Is the National Assembly actually on the same page with long-suffering Nigerians? This question has become germane because certain steps of the legislators, indeed, suggest that their thoughts and intents are diametrically opposed to those of many ordinary Nigerians. These elected representatives of the Nigerian people unceremoniously slashed the budget provisions for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Second Niger Bridge and the Mambilla Power Plant, at a time that many Nigerians are expecting a quick execution of the projects to relieve their trauma in line with the campaign promises of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Babatunde Fashola, drew the attention of the nation to this unfortunate development shortly after the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, signed the 2017 Appropriation Bill into law. He took umbrage at the decision of the federal legislature to slash the budgets for these critical projects and add N10bn to the vote for the National Assembly. He argued that the National Assembly had no power to introduce new projects after the ministry had defended the budgets before the House.
The budget for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which has perennially been under repairs for six years under a failed Public/Private Partnership arrangement, was slashed from N31bn to N10bn, under the guise that it can be repaired under a PPP arrangement. The vote for the Second Niger Bridge was slashed from N12bn to N7bn. The votes for the Mambilla Power Plant and the Okene-Lokoja-Abuja Road were also cut. The cuts, the federal legislators have since explained, were made because they felt that the Minister unduly favoured the South-West in the appropriations.
There are so many issues involved in this matter. First, is the power or otherwise, of the National Assembly to introduce new projects into the budget. The National Assembly has said that it is not a rubber stamp of the Executive arm of government to just okay whatever is laid before it without making its own input. In this regard, NASS brandishes a ruling of a High Court to the effect that it “was not created by the drafters of the constitution and imbued with powers to receive budget estimates from the Executive as a rubber stamp parliament.”
However, since there are still so many arguments and disagreements on this particular aspect of this altercation, it is a matter that is better left to the Supreme Court to make a definitive pronouncement. But then, any arrangement that empowers legislators to make their input into the budget after it has been submitted would appear untidy. If they must introduce new projects at all, it would be better for an arrangement to be made for their projects to be submitted to the ministry and incorporated into the appropriations before the defence. Any contrary arrangement could make nonsense of the entire budget, as there would be no limit to the number of projects and extra appropriations that the National Assembly would add to the budget without any information at all to the ministry.
But then, the most critical aspect of this face-off is that relating to the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Second Niger Bridge and the Mambilla Power Plant. These are projects that are so important to millions of Nigerians. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, for instance, is a critical arterial road. Whether you are Hausa, Yoruba, Fulani, Ijaw, Igbo, Urhobo or Ibibio, if you must visit Lagos by road, you must pass that road because it is the most sensible route into and out of the city. This is a road through which the trailers bringing cows and other produce from the Northern parts of the country pass every day.
It is the road through which goods that are imported into the country through the ports in Lagos are moved to all other parts of the country. It is also the road through which petroleum products that are loaded at the Lagos fuel depots are taken to other parts of the country. How then can anyone call it a mere “South-West” project? Every year, at Christmas, there is an exodus through that road of Lagos dwellers returning to their different hometowns and the serious traffic there is better imagined than experienced.
What of the Second Niger Bridge? This is a project that has been a subject of contention over the years. Virtually all presidents in the country in the last fifteen years have made a ritual of promising to construct that bridge, but their promises ended up yielding nothing. In spite of all these promises, the Igbo, every year at Christmas, go through harrowing experiences trying to cross into their homelands on the aged Niger Bridge. There have cases of commuters spending almost a whole day in traffic on that bridge, and there is the ever present danger that it would collapse one day. The failure to deliver on this popular campaign promise is one of the reasons for the incessant cries of marginalization of the South-east in the country.
One, ordinarily, would have thought that the construction of this bridge would be a priority of any well meaning government and federal legislature. If, as the National Assembly has explained, Fashola was lax in executing the project, one would have expected that the best thing was for NASS to call him to order, not cut the vote for the project by N21billion when contractors were already being owed N15 billion. By cutting the vote, the NASS only effectively stopped work on the project, which creates the impression that it is trying to undercut the executive and set it up for failure. The Mambilla Power Plant is also important because the importance of electricity in the country cannot be over-emphasised.
Under the present circumstance, let NASS and the executive work on a supplementary bill to appropriate funds for these important projects. Their successful completion is one of the yardsticks by which the extant government will be adjudged by the people.