NASS renovation project, not now – Punch

Pressured by brutal economic realities, the authorities have slashed the N37 billion provided in the 2020 budget for the renovation of the National Assembly complex. Initial media reports had put the revised figure at N27 billion, but the Budget Office of the federation later claimed that N9.2 billion was the actual amount.

Parliament’s main roles in budgeting are to review and debate the government’s draft ex ante budget (including its revenue estimates and its spending plans) and to authorise spending to implement the annual budget plan. Parliament also reviews budget execution and, in some countries, formally approves and discharges the government after annual budget implementation. As such, there is no legislature in functional democracies that has the power to arbitrarily allocate funds to itself. This is because preparing a budget is so complex that most legislatures do not have the capacity to undertake this effort. Whatever amount, embarking on such a project of renovating its complex at a time of dire financial circumstances is insensitive, reckless and intolerable.

What are the numbers saying? Nigeria’s oil revenues have dropped by 80 per cent and the country is running out of Foreign Exchange. As expected, the Federal Government has reduced the 2020 budget by over N320 billion and slashed revenue projection by 40 per cent. Similarly, the oil benchmark has been shifted from $57 per barrel to $30 per barrel while the oil production volume has reduced from 2.18 million barrels to 1.70 million barrels per day.

Even at the best of times, the N37 billion unfurled in November last year for the project should provoke public outrage for what it is: wasteful and a misplaced priority. Public reaction was not different either when the National Assembly recently reviewed it and the entire N10.59 trillion 2020 budget downwards, following the COVID-19-inspired global recession. The fund for the renovation should have been used to improve health sector funding. It is now an area of utmost priority globally with the coronavirus exposing the inadequacies of health facilities, more so in Nigeria. The annual budget of the government for the health sector is barely 4.17 per cent of the total national budget, which is equivalent to only $5 per person per year, Minerva Strategies, an NGO, says.

Instead of the lawmakers doing so, they reduced the N44.4 billion for basic healthcare to N25.5 billion, thereby undermining the health of rural communities in the 774 Local Government Areas. Also slashed was the Universal Basic Education provision of N111.7 billion to N51.1 billion. The basic health and education cuts represent 42.5 per cent and 54.2 per cent respectively, but the reduction of the NASS’s budget was just 10 per cent: from N128 billion to N115.2 billion.

The entire process has once more exposed the lawmakers as a selfish lot, not responsive to the yearnings of the people they purportedly represent. This explains why Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, a non-profit, appropriately noted, “Nigerian authorities are putting politicians’ allowances and comfort before citizens’ human rights. The budget cuts show failure to address the growing economic and social inequality in the country.”

Slashed or not, the fact that N37 billion was initiated and approved this time, against the background of the mere N22.89 billion allocation to the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency in the 2020 budget, underscores how insensitive and self-serving the lawmakers are, and how they elevate their interest above the safety of citizens on the country’s roads, dubbed death-traps. A National Bureau of Statistics’ recent report has confirmed just that with the 11,072 road crashes that occurred in 2019, which resulted in 5,483 deaths.

Parliaments and executive lodges are renovated across the world when the need arises. But such projects as seen in the United Kingdom and Canada are well planned and spaced in such a manner that their funding would not be at the expense of other service deliveries. Renovation at the Palace of Westminster, for instance, which was approved in 2018, will start in 2025, spanning a minimum of 10 years, says British government records. The planned £4 billion renovation has been postponed in favour of a smaller project of less than £200 million. Occasionally, public office holders pick the bills of certain renovations in their lodges. President Richard Nixon, in 1969, paid for a customised table for the White House. Barack Obama personally paid for some of the renovations during his tenure. Donald Trump was quoted in Time that he paid for a crystal chandelier in the dining room out of his own pocket.

The economy is bleeding and urgently needs rebooting. Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, alluded to this when he said, “Now we have come to a point where we have to address the infrastructure gap. We have significant projects like the Second Niger Bridge, Mambilla hydropower, East-West Road, Lagos- Kano rail line, among others. We don’t have the money…” A budget with a huge N5.36 trillion deficit, which will be financed by domestic and foreign borrowing from the IMF, World Bank, Afro EXIMBank and Islamic Development Bank, is a non-starter. In an attempt to redeem it, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), requested and obtained NASS’ approval of $22.7 billion first foreign loan, and a recent one of $5 billion. Equally troubling is the growing number of out-of-school children, put at 13.2 million by UNICEF, again with Nigeria leading globally. These sore facts require a responsible parliament to shelve non-productive and unessential projects.

The entire project should be put on hold. The quest for a National Assembly that is accountable and acts in the best interest of the country should be made a national agenda. The so-called constituency projects, decidedly vehicles for contract fraud, gulping over N1 trillion in the past 10 years, without anything to show for it, according to Buhari, should continually be resisted by all. An Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission report entitled, “Constituency Projects Tracking Group,” indicated diversion and non-implementation of 424 projects in 12 states. A revelation by a former senator, Shehu Sani, in 2008 that each senator’s monthly receipt is N13.5 million for “running costs,” in a country adjudged to be the poverty capital of the world still rankles. The abuse and misuse of public office and the treasury have to stop.

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