Constituency project funds: Pay but first verify
When the members of the National Assembly returned from their short break, not a few would have checked to confirm if the accounts department had received the alert for inflow of support funds for payment of Constituency Projects now said to be due. It is reported that early in September, the sum of N12.5 billion for the first quarter of 2015, and another N12.5 billion from the unspent 2014 budget was due for payment and that the lawmakers had been lobbying intensely for the release to be made. Provision for Constituency Projects for the National Assembly and indeed all Houses of Assembly across the Nigerian nation has been a vexed issue.
Even though allocations are released, hardly any projects on going or accomplished exist, to give credence and justification for the release of funds. Even when there is a seemingly entrenched due process that sees to the bidding and award of contracts, the contractors are believed to be proxies for the legislators and hence the projects are hardly ever executed even when payments are made. Thus across Nigeria, one finds Constituency Projects that for over ten years have remained at the level of the mere sign boards that say "MEN AT WORK"! There is no good report of a single constituency project in the whole federation I dare say.
This is hence the national dilemma. Should this practice which has delivered no dividends be continued with? Should President Muhammadu Buhari accede to the demand and pressure to make this fund release? Will its use be judiciously for the purpose set out. Are we not travelling an old and well worn corrupt path? Should the project fund be released to the gaping vortex of the profligate legislature, would it represent the change Nigerians voted President Muhammadu Buhari for?
Regrettably for President Muhammadu Buhari who has vowed to fight corruption and is in fact doing so, his hands appear tied. The demand being made is from the 2014 Appropriations, already signed into law and therefore a fait accompli. To not pay is a breach. Besides, the National Assembly budget is on the first line charge, drawn from the consolidated revenue fund without recourse to a prior Presidential Approval. Indeed releases are supposed to be made on a quarterly basis.
Under provisions that President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to reject outright, our National Assembly members appropriate funds for Constituency Project, whose allocations are released to the Legislature for execution. On the surface of it, there appeared sense, but in practice, this money was simply looted by legislators and a thieving executive could not hold them to account, rewarded as it was by its misappropriation of the National budget to the benefit of public officers and patronised politicians. Understandably, President Obasanjo operated as President over a Party whose Governors wielded immense influence on the Party, and seemingly owed their allegiance indeed more to the Vice President Atiku Abubakar. He was the politician. Obasanjo was the recruited leader without the base political structure. It was therefore easy and understandably pardonable for him to succumb to a blackmailing legislature to let this anomaly be. It was evident that Obasanjo needed to find and establish a grassroots base empowered by opportunities, however vague and an aberration, so as to check the political stranglehold of the governors.
This again calls to mind my constant running line of thought. A narrative of political party funding under the current dispensation reveals that politicians must inevitably dip their hands into the treasury through inflated contracts, commissions and bogus constituency project fund spending. This has been a recurring narrative since independence given the limited if not non availability of private sector promotional funding of political parties and the electioneering exercise as would obtain in developed economies. The narrative is sometimes difficult to define as corruption per se, since the people in power can always sit on their own mote in the eye and proclaim the log in the eye of the loser. This narrative must change for some acceptable defined contraption.
But if truth be told, majority of Nigerians do not subscribe to constituency project funding as provided for in the Nigerian democratic process. In the funding, the legislature at all levels made budgetary provision for constituency projects to be executed by the national and state assemblies. Nigerians feel that this has been money down the drain as there are hardly projects to show for the funds except for personal estates and profligate lifestyles of the legislators. The opinion is popular that President Muhammadu Buhari should not succumb to reported pressure from the National Assembly for the release of a budgeted N64bn.
According to reports, our lawmakers want President Buhari to promptly release N64.4bn from a budgeted N100 billion allotted for the constituency projects for 2014. The difference had been rationalised owing to revenue shortfalls. The lawmakers claim that contracts for this provision had already been awarded.
President Muhammadu Buhari succumbing to this pressure unfortunately drives a death knell into the fight against corruption. Nigerians do not want allocations for constituency projects released to the National Assembly. In the adopted zero-based budgeting, supervisory Ministries and Department should be appropriated the funds for implementation. The role of the legislature should be limited to law making and oversight functions, as the executive perfects execution and accountability particularly for capital projects.
Yet fundamentally, it would be a breach of the 2014 and 2015 Appropriation Act signed already into law by President Goodluck Jonathan if President Buhari does not make this release. Now with the Ministerial list before the National Assembly, it would seem that the Legislators have the Executive over a barrel, and particularly given the humiliating Code of Conduct Tribunal docking of Senate President Bukola Saraki, we may be set for some vicious horse trading in the coming days.
The mandate for change must survive, implying that a review of the process is necessary. It is necessary for a political solution that does not undermine the sanctity of the constitution and the stability of the polity. This is possible if President Muhammadu Buhari hastily puts in place a process that verifies the execution of the constituency projects before the funds are released to the National Assembly for disbursement to the contractors. The word from the people to President Buhari on this is - "please verify, then pay for work seen to have been done".