How And Why Budget Padding Has Been A Perennial Crisis And Solution

By Magnus Onyibe.

Outraged senators at the plenary last Tuesday, March 12, literally pounced on their colleague, ranking Senator Abdul Ningi, who has been a lawmaker for the past twenty-four (24) years, seventeen (17) of which he has served as a senator after being a member of the House of Representatives.

The enraged legislators in the red chambers went after the jugular of their colleague for allegedly going rogue on them by ridiculing the distinguished senators who sit in the hallowed red chambers of the National Assembly (NASS) via his claim that the 2024 budget was padded by N3.7 trillion naira, increasing from N25 trillion that he claimed was officially passed to N28.7 trillion, which he alleged is being implemented under the table by the incumbent administration.

But the allegation of padding, for which a sanction of three (3) months’ suspension has been slammed on the errant senator representing Bauchi Central, despite his backtracking, has been adjudged by some people as using a sledgehammer to crush a common housefly.

The truth is that in every organization or union, there are guiding rules based on certain principles to be observed by members. The aggrieved senator is alleged to have broken the rules by making a mountain out of a molehill, and his enraged colleagues were not in the mood to temper justice with mercy; hence, they literally threw the kitchen sink at him. But there is still a wriggle out room as the sanction can be rescinded or reduced.

Incidentally, the embarrassing allegation of padding the national budget in Nigeria is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the current incident echoes the events of 2018 when then President Muhammadu Buhari, representing the executive branch of government, also accused the legislative arm of doing exactly what Senator Abdul Ningi just accused his colleagues of doing.

However, President Buhari was not sanctioned by the senators in the way that Ningi was literally roasted because it was during the ‘cold war’ between the executive arm under the leadership of Buhari as president and the legislative branch with Senator Bukola Saraki as senate president.

Before 2018, as far back as the year 2000, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo had a face-off with the National Assembly (NASS) over budget padding. When he withheld assent after it was passed by the lawmakers, he was threatened with impeachment, and he capitulated. Late President Umar Yar’adua, who succeeded Obasanjo in 2007, also had a similar row with NASS. Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, who became president in 2010 Yar’adua, got caught up in a similar budget padding conundrum.

So, it is a perennial matter.

Even if it has been six (6) years since 2018 when the presidency and NASS had a spat on account of budget padding until the current blowout, nothing has changed, except the actors in both Aso Rock Villa, the seat of presidential power, and the chambers of the lawmakers in NASS whose leaderships have been replaced by sucessive occupants following new elections and the effluxion of time.

As Joseph Lowery, an American civil rights movement leader who was a close associate of Martin Luther King, once lamented about the civil rights situation in the United States of America, “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.”

It is the repetition of leadership flaws like the one referenced above that justifies the putting together of my latest book: “Leading From The Streets: Media Interventions By A Public Intellectual, 1999-2019,” which is a collection of 77 articles focusing on socioeconomic and political challenges that our leaders in government have been grappling with since 1999, and about which I have written and published comments in the mass media since the return of multi-party democracy in Nigeria.

Evidently, the recorded news of many years ago as captured in the book is now history in contemporary times. That is because similar or the same leadership flaws that bedeviled previous administrations have been resurrecting, resonating, and reverberating on a daily basis in the present times, especially in the National Assembly (NASS).

That is why those in the corridors of power in the three branches of government need to obtain the new book,which would serve as an easy reference point or source for past misdeeds by our leaders and how to avoid the same mistakes by the present crop of leaders, as admonished by Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who graciously wrote the foreword where he made the remark: “I strongly recommend ‘Leading From The Streets…’ to all public office holders, advisers to public office holders, researchers, fellow column writers, students of journalism, and the general public.”

ln the preface to my book earlier referenced, I had made the case that: “…the book (‘Leading From The Streets…’) is both a prophecy and an explanation in the same breath. That is because some of the fears that we had expressed about looming policy disasters that the actions and inactions of leaders in government could trigger or elicit way back in the days via our media interventions have come to pass.”

Actually, there is a school of thought driven by the belief that if a mistake or error fails to be corrected, it has a high chance of being repeated. That is perhaps why budget padding, as reflected by legislators’ endurng desire to not only appropriate but also directly apply the funds, has become a sort of source of worry.

For instance, if our leaders had been guided by our counsel in the 2018 article when then-President Buhari  raised the last alarm about budget padding, and we did a deep dive into the motivation and antidote, as a nation we would not have been running but remaining on the same spot with respect to the budget padding fever which has once again gripped the nation owing to Senator Ningi’s alarm.

