By Mon-Charles Egbo
Since this republic, one thing that has united the country across various divides has being the clamour for disclosure of the national assembly budget details. The relative secrecy of its fiscal affairs is the principal reason the federal legislature is poorly-perceived and intensely-criticized by the larger public. At the twilight of every assembly, the recurring item on the agenda being set for the succeeding one is the overriding need to disclose the details of the national assembly budget.
The agitation assumed a rather more topical dimension in the 8th assembly under Senator Bukola Saraki, with attendant undermining effects on the image and reputation of the institution. It was centred on several sentiments. While some argue that the shielded information is merely a tool for private enrichment in the hands of the legislators who as well are accused of earning “jumbo salaries”; others claim that national assembly is contributing little or nothing to the economy and as such, should be denied access to ‘humongous’ funding or at most, be made a part-time calling. Even beyond these, there is a more vociferous campaign for a unicameral legislature where the senate is already singled out for scrapping.
Justifiably in all these, the common ground is the urgent need to cut down on the cost of governance, especially given the prevailing economic realities. Although it is a legitimate concern, certain vocal elites deliberately seek to make political capital out of the situation, which in itself is a threat to democratic development. And equally sad, the pains and frustrations flowing from the harsh economy add impetus to those issues and cumulatively in turn, put the national assembly on trial. Then resultantly, there is unfortunate erosion of public trust which is the hallmark of the legislature globally. This is the greatest of the inherited burdens of the 9th national assembly.
Nevertheless, any result-oriented leadership is defined by thorough commitment to strategic thinking, pragmatism and responsiveness, which is supported by a policy of regular gauging of public pulse. Successful ventures world over are testimonies that huge relationship capital which is the bedrock, is amassed only when individuals and organizations, including governments, are in harmony with their environments. And also in this context, because budget is a reflection of the economic policy thrust of governments, good governance and efficient service delivery begin and end with budgeting.
Apparently, it is this set of knowledge coupled with the consciousness that government is a continuum that inspired the leadership of the 9th national assembly to seek to truly reflect the aspirations of the people whose mandate they enjoy. Both the president of the senate, Ahmad Lawan, and the speaker of the house, Femi Gbajabiamila, were determined right from the outset, to frontally address the perennial issue of the national assembly budget. They got bearings from the 8th assembly. But their broader goal was to effect a comprehensive and critical review of Nigeria’s budgeting system, with a view to inculcating sense of discipline in all the processes beginning from preparation through defence to particularly implementation.
And quite thankfully, this vision was to be facilitated by their colleagues who were perceptive enough to have elected presiding officers that indeed embody their ideals and aspirations. In other words, there had to be firstly a foundation for a parliament with the right leadership capacity and political will, predicated upon clear-cut and people-oriented agenda.
With a pedigree of legislative experience spanning twenty years and vast intellectual endowments both propelled by broad motivation for a prosperous Nigeria, Senator Ahmad Lawan was emphatic that to deliver on the overall legislative agenda “the budget 2020 is going to be part of what we want to do differently from the previous sessions”. Elsewhere, he added that “we have resolved to be reform-minded in the ninth national assembly and improving the budget cycle is one area of focus. Our attention will be on the areas where enhancements are needed and we are surely not going to look away from them in the interest of national growth, development and well-being of our people”. Then specifically on the vexed issue of the national assembly budget, he stressed that “to effectively address the crisis of confidence between the senate and the general public, the 9th senate shall adopt a transparent and accountable system that offers full disclosure of its budget in terms of personnel costs, operational expenses and other expenditure”.
However and for the records, the breakdown of the national assembly budget had always been readily accessible until 2010 when it suddenly became a single line item, though with no formal reasons. Authoritatively, “the national assembly budget started swelling in 2003 when it was jerked up from N23.347 billion to N32.229 billion in 2004. In 2005, N55.422 billion was budgeted, 2006: N39.810 billion, 2007: N66.488 billion, 2008: N104.825 billion, 2009: N96.052 billion and in 2010, N154.2 billion was budgeted. From 2010 to 2014 the budget of the federal legislature stood at N150 billion until 2015 when it was slashed to N120 billion. Again, it was slashed down to N115billion in 2016”.
Furthermore, in 2017 N125b was allocated to the national assembly while 2018 was N139.5b. And respectively, the budgets for 2019 and 2020 were N125b and N128b.
