From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Constituency project is perhaps the most talked about issue in the relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government in Nigeria.
On a yearly basis, billions of naira is appropriated to enable legislators in the National Assembly and across the 36 states of the country carry out interventionist projects in their respective constituencies. In the 2016 national budget, N100 billion was voted for the constituency projects of the 360 members of the House of Representatives and 109 senators. But this is one issue that has attracted diverse reactions from the different segments of the society. While legislators see constituency projects as avenues to bring developmental projects to their respective constituencies, critics think otherwise.
Critics particularly see the concept as an avenue of corruption and a tool used regularly by the legislators to blackmail the executive arm of government. Some analysts say that usually when the executive wants anything from the legislature and the latter is not forthcoming, the former dangles the constituency project carrot.
Recently, indications emerged that the executive arm of government is using the release of funds for 2016 constituency projects as a bait to get the National Assembly to approve the $29.9billion foreign loan the government is seeking. The Senate has refused to approve the loan while the House of Representatives is yet to consider it.
Besides, one of the accusations against the legislators regarding constituency projects is that apart from nominating the projects, they equally nominates contractors, who after getting paid, settles the legislator and abandons the project.
Recently, former President Olusegun Obasanjo pointedly accused members of the National Assembly of corruptly enriching themselves through the constituency projects. Obasanjo wants President Muhammadu Buhari to probe funds that has been appropriated for constituency projects in the country in recent times.
Besides, the former president wants the government to stop funding constituency projects, which he describes as a “ veritable source of corruption.”
“We should not continue to live with the impunity and corruption of the National Assembly. Yes, I believe that something can and should be done. The president should ride on the crest of the popularity of what is happening in the judiciary to set up a highly technical team of incorruptible investigators to look into the so-called constituency projects of the past and the present and bring culprits to book…The so-called constituency projects is a veritable source of corruption. These constituency projects are spread over the budget for the National Assembly for which they are the initiators and the contractors, directly or by proxy, and money would be fully drawn, with the project only partially executed or not executed at all…
“Look at how the recurrent budget of the National Assembly, with the so-called constituency projects, has ballooned since the inception of this democratic dispensation. What were their budgets in the 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015?” the former president had said.
Like Obasanjo, elder statesman and former governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Baralabe Musa believes that the constituency project is a means for lawmakers to line their pockets. The former governor, who traced the concept of the constituency project in the country to the Second Republic, says that the constituency project is usually a sort of inducement by the executive arm of government to the legislature.
According to the former governor: “This constituency project came from the Second Republic. The idea of constituency project and everything behind it is corrupt, when you budget for an amount that is not going to be used for the issue it is meant for.
“It is an inducement for them to approve the budget. It is corruption. The best thing is to scrap it. To eliminate corruption, let the government scrap it. Projects should not be tied to any legislator.”
However, members of the National Assembly disagree. The chairman, House Committee on Media, Hon. Abdulrasaq Namdas says the entire concept is misunderstood. He says it is unfair for anyone to accuse the legislators of pocketing funds meant for constituency projects.
Namdas, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) insists that the role of the legislators in the constituency projects is merely to identify the project. He says once the projects are identified, they are domiciled in the relevant ministry or agency, noting that lawmakers neither nominate contractors nor execute the projects.
“The truth is that the whole idea is being misunderstood. The members don’t execute projects. They are merely asked to nominate projects. And the project is domiciled in the relevant ministry or agency.
“We have no contact with money. As a lawmaker, I will lobby for projects to be sited in my constituency. It is not wrong. It is not fair for people to say that constituency project funds are cornered by legislators,” the House spokesman notes.
Besides, the legislator, who represents Mayo Belwa/Ganye/Jada/Toungo federal constituency of Adamawa State, says it is not fair for anyone to accuse the legislature of using the constituency projects as a bargaining chip or tool for blackmail.
According to him, since the inception of the 8th session of the National Assembly, the legislature has given the executive arm everything it asked for, without asking for any favour in return.
“Since I came to the National Assembly, all that the President asked for we have approved, without any condition. We passed the budget, what did we ask for. People are not fair to us,” he said.
For Hon. Sergius Ogun, who represents Esan North East/ Esan South East Federal constituency of Edo State, the call for the scrapping of constituency project is not in the best interest of Nigerians.