On page 75 of my new book, earlier referenced, we documented an article focused on budget padding published on June 25, 2018, which is nearly six (6) years ago. It is titled: “Budget 2018: Stranger Than Fiction As Presidency Accuses NASS Of Usurpation.” The piece which is still relevant to the unfolding embarassing scenario of today is basically an analysis of the fracas between the executive and legislative branches of government arising from budget padding back in 2018.

The article underscores how things have changed in the governance space of our beloved country, yet nothing has really changed since the bad manners in governance identified as Budget Padding have remained, as if it is ingrained in the DNA of our unscrupulous public administrators in a manner that it is said that ‘a leopard cannot change its spots.’

On that note and to put things in perspective, I would like to seek the indulgence of readers to allow me reproduce a snippet of the 2018 article earlier referenced:

Here we go:

Budget 2018: Stranger Than Fiction as Presidency Accuse NASS of Usurpation.

“Incredibly, after Nigerians have waited with bated breath for an unprecedented 7 months that seemed like eternity, President Muhammadu Buhari has, in the course of signing the 2018 appropriation bill into law on Wednesday, June 20th, stated that the document he signed is radically different from what he submitted to the National Assembly, NASS.

“According to Mr. President, in addition to the disruptive effect of the long delay in the passage of the appropriation bill on the economy, the National Assembly did not only cannibalize it, but the lawmakers practically engaged in a bazaar by increasing the allocation to themselves, and President Buhari is making heavy weather of it. Below is what he said at the signing ceremony: “The National Assembly made cuts amounting to 347 billion Naira in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to 578 billion Naira”.

Does the narrative above that depicts a situation in 2018 not seem like déjà vu that budget padding is a major point of contention in the legislative arms, is recurring in 2024?

Even with the clarifications recently provided by the Budget Planning Minister, Atiku Bagudu, in his press conference held last Thursday, stating that budget padding is not abnormal and that the responsibility for budget creation ultimately lies with legislators, many Nigerians are still perplexed by the ongoing dispute.

 However, due to the political brinksmanship skills of President Bola Tinubu, the leaders of the other two arms of government—Godswill Akpabio and Kayode Ariwoola in the legislative and judicial branches respectively—are now working in harmony with him, unlike in 2018 when President Buhari and Senate President Saraki were in conflict with a Senate under Saraki’s firm control.

However, a schism has emerged within the NASS since the presidency did not challenge the NASS for reducing Government Owned Enterprises (GOEs) budget by N850 billion and allegedly padding its own budget by N1.2 trillion, bringing it to about N2.1 trillion. As mentioned earlier, such actions are not inherently wrong.

It was Senator Agom Jarikre from Cross Rivers State who, in an outburst, exposed how the padded funds were distributed among senators, loudly complaining on the floor of the upper legislative chamber last Tuesday that he received none.

Whether the distinguished senators merely received projects allocated to their senatorial zones equivalent to the amount revealed by Jarikre, or if they actually received or intend to receive the funds, remains to be clarified by the embarrassed members of the red chamber.

My gut feeling was that it is the former rather than the latter that would apply. But former President Olusegun Obasanjo had in 2016 alleged that the legislators actually collect the funds and execute the proposed projects partially, while others do not implement at all. Has the situation changed?

It now behooves the lawmakers to defend themselves by debunking the claim by Senator Ningi and as earlier alleged by former President Obasanjo.

By and large, if Obasanjo’s allegation is correct, the foregoing developments are telltale signs of how Nigerian legislators are trying to usurp the role of the executives by not being content with making laws but also inclined towards being engaged directly in delivering dividends of democracy to their constituents,which going by the provisions in our current constitution, is the exclusive preserve of the executive arm of government at the federal, state, and local government levels.

Acquiescing with such an attitude or approach to leadership is contrary to the admonition by the iconoclastic civil rights leader Martin Luther King: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward”.

In the light of the alarm about budget padding raised by Ningi,would our lawmakers allow themselves to be branded lawbreakers by a critical mass of Nigerians who cannot fathom the reason or see justification for the perennial budget padding crisis?

It’s about time that both arms of government found a permanent solution to what seems to me like a sort of enduring dichotomy.

Keeping that in mind, and being familiar with President Tinubu’s leadership style of always prioritizing matters that need urgent solutions and not tackling all issues in one fell swoop, one is quite optimistic that in due course of time, after stabilizing the economy by reducing food inflation triggered by the removal of subsidies on petrol and naira, which is a more pressing challenge, he would be embarking on the noble mission of ensuring that the three branches of government, in the practice of democracy, remain in their respective lanes as opposed to encroaching on each other’s duties which budget padding approximates.

