The Larger Issues in the Ningi Saga

Postscript by Waziri Adio

The seamy allegations by Senator Abdul Ningi and his subsequent ‘trial’ and suspension by his fellow senators will continue to generate echoes beyond the red chamber of the Nigerian Senate. The senators will be mistaken if they think they have conclusively dispensed with the issue. No, the matter has taken a life of its own. Citizens, civic groups, politicians and the commentariat will continue to wade in, from different perspectives and with different motivations. The question mark on the 2024 Budget is not likely to disappear and the grave but false allegation of a budget padded by a whopping N3.7 trillion will most likely linger.

Clearly, the interests and passion aroused by the Ningi saga are justified. The budget is a very important document. The budget was famously and aptly described as ‘the skeleton of the state’. It is the most visible manifestation of the power of the state to authoritatively allocate collective but scarce resources. It is the most concrete expression of the priorities and the vision of the government, and of government’s approach to development and of its sense of distributive justice. But the budget is also a sacred document, more sacred than government’s strategies, plans and policies: it is a law of the land. The document and the process should not be treated with levity and without utmost ethical care. The budget is thus too important for the rest of the society to abandon to the executive and legislative arms of government or to the experts on financial and economic matters.

A positive that we can all take out of this Ningi matter is that we are discussing the details and the propriety of such an important and sacred document. But beyond the momentary interests, and the claims and counter-claims, we need to have a proper look at our budgeting process and use this event to start the journey of fixing a clearly broken governance ethos. That, for me, is the work. But to be able to do this work properly, we need to cut through the maze of politics and emotions of the moment, and focus on the real issues. Otherwise, we get sidetracked into the usual work avoidance.  

My intervention here will be based on my admittedly limited experience working in both the legislative and the executive arms of government and my familiarity/involvement with the budgeting process. For 15 months, I was a special adviser to the Senate President, a position which granted me the opportunity to take more than a passing interest in the role and the workings of the parliament. I also had the chance to closely interact with and observe lawmakers. For five years, I was the head of a federal executive agency. I had the responsibility to coordinate the preparation of the budget for the agency, to defend the proposed budget before the supervising ministry of the agency, before the ministry and the agency responsible for budgeting, and before the relevant committees of the two houses of the National Assembly, and then the duty to lead the implementation of the passed budget.

Drawing from my experience, I intend to address a few preliminary and substantive issues from the Ningi episode. The first preliminary point is that the legislative arm is constitutionally imbued with the ‘power of the purse’. Yes, it is the executive arm that designs and executes programmes, policies and projects. But no money can, and should, be spent without the approval of the parliament. As part of the separation of powers and the checks and balances of the presidential system, the executive prepares and implements the budget, but the parliament approves and processes the bill which when signed by the president becomes a law. This is why the budget goes to the National Assembly as an appropriation bill from the executive then transforms into an appropriation act after parliamentary approval and presidential assent. Important also to stress that the executive cannot re-allocate money appropriated in the signed budget without returning to the parliament with a request for virement. Spending money without virement is both a criminal offence and an impeachable offence. 

It is equally crucial to note that the budgeting process is where the three responsibilities/functions of the parliament come together: legislation, representation and oversight. The budget is a law, as stated earlier, and it is treated as a special law because other legislative matters take the backseat when the budget is being considered; the budgeting process is the most viable channel for legislators to ensure that the interests of their individual and peculiar constituencies are not overlooked (while the president represents the whole country, the legislators represent their smaller constituencies—as such this is where the national intersects with the local); the process of passing the budget provides the legislators an opportunity not only to understand, question and make inputs into the proposed budget but also to review the performance of the previous budget. 

The point here is that processing the budget is one of the most important duties of the parliament. It should be attended to with all seriousness and with the utmost sense of physical and ethical responsibility. The role of the parliament is not conceived as that of a rubberstamp. It can pass the budget as presented but it can also adjust the budget, including changing the revenue assumptions, reducing or increasing amounts allocated to different budget heads and budget lines and refusing to approve some proposed items.

In principle, at least, there is also nothing wrong with legislators looking out for the interests of their constituencies in the budget. This however is not an excuse for the largely personal and mind-blowing abuse that has become the norm. We shall return to this later. The place where there is a grey area is whether the parliament can unilaterally include in the budget items not proposed by the executive. This was an issue before the Supreme Court at a point, but it was later withdrawn and settled politically. This grey area needs to be resolved not just in a normative way but with unambiguous ruling by the constitutional court. The parties with the locus should seek constitutional interpretation on this.

Ahead of that, we need to note that the passed appropriation bill doesn’t become an act or operational until its signed by the president. The executive is not meant to be a rubberstamp too. It should meticulously study the passed budget, raise and document its objections, and ask for reconsideration by the parliament before presidential assent. This is done for normal bills, and there is no reason why this should not be a tradition with the budget. The executive can also propose an amendment to the signed budget, either through virement or supplementary budget(s). The fact is the executive has opportunities and a right to push back. If the executive does not do this, it is either it is in agreement (or it is complicit) or it is strategically picking its battles. But the major hurdle for the executive is usually time, especially since the return to the January-December budget cycle, and because the executive usually submits the budget proposal late.  

