Outrage over N125 bn 2020 NASS budget

TAIWO AMODU writes on the 2020 budgetary approval by President Muhammadu Buhari for the National Assembly and its implications on executive/legislative relationship, in view of the increasing clamour for a reduction in the number of the federal lawmakers as a means to cut the cost of governance.

President Muhammadu Buhari last Tuesday presented his 2020 Budget proposal before a joint sitting of the National Assembly. In the document tagged, Budget of Sustaining Growth and Job Creation, the president revealed that the sum of N556.7 billion was provided for Statutory Transfers, with a provision of N125 billion for the National Assembly.

The disclosures, which elicited thunderous applause from the lawmakers seated at the Green Chamber, venue of the presentation has since been courting caustic remarks from ordinary Nigerians. While the federal lawmakers were on their annual recess, the media was awash with news of the cost estimates for Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) for them. The vehicles are meant to ease the legislative duties, particularly their oversight functions.

Many argued that those holding elective offices are not willing to walk the talks on cutting cost to reflect the parlous state of the economy. Those who justified the expenditure, running into billions of naira, however expressed reservations on the brand of vehicles which they claimed was in breach of the Executive Order designed to reflate and redirect the economy to a sustainable path.

The Order 5 entitled “Presidential Executive Order 5, for Planning and execution of Projects, Promotion of Nigerian Content in Contracts and Science, Engineering and Technology”, sought, among others, to build local capacities and shore up cash circulation within the economy.

The president’s speech and the 2020 budget Proposal offered no breakdown of the N125 billion allocation (the latter merely explained the expenditure amount as personnel cost, salary and wages). Further checks revealed that it included the payment of salary of staff, annual emolument of lawmakers and their aides, the National Institute of Legislative and Democratic Studies and the National Assembly Commission.

The public outcry over the humongous budgetary allocation to the lawmakers has taking more frenetic crescendo in the last few years. It became more pronounced with the rising competing needs for scarce resources for the running of government and capital outlay. For instance, some pundits argue that the stupendous expenditure on just less than 500 lawmakers could be used in providing six tertiary hospitals, one in each of the six geopolitical zones of the country with latest technology to meet world standard.

According to them, such initiative will go a long way in reducing medical tourism as the country is currently asphyxiated by huge capital flight occasioned by the elite patronage for well-equipped medical facilities in Germany, India, United States and Israel for treatment and medical checkups that Nigeria is not short in supply of experts at home.

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Others argue that the seeming refusal of the lawmakers to back down on the budgetary allocation amounts to the fact that they were not ready to make any practical sacrifice in the quest to reposition the economy and the country as a whole. A couple of years ago, the presidency announced that it was cutting the overhead expenditure as part of the contribution of the executive arm of government to reducing the cost of governance in the country. While a lot of observers believed that the promise was salutary, they nonetheless expected other arms of government to take similar pragmatic steps to streamline public expenditure on a minute percentage of the more than 200 million population of the country.

Perhaps, the most strident criticism against the lawmakers over the budget for the National Assembly is that the output of the lawmakers pales into insignificance because of the preponderance of piece of legislations that they have churned out since 1999. Their most ardent critics claim that the majority of the laws passed by the lawmakers with far-reaching impact of the larger society cannot be said to be commensurate to the huge investment incurred by the Nigerian tax payer on the National Assembly.

This was coming on the heels of the strident call, yet some other Nigerians that the legislative system should be changed from its present status namely, bicameralism to unicameral legislature. To many who subscribed to this submission, the Nigerian federal legislators are, presumably, the highest paid lawmakers in any part of the democratic world.

The immediate past governor of Imo State, now the senator representing Imo West Senatorial District, Rochas Okorocha, aligned himself with this position on the floor of the Red Chamber, penultimate week. The lawmaker told his colleagues that they must be willing to make huge sacrifice to reduce cost of governance.

While he admitted that his proposal would demand a constitutional amendment to sail through, Okorocha advocated a system that would reduce the present arrangement of three senators from each state of the federation to one and limit number of lawmakers in the House of Representatives from each state to three.

At a session with newsmen shortly after plenary, Okorocha described the present arrangement as wasteful and unwieldy. He said: “I am of the opinion that we should cut down cost of governance from whatever angle we can take it and that calls for sacrifice by all in addition.

