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Much ado about constituency projects


President Muhammadu Buhari has directed anti-graft agencies to probe the execution of constituency projects in the last 10 years. The directive has polarised the polity. Correspondent SANNI ONOGU examines its implications for the anti-corruption crusade of the administration and legislative/executive relations.

 

Nobody saw it coming. But, the reality has now dawned on the legislators. Although the executive has been relentless in pillorying the National Assembly since President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, pundits thought that Ahmad Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila-led Red and Green chambers would be different. The reason for this is not far-fetched, going by the active support for the election of the two presiding officers by the executive in June. However, the salvo recently fired by President Buhari at the National Assembly has seen many tongues wagging.

Buhari’s indictment of the National Assembly over failure to execute constituency projects in the last 10 years has continued to reverberate in both chambers and beyond. While the leadership of the Senate appears reluctant to engage the executive in a tit-for-tat over the incriminating assertion, the House of Representatives would have none of it. The apparent demureness of the Senate’s leadership notwithstanding, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus in the Upper Chamber did not take President Buhari’s invectives kindly. The open denunciation of the President’s claim has left many Nigerians wondering whether the much trumpeted ‘cooperation’ between the executive and the ninth National Assembly still subsists.

President Buhari, reputed for his characteristic bluntness, drew the first blood when he directed the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC) to investigate the non-execution of constituency projects amounting to N1trillion earmarked for the federal lawmakers in the last 10 years. President Buhari, who spoke in Abuja, at a National Summit on “Diminishing Corruption in the Public Service” organised by the ICPC in collaboration with the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), said there was nothing to show for the humongous cash voted for the projects across the country.

Following the president’s order, which went viral in both traditional and social media, the Senate on resumption of plenary last went into a closed-door session apparently to aggregate views on how to respond to the fresh onslaught. It was learnt that most Senators, including those of the majority All Progressives Congress (APC) at the session, took exception to the President’s remarks and called for an appropriate response by the Upper Chamber. It was further learnt that the session was heated, as lawmakers openly accused the executive of betrayal, in view of the resolve of the Ninth National Assembly to do its bidding. Lawan was said to have appealed for calm to enable the leadership explore other avenues of expressing its disappointment, instead of embarking in open confrontation. This, it appeared, was why the new spokesman of the Senate, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, parried the question when asked to react to the accusation against the National Assembly. Akwashiki said President’s outburst does not  deserve a response as it was not formally communicated to the National Assembly through the appropriate channel. Akwashiki said: “The President is the President of this country. He spoke as Chief Executive, but you people (the press) sometimes can be funny.” He added: “Mr President has not written to the National Assembly officially on this matter. We have modes of communication and I want to believe if he has anything, he will write to us.” Lawan has kept sealed lips on the matter. He also failed to seize the opportunity presented by the visit of the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Professor Itse Sagay, to respond. Sagay  had during the visit described constituency projects by lawmakers as controversial. “This issue of constituency project has been a controversial one,” Sagay said in his opening remarks. “I don’t want to express any opinion. All I want to plead is that you (Senate President) look into it and ensure that it is something of benefit to the constituents and constituencies of this country and not a subject of controversy anymore,” Sagay added. In his response, Lawan said: “You said you wish that constituency projects serve the purpose for which it is created. I say Amen.”

However, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, described the President’s assertion as erroneous. Abaribe urged the President to look inwards for culprits over the failure of constituency projects. He said the President is not abreast with the the operations of constituency projects by lawmakers. Abaribe said: “We are not worried by the statement.” The reason we are not worried is because we know that it was a statement that was erroneous.” The Abia South Senator added: “Somebody must have written a speech and then put false information in the speech. I have done constituency projects and we have always said that they are not done by the senators or members of House of Representatives. They are domiciled in the executive who execute the projects. If the President said he has not seen anything, he should ask his ministers and the agencies under him as the executive, as they are the people who have been executing these projects.”