Ogun, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), says for him, the constituency project is an avenue to impact his people positively and not for self-aggrandisement.
“I came here to make sure my people feel the impact of government. The constituency project is an opportunity for me to solve the problems in my constituency and not to enrich myself. I have spent millions of naira of my personal fund to help my people. Is it now that I am representing them that I will make money off them?” Ogun queries.
Similarly, Hon. Timothy Golu, member representing Paskshin/Kanke/Kanam Federal constituency of Plateau State says it is only through the constituency project that every segment of the country can develop, as the concept helps to ensure that projects are evenly distributed.
“I don’t know why Nigerians have not come to terms with this up till now. It is the only way projects can have a federal spread. How many projects in the budget do you see that cover every part of the country? But through constituency project, every constituency gets something. It is the best approach to bring about even development as every part of the country falls under a constituency,” he states.
Golu says that contrary to the widely held belief, the projects are executed by the executive arm of government and not the legislators, noting that lawmakers only identify the project to be executed in their constituencies.
He, however, says that although there may be cases of abuse of the concept, it is not enough for any one to call for its cancellation, stressing that there are lots of lawmakers who have used it to bring developmental projects to their areas.
Similarly, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Emeka Etiaba and Senator Solomon Ewuga also believe that constituency projects help to bring developmental projects to the hinterlands. The duo disagrees with calls for the scrapping of the constituency projects.
According to Etiaba, in several parts of the country, the only developmental projects the people enjoy are the constituency project.
On his part, Ewuga, who was a member of the 7th Senate, disagrees with the notion that lawmakers corner funds meant for constituency projects.
He says that in his constituency, electricity projects and other developmental projects he attracted to the area during his tenure as a senator are still there for all to see.
As persuasive as the argument for the retention of constituency project may seem, a school of thought believes that the concept should be reviewed to make for more transparency in its operation. This is especially against the backdrop that there are also incidences of perceived abuse of the concept.
There are also instances, where some of the constituency projects were abandoned midway because the legislators who initiated them left office before the completion of the projects.
Executive Director, Friends in the Gap Advocacy Initiative (FGAI), a civil society organisation, Mr George Orji, is one of those who think the operation of the constituency project should be reviewed, if it must continue.
He tells Sunday Sun that although the philosophy behind the constituency project cannot be faulted, its implementation at the moment lacks transparency and is fraught with corruption.
He alleges that the legislators influence the award of the contracts and the contractors, stating that most of the times the fund budgeted for the projects end up in private pockets.
“It is fraught with corruption. In the absence of transparency, there is no need to continue with it. We need to re-evaluate the concept. But since we have not got the right leadership to do that at the moment, the best thing is to stop it since the huge sum budgeted most times end up in private pockets,” he notes.
However, despite calls for either the scrapping of the constituency project concept, the Senate is making effort to institutionalise it. Recently, a bill seeking to devote at least 20 per cent of the National budget to constituency projects passed Second Reading in the Red Chamber.
If the bill, which is sponsored by Senator Stella Oduah, is passed into law before the passage of the 2017 Appropriation Bill, as much as N1.4trillion, depending on the size of next year’s budget, would be devoted to constituency projects in 2017 against N100 billion in 2016.
Canvassing support for the bill on the floor of the Senate, Oduah said: “One of the unique features of our democratic journey so far is the concept of ‘Constituency Projects’. Available statistics show that 70 per cent of Nigerians live in the rural areas and the intention of the bill is to ensure that good governance is delivered to these crucial areas. Constituency project in recent time is one of the ways to attract federal presence to our people. If not for these projects, majority of federal constituencies would not have a single federal project due to lopsided nature of project allocation in the budget.”
The senator added that constituency project is not peculiar to Nigeria, as the concept is equally operated in other developing countries.
She wants the country to borrow a leaf from countries like Kenya, Uganda, India and Tanzania, which has institutionalised the concept.
Oduah argued that instead of vilifying legislators over constituency projects, Nigerians should clamour for its institutionalisation. She argued that that way, lawmakers, who “know the needs of the people will articulate them in the form of projects for injection into the budget in the form of projects.”
The constituency project bill, which is now at the committee stage in the Senate, will no doubt give Nigerians the opportunity to decide what exactly they want concerning the concept.