. They were fashioned after similar projects being executed in no fewer than 23 countries across the globe through acts of parliament. The essence of the inclusion of these constituency projects, as the National Assembly has consistently argued, is part of moves to complement efforts of the executive in developing the 109 senatorial districts as well as the 360 federal constituencies across the nation. Ordinarily the idea is good but the real challenge is with the implementation.

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 of “constituency projects,” 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.

In a moment of chest-beating, Senate President Ahmad Lawan said last week that with just about six months in session, the ninth senate has passed six bills into law, four of them private members’ bills. “The first of these bills is the Deep Off-shore and Inland Basin Production Sharing Contracts Act CAP D3 LFN 2004 (Amendment Bill) 2019. The two executive bills that we passed are the appropriation bill, 2020 and the finance bill 2019,” said Lawal adding: “We passed the Finance bill, 2019 on 21 November, 2019. The bill amended seven existing tax and fiscal policy laws (Companies Income Tax Act, 2004; Value Added Tax Act, 2007; Customs and Excise Tariff (Consolidation) Act, 2004; Personal Income Tax Act, 2007; Capital Gains Tax Act, 2007; Stamp Duties Act, 2007; and Petroleum Profit Tax Act, 2004) to reform Nigeria’s tax system for enhanced implementation and effectiveness.”

Despite these achievements, many Nigerians still view the lawmakers with disdain, particularly because of constituency projects. Going forward, therefore, 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.