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gbajabiamila, directed his anger against the ICPC. He described the ICPC’s report, which elicited the President’s directive, as a breach of the collective privilege of the members of the Green Chamber. Responding to a point of order raised on the issue by the  Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, the speaker said the ICPC failed to draw a line between allocated funds for constituency projects and actual releases. Gbajabiamila urged the anti-graft body to do due diligence in their investigation and not put the welfare of people at stake. “I think it is a breach of our collective privilege as a House and not one person. My concern is the unintended consequences of words spoken,” he said. “These are words emanating from a report by ICPC. There could be unintended consequences that could come out of it. You put people’s wellbeing at risk. I feel it is okay to use the National Assembly as the whipping boys. The fact is that there is the FoI (Freedom of Information) Act.” The Speaker added:  “The ICPC could easily invoke their power of investigation and look at releases as compared to what was budgeted. The ICPC that made the report, I don’t think they will appreciate if the House, in discharge of its constitutional responsibilities, did an oversight on ICPC based on what was budgeted as opposed to what was released to them. When you break an egg, it is going to be difficult to put it together. I will use this medium to send this message across to ICPC and other agencies to do their work of investigation well. There is a difference between money budgeted and money released. It is as simple as ABC.”

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Elumelu had informed his colleagues during plenary that Nigerians had been calling members demanding to know what happened to constituency projects’ budget in their various constituencies. He said he was at a loss on how to explain that over 50 per cent of the N1 trillion referenced by Buhari had not be released by the executive.

Elumelu said: “I saw the statement in the newspapers all dated 20th November, 2019 and one thing is very consistent in them and that is the comment credited to our amiable President, saying that N1 trillion was made available in the last 10 years to the National Assembly for constituency projects and that there was no value for the money spent. Yes, in the last 10 years, N1 trillion was actually made available by way of budgeting N100 billion annually for constituency projects. Truly, our constituents do not have value for such provisions. But, one thing I am worried about is that words have meanings. My constituents called to ask me to give account of the money that came to my constituency. I had so many calls and it was difficult for me to explain. My worry and why I am bringing this up is that, yes, N100 billion was budgeted annually, but actual releases were not up to 50 per cent. In actual sense, and even this year, we have not gotten releases of more than 40 per cent. I can conveniently tell you that only about 30 per cent has been released.”

The lawmaker, who represents Aniocha/Oshimili Constituency, said it is the duty of the executive to implement annual appropriations after they have been approved by the National Assembly. “We don’t award contracts. I don’t know of any member who is a member of the tenders’ board. In effect, the National Assembly has nothing to do with the execution of any contract,” he said. “It is painful that the agency that generated that information failed to state that while it is true that N1 trillion was budgeted in the last 10 years, this money has not been released. I am not happy because the information is capable of giving me a bad name before my community. The ICPC that wrote this report failed to tell the truth of how much was actually released. When you say N1trillion is budgeted like the President said, if that money was released completely, there will be value commensurate to the money. I wonder why the ICPC man failed to look at what was released. Why should ours be a subject of debate that they will tell Nigerians we received N1 trillion when that was budgeted, but not released. My message is that we should let them know that while N1 trillion was budgeted for constituency projects, by way of releases, we did not receive that because what was released was less than 40 per cent,” Elumelu added.

Tobi Okechukwu, in his contribution, said project abandonment across the country was a function of inadequate release of contractual sums. Okechukwu added: “You award contract and you pay 50 percent. What happens to the remaining 50 percent? How can you complete them? I know that in the last 10 years, this House has appropriated an average of N7 trillion and that presupposes that you spent N70 trillion and there should be commensurate performance. In the 2019 budget about N220 billion was budgeted for roads and what was released was N45 billion. If you are expecting the value of N220 billion when you give N45 billion, I don’t know what you will see.”

The President’s directive and the furore it has generated, has left pundits wondering whether this will lead the executive and the ninth National Assembly back to the trenches as it was during the Eight Session. This is coming against the backdrop that the leadership of the present legislature is believed to have emerged through the active support of the executive. Besides, the presiding officers have left nobody in doubt that they will continue to ingratiate the executive through speedy consideration of its Bills and confirmation  of nominees for appointments all in the name of executive, legislative ‘collaboration’ – in the interest of national development. However, in view of the present outpour of anger by lawmakers, is the honeymoon between the executive and the Ninth National Assembly over?

 



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