“The essence of governance is to help the poor, the needy. That is what I said at plenary and it will require a constitutional amendment. So you need the consent of your colleagues because a tree can’t make a forest. I raised this on the floor of the Senate so that we can push a further bill on this. Rather than engaging all of us in politics, we can be engaged in the productive sector of the economy,” he said.

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Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Adedayo Adeyeye, however maintained that those casting aspersion on the budget of the National Assembly, particularly allocation for their allowances, were ignorant of the enormity of the assignment they have been saddled with.

He said: “Perception is usually too far from reality. The National Assembly is never a popular institution. It is the most unpopular arm of government in any democratic setting. In any democratic country, the parliament is the most unpopular because people don’t even see what they are doing.

“People cannot quantify the work unlike those of the executive. People see the legislature as a place where a group of people gather themselves doing nothing and earning big monies that cannot be justified. They have forgotten that it is only by having a legislature in place that qualifies any nation to be called a democratic country.

“The minister is supported with adequate funds to perform in the ministry. Similar treatment should be accorded the senators too. The office of a federal lawmaker should have its budget. Their offices should be seen as a cost centre too just like that of a minister. They should have adequate supporting staff, even if the numbers are not up to those of the ministers.

“In advanced democracies like America, their senators have up to 30 aides which may include two or three professors and other highly qualified people working for him. The money accruable to a senator in the United States America (USA) may not be as high as that of Nigeria but the budget for his office is 10 times higher than that of a senator in Nigeria.

“Even the earning of the senator in Nigeria is not for him personally, but for the running of his office in the National Assembly and constituency offices. But people see it as money being earned by an individual, whereas it is for the office of a senator which should be seen as an institution.”

Senator Adeyeye equally dismissed agitation for the reduction of the allowances of the National Assembly members. He said: “By reducing the salaries and allowances of the National Assembly members, you are crippling their capacity to perform their legislative functions. By so doing so, it will never be in the interest of the nation.

“Many of us condemned members of the National Assembly in the Second Republic for earning big salaries. But when the military took over, we thought that the soldiers would use the money saved from the lawmakers’ allowances which would no longer be paid to them and do something good for the nation. But we were disappointed because the military did nothing spectacular with the money.”

Then arose the question, is the National Assembly a victim of a fixated public? This became pertinent in view of a recent startling revelation on details of expenditures of the presidency in the 2020 Appropriation Bill that President Buhari presented to the joint session of the National Assembly on Tuesday. The revelation seems to justify the admonition of the legislative arm of government on Nigerians to show more than passing interest in the budget of the executive arm of government.

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A few lawmakers, who spoke with Nigerian Tribune in confidence, expressed their determination to point fingers of scorn at the executive over what they termed its financial recklessness, as the debate on the 2020 Budget continued.

In the budget proposal, President Buhari and his deputy, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, are expected to spend N3.337 Billion on foreign and local trips. The item was tagged Travel and Transport (General) under State House (President) and State House (Vice President). The president is expected to spend N2.526bn on his trips, while Osinbajo will spend N801m on his trips.

A further breakdown showed that Buhari’s foreign trips would gulp N1.751bn, while N775.6m would be spent on his local trips for the year. For the vice president, his foreign trips would cost Nigerians N517m, while his local trips would cost N283.97m. These figures are outside the N182.25m allocated for travels and transport in the budget of the State House Headquarters.

For the office of the Chief Security Officer to the President, the budget contained the sum of N266, 821,796 for the purchase of new cars, while the sum of N61, 710, 000 was budgeted for Motor Vehicle Fuel Cost. The document however did not give the brand of vehicles to be purchased as it only tagged it as “Ongoing”!

Speaking during a recent interview with Nigerian Tribune, Honourable Abdulrazak Namdas, chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Army, summed up the frustration of the lawmakers on strident criticisms that always trail their expenditure from the public as against the cozy lifestyle of the Executive. According to him, while the National Assembly purchases vehicles for the lawmakers once in four years, it is an annual ritual for the ministers.

He said: “There is no ministry that you go that they don’t have, at least, two vehicles. Apart from the ones that belong to one director, permanent secretary, ministers have convoy; they do have a pool of vehicles. How many ministries do we have in this country? Every year, as a member of the National Assembly, I see budget of ministries, agencies and parastatals buying vehicles.

“In my case, I will buy a vehicle once in four years but in the ministries, they buy it yearly. And I can prove to you that each time there is any budget, check the budget. You will see it that these vehicles are not bought by the National Assembly on a yearly basis, but the ministries buy them on yearly basis.”

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