Instructively also, 8th national assembly made public its 2018 budget details. Of course, Ahmad Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila were strategic members where they doubled as the majority leaders of their respective chambers. Out of the N139.5 billion, the national assembly general office received a total allocation of N15.3bn where N13.11bn was for recurrent capital, while N2.27bn represented the capital expenditure. The senate received N35.5bn where N30.6bn was for recurrent expenditures, while N4.93bn budget for capital expenditure. Then to the house of representatives, N57.4bn was allocated with recurrent expenditure accounting for 52.6 billion and that of capital amounting to N4.76bn.
The National Assembly Service Commission received a total of N10.2bn where the recurrent allocation was N2.4bn and capital expenditure was N309mn. Legislative aides were allocated a sum of N10.2bn, with N10.05bn for recurrent expenditure and while capital budgetary allocation was N150mn. National assembly general services took N12.3bn. The total recurrent budgetary allocation stood at N8.9bn, while total capital expenditure stays at 3.4b1bn. Further breakdown showed what the personnel and overhead costs were allocated.
Understandably, the frosty relationship that eventually shaped the tail end of that dispensation accounted for the inability to sustain that culture of full disclosure of budget details. And once again, the 9th assembly came with a mindset to holistically address the menace of weak budgeting system, through pragmatic reforms. They identified and isolated the areas needing urgent attention and set out to provide solutions amid the inherited trust deficit and particularly, ailing economy.
It is indeed those accumulated image and reputational crises resulting in apathy and hostility towards the national assembly that regrettably overshadowed the initial disclosure and attempts at consolidating on it. Rather, the elites for political expediency feigned ignorance and weaponized the campaign, merely for sustained and direct vilification of the lawmakers.
Yet in the end, the engendered reforms were fruitful. Nigeria reverted to January-December fiscal calendar where budgets are passed and accented to in record times. Presidency made a rule that no head of ministerial departments and agencies should be late, let alone absent, during budget defence sessions. Staggered budget cycles for certain ‘powerful’ parastatals are abolished. Budget proposals must be thoroughly scrutinized and researches conducted prior to appropriation. Finance bills and medium-term expenditure frameworks have become prerequisites for budget passage. Fund releases are now matched with proofs of budget implementation. There is instituted joint-oversight functions for the two chambers to minimize costs and achieve unity of purpose. And above all, the empirical details of the 2021 national assembly budget are now available and accessible. The budget is no longer just a “single line item”.
The summary of the breakdown shows how the N128bn are variously allocated. While national assembly management got 15.9bn; the senate and house chambers are respectively allocated 33.2bn and 51.9bn, for bureaucracy, facility management, services and programmes, salaries and allowances as well as other miscellaneous expenditures. The amount to be spent by the National Assembly Service Commission is 5.7bn even as 9.6bn would be spent on the training, salaries and allowances of legislative aides.
Similarly, public account committees are to spend 118.9mn for the senate and 142.7mn for the house. For researches and academic programmes, the National Institute of Legislative and Democratic Studies NILDS is allocated 7.3bn. While 9.1bn would take care of national assembly general services, 389.3mn is for service-wide votes. Then the office that oversees the retirement benefits of retired clerks and permanent secretaries received 275.2mn.
And authoritatively again, the comprehensive record captures all the allocations for not just the capital and recurrent expenditures, but for the personnel and overhead costs which cumulatively account for the entire figure.
With this one of the kept promises and milestones, including those yet unfolding, is it not only fair to encourage the 9th national assembly, at least for being sensitive and people-oriented? Even though most of those integrated efforts at revamping the economy will take time to germinate and bear fruits, especially considering where the country is coming from; will it not be to our collective advantage moving forward, to close ranks and offer all the necessary cooperation and supports, towards making the national assembly live up to its roles and responsibilities of connecting the people to good governance? Objectively, it is not the making of the 9th assembly that Nigeria is an oil-dependent economy that is now suffering the effects of dwindling global prices. The legislature is not responsible for the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that eventually disrupted the projected performance of the 2020 budget. Verifiably, it made all the relevant sacrifices for the benefit of the people and also provided the executive with enabling environments to deliver good governance. As such, may we embrace participatory democracy for sustainable national development where government is responsive and accountable to the people. And primarily also, it affords us opportunities of determining how this budget would be implemented to our pleasure and satisfaction. This is a challenge!
• Egbo is the print media aide to the president of the senate