Amid a global health and economic crisis and severe threat to the national budget, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission recently re-tabled the vexed issue of constituency projects. Like the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the Chairman of the commission, Bolaji Owasanoye, lamented how federal lawmakers had squandered N1 trillion on the controversial scheme with very little results to show and how it had been mired in fraud. This fraud has gone on for too long and Buhari has to summon the courage to end this grand larceny.
Nigerians have suffered greatly from the greed of lawmakers since 1999. Apart from the huge funds they vote for themselves and the poor quality of their service delivery, senators and members of the House of Representatives have crossed the line between lawmaking and executive functions. They insert the notorious constituency projects into the annual budget, where they decide on projects, approve the funding and oversee their execution. Sited in their respective constituencies, the projects are ostensibly meant to provide services and help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. But they never do.
Instead, the nefarious activity has drained over N1 trillion from the federal treasury in the 10 years to 2019, attracting the anger of Buhari last year, who, at a forum, declared that it had not had any meaningful impact on the people.
There are cogent reasons to stop the fraud. First, there is the important matter of the separation of powers that underpins the practice of democracy and the rule of law. This principle is accorded greater weight in the presidential system the country is practising. The framers of the United States Constitution, where the presidential system has found its utmost expression, adopted the doctrine that the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — should be strong with corresponding powers, with each acting as a powerful check on the other. Described as “the dominant principle of the American system,” the executive is expected to run the administration, enforce laws and defend the country against internal and external aggression. The legislature’s primary function is to make and pass laws, while the judicial arm is to apply and interpret laws.
An essay in Article Library, an online resource, adds, “Legislature enjoys a very special and important role in every democratic state. It is the assembly of the elected representatives of the people and represents national public opinion and power of the people.” A United Nations Development Programme publication says the power of the parliament to oversee the government in a democracy aims to ensure transparency, hold the executive accountable and uphold the rule of law. This does not translate into the legislature usurping the exclusive right of the executive to execute projects.
Surveys by BudgIT, a non-profit, and ICPC uncovered fraud, abandoned projects, diversion of funds and materials under the constituency projects. Of the 1,496 projects tracked by BudgIT between June 2018 and November 2019, 475 were found completed by December, 144 were ongoing and 536 had not even started, while 42 were abandoned. It detailed widespread deceit. Though funded by the government, lawmakers personalised the projects to win popularity and votes.
Moreover, rampant fraud included the inflation of contracts, award of contracts to themselves through front companies and appropriation of materials by lawmakers for themselves and supporters. In 90 instances, neither trackers nor the supposed beneficiary communities could locate the sites, while money was paid for projects abandoned midway or never executed. Only 33 per cent of the projects were completed in the 2015 cycle, while the ICPC questioned the insertion in 2019 of N2.9 billion in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and N2.7 billion in the budget of the Ministry of Justice. This is brazen looting.
It is ridiculous in a federation for the central government to engage in the provision of boreholes, community-viewing centres, sewing machines and local markets. Bizarrely, the ICPC and BudgIT found the construction of pavilion, culverts and supply of hand pumps, perimeter fencing of schools and “empowerment for youths and women” in the approved budget estimates. These are activities fit only for local government councils. With 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List in the constitution, the Federal Government has enough to occupy it. Little wonder that oversight is near absent. “Secrecy in the preparation, enactment and implementation of budgets keeps citizens in the dark regarding what their government owes them,” said BudgIT.
Like many things, the constituency project is a misapplication of the “pork barrel” legislation in the US where Congressmen lobby to attract mandatory federal spending in the budget to benefit their districts. Unlike here, however, tracking, oversight and reviews are institutionalised. Second, US lawmakers do not execute, oversee or brand them as if they were the financiers. The Bipartisan Control Act 2011 curbed it by placing a moratorium, while the line-item veto allows the president and state governors to veto pork barrel items; 44 US states adopted the measure.
It is time to end this stealing. Lawmakers’ claim of serving the rural communities is trite and deceitful. The National Assembly is a national platform, not an LG; attracting projects and engaging state, local and development agencies are the global standards. Lawmakers exhibit ignorance when they insert projects that have not gone through due process of conception, competitive bidding, architectural and engineering designs and site acquisition in the budget.
Nigeria’s civil society groups should collectively raise their voice against this legislative heist. The bid to legalise the power grab and reserve 20 per cent of the national budget for constituency projects should be thrown out. The country can no longer afford this massive waste. The executive should push back, do a thorough homework and consider seeking judicial interpretation of the basic law over project execution.
Besides, instead of complaining, the ICPC should move against the legislators that have abused their position and misapplied funds in the name of executing the constituency projects. This is corruption and those involved should be diligently investigated and prosecuted.