The Socio-Economic Rights & Accountability Project (SERAP), BudgIT and 14 other civil social advocacy groups have called on the principal officers of the National Assembly to step down as part of a process towards carrying out wholesale reform of the operations of the federal legislature.
The demand for reform is based on the lack of transparency that has continually dogged the National Assembly. The demand was contained in a statement jointly signed by the groups. According to the statement, the lack of accountability regularly exhibited by the National Assembly is dangerous for the country’s democracy because those elected to provide oversight over the executive arm’s implementation of the country’s budget are incapable of ensuring accountability, given that they have refused to be accountable in the use of resources allocated to them.
In the last three years, the statement said, the National Assembly has refused to respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and a court order to provide its detailed budget. This was despite the fact that both the Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, promised at the inauguration of the 8th Assembly that they would make the details of the National Assembly spending public.
“It is against this backdrop of a failure to be accountable in something as basic as a budget that our National Assembly has been rocked from one crisis to another, including trying to gag social media; pushing a bill that would seriously undermine the work and independence of civil society and thereby violate constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association; purchasing new cars at exorbitant prices; fraud allegations against the Senate President that have paralyzed proceedings on several occasions; deliberating immunity and life pension for its leadership when they already get a gratuity after every term; and a possibility that they’ve violated the Constitution by not sitting the requisite number of days,” the statement said.
The groups also took a dim view of the response of Mr. Dogara to the recent crisis in House of Representatives involving him, Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin, former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, other principal officers and 12 other House members. The scandal, noted the civil society organisations, erupted on account of a flawed budgeting process and the haphazard allocation of constituency projects for personal benefits rather than those of their constituents.
The groups said Messrs Dogara and Jibrin were invited to meet with civil society organizations to provide context to media reports on the scandal. While Mr. Jibrin agreed to meet with the civil society groups, the Speaker’s office responded that Mr. Dogara had publicly denied all allegations.
The groups, however, maintained that there remain many questions for which answers need to be provided. On amendments to the budget, the groups said there are still explanations to be made regarding the allegations that the budget was altered by a few officers, including Mr. Jibrin as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, without the knowledge of other members of the National Assembly.
Similarly requiring further clarification, the organisations further said, is the allegation that N100 billion of the budget was surreptitiously allocated to constituency projects. These funds, they said, are usually shared equally on a zonal basis among the six geopolitical zones, leading to the allegation that N40 billion was shared by the principal officers for their constituencies to the detriment of other constituencies. The groups also noted that over 2,000 projects, worth N284billion, were made in the budget and that National Assembly members are live above their legitimate salaries. Equally noted was the practice of wasteful procurement and opacity in the management of the finances of the House of Representatives.
Yet another foggy area is the controversial allowances pocketed by members, which sparked allegations that
10 principal officers have received over N10 billion in illegal allowances since 2007.
The foregoing, explained the groups, makes a wholesale reform of the National Assembly imperative.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with how the National Assembly discharges its legislative and oversight duties. At the heart of these allegations are corrupt enrichment, conspiracy to act corruptly, embezzlement, diversion and misappropriation of public funds for lavish lifestyles, abuse of office and public trust.
It is of great concern to Nigerians that members of the National Assembly do not know the content of their own budget, yet they hold court over how the budget of the country is spent. Public auditing of spending by the National Assembly and several reports on allegations of corruption that have been investigated remain shrouded in secrecy. This does nothing for an institution that seeks to be responsive, accessible, representative and accountable,” the groups stated.
They argued that the fact that the House of Representatives was not reconvened to address these allegations of corruption and the country’s limp economy provide an indication of how much importance the legislators place on them.
The groups also condemned the House for its focus on voice votes, shouts of solidarity, personalization of issues and rowdy sessions since it reconvened. The House, they argued, should have made its books open to confirm or dismiss the various allegations of corruption brought against its leadership.
The organisations similarly dismissed as lacking credibility the attempt by the House leadership to investigate the allegations.
“Given the seriousness and gravity of allegations against the House leadership, in particular, the outcome of any investigation under the leadership of the current principal officers of the House would not meet the threshold of an effective, transparent and independent investigation.
The budgets of the National Assembly, the National Judicial Commission (NJC), and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), amongst others, are a first line charge. As such, it is not necessary for these institutions to provide a detailed breakdown of their budget as part of the annual budgeting process. This is a great disservice to Nigerians as it does nothing for transparency and accountability,” they explained.
On account of these, the groups demanded the resignation of the principal officers of the Senate and House of Representatives pending the conclusion of investigations and court cases.
“The principal officers in both chambers have spent an inordinate amount of time defending themselves, while the business of lawmaking and executive oversight suffers. The only reasonable option is for the named principal officers to step down for an effective and transparent investigation because our country cannot afford this distraction especially with the current economic recession,” the groups demanded. Also demanded is an open investigation into the allegations of financial misconduct involving House of Representatives member by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and speedy prosecution of those indicted. They, however, warned that the Department of State Security (DSS) should not be involved, as it has no jurisdiction and that its involvement does not provide parties in the matter the opportunity to challenge the legal validity of any criminal charge that might arise from its intervention, using the premise of a flawed investigation process.
The groups also recommended zero-based budgeting and the involvement of citizens in the budgeting procedure. They described as ludicrous the deployment of public funds to ambiguous schemes such as ‘Youth Empowerment,’ for which N450million is budgeted and ‘Strategic Youth Empowerment, for which N500 million is earmarked.
“The budgeting process needs to include budget details, not just estimates. Also, the technical capacity of the Budget Office in the National Assembly should be enhanced,” stated the organisations.
To guard against abuse the process of constituency projects, the groups demanded its reform, notably through integration into the budgeting process from the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), based on a needs assessment in the constituencies and legislators representing those constituencies.
To banish the opacity surrounding the finances of the National Assembly, the groups recommended that federal legislature should publish its detailed 2016 budget, scrap voice voting and use the e-voting system already installed, activate the switchboard in the National Assembly complex so citizens can engage their representatives, ensure the National Assembly’s website is regularly updated with bills and contact information of members as well as provide an online attendance register for plenary sessions.
In conclusion, the groups said if the allegations are found to be true, the 2016 Budget should be amended accordingly in line with the law and the constitution.
Those who signed the statement included Yemi Adamolekun, Executive Director, EiE Nigeria; David Anyaele, Executive Director, Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD); Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre (IPC); Funke Baruwa, CEO, Women’s Trust Fund; and
Jaye Gaskia, Protest to Power Movement.
Others were Idayat Hassan, Executive Director, Center for Democracy & Development (CDD);
Jibrin Ibrahim, Senior Fellow, Centre for Democracy & Development (CDD);
Otive Igbuzor, Executive Director, Centre LSD;
Ngozi Iwere, Executive Director, Reclaim Naija (Community Life Project); Tunji Lardner, Executive Director, WANGONet
Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights & Accountability Project (SERAP); Ezenwa Nwagu, Say No Campaign; Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda; ‘Kemi Okenyodo, Executive Director, Partners West Africa;
Seun Onigbinde, Team Lead, BudgIT;
Anwal Rafsanjani, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) and Lanre Suraj, Chairman, Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC).
- Sahara Reporters