In fact, at this critical juncture during which NASS is embarking on a review of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which commenced on February 14 with a 45-member committee comprising senators and members of the House of Representatives, and given that President Tinubu has recently committed to restructuring our country, one is of the conviction that we do not have to practice the American-style presidential system of governance hook, line, and sinker. Rather, we can have a hybrid between the parliamentary system which we inherited from the British colonialists who granted us independence in 1960 and the current presidential system which we adopted in 1978, apparently without exhaustively truly debating the concept which is currently turning out to be too expensive.

As has been argued vigorously by those who want our country to return to the parliamentary system of governance, it is the fact that we have a highly expensive NASS to sustain at a huge financial cost, with senators taking home a monthly salary of a whopping N15m and members of the House of Representatives receiving N10m salary as alleged by ex-president Obasanjo in 2016, is one of the major reasons that the recurrent expenditure in our national budget consistently takes the elephant size, leaving an ant size for capital projects.

As part of the solution to the crisis of budget padding, our legislators should look into how the need for them to be part of the delivery of democracy dividends by getting directly involved in the implementation of constituency projects can be incorporated into the nation’s statutes book that is currently being reviewed.

That is because legislators are the ones, apart from presidential and governorship candidates, that mainly campaign and make promises to members of their constituents during their quest for public office. That is one way that their quest to also be involved in project implementation can be legitimized to suit our peculiar circumstances.

Now, some critics may argue that legislators would abuse such a privilege, and my counterpoint would be that we should leave them to the judgment of members of their constituents who would be privy to the information about constituency projects allocated to their homestead and under the purview of their representatives – senators and House of Representative members.

While, they are reviewing the constitution ,they should also consider taking another look at the proposal to incorporate our traditional rulers into the governmental system which was jettisoned during the last constitution review. The fact that part of the constituency funds set aside by a senator in the 2024 budget is for disbursement to traditional rulers in his constituent validates their critical role in governance which our country has been missing by not assigning the traditional institution a role in government. Based on experience from the past,as leaders at the grassroots level, involvement of traditional rulers in governance would help in enhancing security at the community level which is currently in shambles.

Finally, it seems to me that the alarm raised by Senator Abdul Ningi about budget padding is a symptom of a deeper malaise. It is not a mere happenstance that he blew the whistle via BBC Hausa and not English language channels like NTA, AIT, Channels TV, or Arise News.

It is my considered opinion that President Tinubu should look beyond the surface appearance of the budget padding imbroglio to decipher or ferret out the underlying issues besetting leaders in our political ecosystem to the extent that fault lines are being created, as reflected by the resurrection of the Southern Senators Forum now to be led by Senator Tokunbo Abiru as a counterpoise to the Northern Senators Forum.

That is addition to northern and southern governors forum. If one does not already exist, a forum of house of representatives representing the northern versus one for southern Nigeria may soon be birthed. Ideally, there should be no such thing as northern senators or southern senators; rather, there should be senators of the federal republic of Nigeria. I would like to reiterate my fervent call that we should strive to always emphasize what binds us as a nation and discountenance what divides us.

On that note, our politicians should accept the fact that the time for politicking is over. It is now time to focus on good governance to enable the critical mass of Nigerians currently wallowing in misery due to the prevailing socioeconomic hardships to be pulled out of the economic doldrums in which they are currently mired. That ought to be the priority right now irrespective of party, region, religion, or tribe affiliations.

For instance, as the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas rages, the opposition leader in that country, Yair Lapid, has teamed up with President Benjamin Netanyahu, both of them working together in the war room fighting for what they believe is in the best interest of their country. Similarly, Hamas, Fatah, or any other political party in Gaza, West Bank, or entire Palestine, and even the entire Arab world, have subsumed their political differences to fight the war against Israel shoulder to shoulder until it is won or lost.

By any standard of measure, Nigeria is at war. Given the number of lives lost to outlaws ,bandits and poverty daily , weekly, monthly, and annually, the level of insecurity in Nigeria qualifies our country to be categorized as being in a war situation according to the adopted United Nations, UN parameters. So, all politicians should resolve to wage war against poverty and lack of progress which are fueling religious insurgency, banditry, and secessionism currently plaguing our country. It is after that war is won that we can go back into our political trenches.

Magnus Onyibe,an entrepreneur,public policy analyst ,author,democracy advocate,development strategist,alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,Tufts University, Massachusetts,USA and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from Lagos, Nigeria.

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