The budget is too important to be rushed. This is the more reason why the budgeting process should start on time. There is no reason the budget circular to the MDAs should not go out before or by April. Also, there is no excuse for the president not to present the appropriation bill to the legislature before or by end of June. Doing this will give a window of six months for parliament to work on the budget and for the executive to review and possibly send it back for further work before assent.

We have a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) that sets out broad outlines of expected revenues, the sharing and allocations, and the proposed expenditure for three years. The MTEF can be amended as the assumptions or priorities change. So, picking up speed on the budgeting process should not be as difficult as we make it. On 11 March 2024, President Joe Biden of the US presented his 2025 budget proposal of $7.3 trillion to the US Congress. The first critical work we need to undertake is to allocate enough time to the budgeting process so that it can be handled with better rigour. Haste provides the cover for all sorts. 

The last preliminary issue I want to raise is that the claim by Senator Ningi’s that the 2024 budget was padded by N3.7 trillion for projects that do not exist is totally inaccurate. In various interviews, the senator representing Bauchi Central senatorial zone claimed that the budget passed by the National Assembly was N25 trillion but that the budget signed and being implemented by the executive was N28.7 trillion. In arriving at his claim about no-existent projects, Senator Ningi apparently forgot to add the budget of the 62 Government Owned Entities (GOEs) amounting to N3.767 trillion. This is contained in a 282-page document that is publicly available on the website of the Budget Office of the Federation (and made publicly available, commendably, for the first time since 1999).

The N3.7 trillion budget for the GOEs was where Senator Ningi’s number for padded and non-existent projects came from. In a Senate session broadcast live on television, the senator said he was misquoted or quoted out of context, then he went on to make some other allegations. On the missing/padded N3.7 trillion figure, it is either the senator did not understand the data presented to him or he was playing politics. The senator is a very experienced legislator. He has been in the National Assembly for a total of 17 years and has occupied important positions such as the House Majority Leader and the Senate Deputy Majority Leader. It is quite unfortunate for such a high-ranking legislator to make such a misleading claim and to further layer it with divisive and sectional rhetoric. However, this doesn’t mean his other claims should not be looked into or that there are no other issues with the budget.

Now to what I consider the larger issues. The first is the issue with the suspension of legislators. On Tuesday, Senator Ningi was suspended for three months and was swiftly led out of the red chamber. He cannot perform any legislative function for the period and will also derive no benefit while under suspension. I am sure Senator Ningi will be fine. He won’t be the first legislator to be suspended, and he is not likely to be the last. The issue for me is not that legislators cannot punish erring members based on their rules and procedures. My concern is how and the need to separate the legislator from the people that he/she is representing. As currently operated, punishing a legislator amounts to punishing his or her constituency. For the period when the parliamentarian is under punishment, the constituency is denied the right to representation, despite having done nothing wrong. Something is definitely not right there.

The second larger issue for me is that we need a frank conversation on, and a comprehensive reform of, the idea of constituency projects. As said earlier, legislators are elected to look out for their constituencies. But allocating projects to all legislators and allowing them to even nominate contractors makes a mockery of the idea of separation of powers. Legislators should restrict themselves to lawmaking and oversight while the executive should remain in charge of policy/project design and implementation. But allowing legislators who have powers of legislation and oversight to get into determining and executing projects amounts to mindlessly expanding powers and removing all controls. This can only end one way: in wanton abuse. Tracka, others civic groups and the media have documented a litany of non-executed or substandard projects, inflated contracts, lack of due process, and disproportionate allocations to committee chairpersons and the principal officers of the parliament.

And such abuses cannot be contained. Legislators interested in concrete things to show their constituents, outside of the constitutionally prescribed legislation, representation and oversight functions, should either seek executive offices or should use the budgets for their constituency office or savings from their other allocations to implement such. And in fact, we have seen legislators that organise remedial classes for students, job-preparedness training for jobseekers and micro-credits for women, buy books for schools, and construct boreholes, classrooms, computer/community centres from allocations to their offices. It is important also to educate the voting public to have fair and better understanding of the job of legislators and use the proper metric to assess them.

The third and last issue I want to raise today is an omnibus one: it is around our understanding of the meaning and the use of power in public office. As well captured by Richard Joseph and others, public office is mostly seen by officials and even the public as a prebend, a position that you seek and get to help yourself and those proximate to you. This remains the organising logic of our politics. So many people in public office and outside of it do not see anything fundamentally wrong in taking advantage of their positions. This mindset is so normalised that we even have sayings like where the goat is tethered is where it eats from. So, the legislators do not see it as a flagrant abuse of position to use their office to corner projects, contracts and jobs for themselves, their relatives, friends and communities or to be extracting other rents in the name of oversight.

But this mindset is not peculiar to the parliamentarians. It is very alive on the executive side, and probably worse there, including but not limited to the revenue collection and revenue generating agencies. (I have done a series on the super agencies some of which control allocations bigger than the budgets of states and assign billions to some spurious one-line items.) The other tiers of government are not different, and things are probably worse at the subnational level because the mechanism for restraints and accountability is weaker there.

This warped interpretation of the purpose of public office benefits those in the immediate vicinity of power but undermines our collective progress. It is the most binding constraint to our development. So, beyond the episodic outrage about the mere manifestations of a dysfunctional but deeply engrained and pervasive mindset about public office, the real work is to start the process of systematically rethinking and reshaping the value systems, the cultural narratives and deep-seated attitudes that underpin our relationship to public resources.    

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