By Ikeogu Oke
This is one of my several interventions in the public space urging the National Assembly to recognise the need to put national interest first in its actions. One of the previous interventions was entitled “Of Power Probes and National Interest” and published in most of our dailies. It was inspired by the National Assembly trivialising power probes in my opinion and making what I considered to be unfounded allegations about the country’s power sector reform. Also, the allegations could have portrayed our country in bad light and discouraged investors, and so amounted to involuntary economic sabotage.
The probe was flagged in a story published on page 8 of Vanguard of October 15, 2015. Had it taken place, it would have followed another power probe in two weeks whose result was still unknown. And I thought the House needed to do more than give Nigerians the impression that its mandate was to engage in such incessant probes that seemed fruitless and driven by self-interest.
More interestingly, the story stated that, “the House, in a resolution on the motion entitled Alleged Non-transparent and Fraudulent Sale of Power Assets…, bemoaned what it called lack of openness in the processes leading to the sale of power infrastructure to private investors.” Also, that the House “resolved to … investigate the processes and sale of all aspects of power assets … to determine if there were malpractices and misconduct in the exercise.”
The story gave the impression that the House blurred the gap between suspicion and proof of misconduct in the sales. I also came under the impression that the choice of words could have been more prudent, as it exposed the power sector to the risk of disinvestment by people, especially foreigners, who might interpret it as indicative of the sector’s unreliability for investment.
Another intervention was entitled “Lessons from Senate Probe of the Power Sector” (The Guardian, October 26, 2015, p. 20). Before I attended the Senate probe to which it was a response, I had noted a report on page 25 of This Day of September 22, 2015.
The report was entitled “Power Probe: Another Legislative Sham”. It made a critical observation about a previous power probe by the Senate, namely, that the presiding committee showed “its lack of up-to-date knowledge of the sector it is probing”, with obvious implications for the credibility of the probe.
Both interventions came to mind as I read some publications resulting from the objection by the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, to the National Assembly’s alleged alteration of the 2017 budget after its defence. This is reminiscent of the widely condemned “padding” of the 2016 budget by the National Assembly. Major in the alleged behind-the-scenes alterations is the reduction of the budgetary allocations for such projects of national significance like the 3,050-megawatt Mambilla hydroelectric dam and the Second Niger Bridge to create a budget for the National Assembly members’ “constituency projects” such as boreholes, primary health care centres and street lighting.
And so, in a country that has long bemoaned its underdevelopment due to chronic power scarcity, we could have an absurd situation where the constituencies of its federal legislators would be littered with such new facilities with no electricity to run them because their having undercut the Mambilla budget could prevent the timely completion of the dam.
Need I ask who will manage the budget for those “constituency projects” or if this does not reflect a conflict between personal and national interest among the legislators in which they put their personal interest first in a manner that suggests abuse of privilege?
Fashola’s objection is not only that the alter nations were made after the budget defence but also that they were not brought to the notice of the Ministries, Departments and Agencies that had made the defence before the National Assembly passed the budget. Shouldn’t this have been the case for a legislature one of whose cardinal responsibilities is “oversight”, with its implication of championing transparency, if it wishes to lead by example?
Or could it be that the National Assembly is resisting change in that, being used to “padding” the budget or altering it arbitrarily to serve the interest of its members, and having drawn public outcry over the 2016 episode, it would rather continue the practice by stealth than end it?
In the continuation of a front page story entitled “Senate Attacks Fashola” on page 4 of Daily Trust of June 25, 2017, the Minister points out that there is nothing in the Constitution like “constituency projects”. This suggests that the country may be funding illegal projects at the expense of major developmental projects like the Mambilla dam and the other projects affected by the budget alteration.
In the publication, the Senate, surprisingly, does not counter the Minister’s allegation despite its hint at serious moral and procedural infractions. Rather, it speaks through its mouthpiece, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, to accuse the Minister of “spreading wrong information and half-truth about the 2017 budget”.
Senator Abdullahi also insinuates that the Minister’s objection was inspired by self-interest. For instance, for the Lagos-Ibadan expressway whose budget the Minister also alleged its alteration by the National Assembly, he said the Minister “would prefer an arrangement that allows the Ministry to continue to award contracts and fund the project through government budgetary allocation at a time when the nation’s revenue is dwindling and at an all time low”, and despite the existence of an agreement to fund the project by “Public Private Partnership… using … Private Finance Initiative”.
Perhaps the dwindling of the nation’s revenue which Senator Abdullahi so patriotically pointed out does not apply when he and his colleagues spend part of the same revenue on their “constituency projects”.
On his part, Fashola has denied the allegation of his “spreading wrong information and half-truth” in a front page story in The Punch of June 27, 2017, entitled “Fashola Attacks N’ Assembly”. He also attributed the National Assembly’s attack on him and its claim of the existence of an agreement to finance the Lagos-Ibadan expressway project with private funds to a knowledge gap “about the facts of what they were getting into”. This harks back to the observation made by the writer of the This Day article I had referred to about a Senate presiding committee showing “its lack of up-to-date knowledge of the sector it is probing”. It also shows, with this new budget controversy, how things may have remained the same with the National Assembly in terms of tinkering with the budget and acting contrary to facts.
We learn from all this how those willing to exercise the political will to bring about lasting change in our country like Fashola may be antagonised by vested interests within the system. Yet, we wonder why our country hardly makes progress despite much exertion. The gears of national progress often turn to cancel the efforts of one another, yielding futility.
Oke writes from Abuja.