Nigeria: Federal Legislators Resume Amid Fresh Budget Padding Scandal

NDDC
NDDC

By Akanimo Sampson

The National Assembly, the Legislative arm of the Nigerian government is resuming from a two-week Sallah break this Thursday, against the backdrop of a damaging allegation that the federal lawmakers padded last year’s budget of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

They will be racing to their bicameral chambers four days earlier than the Tuesday, June 2 resumption date to rejig this year’s federal budget that has been badly damaged by the rampaging COVID-19 crisis.

NDDC’s Acting Managing Director, Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei, has dented the image of the supposed “honourable’’ legislators with the allegation that the interventionist agency’s 2019 budget was padded with about 500 non-existing projects.

Pondei, who was speaking in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, explains that a huge amount of money was appropriated for bogus projects. The obviously daring university professor was reacting to allegations of corruption levelled against the Commission’s Interim Management Committee.

This professor of Medicine at the Niger Delta University was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in February 2020.

Last October, the Nigerian leader ordered a forensic audit of the operations of the NDDC. Pondei is leading President Buhari’s forensic audit.

According to him, “we discovered that after NDDC forwarded its budget to the National Assembly committees on NDDC, what was sent back to the commission was no longer recognizable. The 2019 budget was classically over padded, with almost 500 new projects inserted to it when it was sent back to us.

“We found out the budget appropriation was done in such a way that meaningful projects were allocated very little sums of money. It is unfortunate that the 2019 budget will expire on May 31 without any project executed in the region. It was passed two months to the end of its implementation period.”

Pondei is also alleging that some members of the federal legislature have put pressure on the agency not to submit certain files to forensic auditors.

The damaged lawmakers are racing to the Red and the Green chambers of the National Assembly to enable them to consider the appropriation of (Amendment) Bill, 2020 transmitted to them last week by the executive.

They had on Tuesday, May 19 proceeded on a two-week Sallah break and were to reconvene on Tuesday, June 2, 2020

But a letter dated Tuesday, May 26, signed by Mohammed Sani-Omolori, the Clerk of the National Assembly, and addressed to all Senators and House members, states that the lawmakers will resume plenary this Thursday to consider the appropriation of (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

The one-page letter reads in part, ”this is to inform all Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members that resumption of Plenary Session earlier scheduled for Tuesday, 2nd June, 2020 has been rescheduled to Thursday, 28 May, 2020 to enable members to consider the Appropriation (Amendment) bill, 2020.

“All Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members are expected to resume in Plenary by 10.00 a.m on Thursday, 28th May, 2020, please.”

Before the latest scandal, the Executive Director of Niger Delta Budget Monitoring Group (NDEBUMOG), Dr. George-Hill Anthony, had said in August 2016 that budget padding is a part of “normal” legislative privileges, hence, their argument that the matter should be left as in-house legislative matter.

“We have decided to put fresh facts before the public concerning what budget padding is, its implications for the larger society, just to let the public know that such is a fiscal crime against a country and humanity’’, the budget group says.

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The rest of their testimony goes thus: Budget padding is a systemic disease and works like a contagious virus, which has the capacity to sully MDA’s expenditure plans and records through procurement maneuverings, data mutilation, audit fragmentation, which affects every citizen, in the first instance.

Secondly, it eats up scarce resources, causes siphoning and diversion of resources, and poor implementation of appropriation plans. Budget padding is different from “legislative privileges” of nominating constituency projects into the national budget. No one should try to use advocacy jargon to mislead the public. Covetous hypocrisy is a form of corruption.

Being a feral fiscal disease, budget padding spreads through fiscal lifelines, assisting individuals and agencies responsible for this malfeasances to hijack budget envelopes, distorting expenditure-plans and cost templates, thereby; frustrating the core elements of MDAs’ fiscal architecture and projections within the Medium Term Sector Strategies as encapsulated in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the very law, passed by Nigeria’s National Assembly. At the stage of budget conceptualization through the fiscal forecasts transmitted through the Fiscal Strategy Paper, is a process that captures several bureaucratic corridors of the MDAs, such are usually done with the axiomatic prayers, which says, may the democratic-god stand by this fiscal document, as unto God we commit (you) document, as we (MDAs) transmit thee to the National Assembly...

Unfortunately, such fiscal materials are thoroughly abused through shrewd expenditure line tailoring that has put the lives of millions of ordinary citizens in perpetual sufferings, rather than the expected democratic redemption.

When padding takes place, automatically, several line items have their original cost ballooning beyond actual cost within the MDA’s expenditure plan. Several mutilations take place, leading to sundry “genuine” projects being inserted, irrespective of whether such “projects” were subjected to sectoral strategy cost or not.

Obliquely, when such padded items are signed on as national appropriation by Mr. President, the burden of cash for line items are then passed to respective MDAs, who are compelled, bullied and mandated to award jobs for such padded items, be it; consultancy, services or supplies. Mostly, the padded items are with no needs assessment, beneficiary analysis, expenditure etiquette, or sectoral gauge.

In order to succeed at getting the funds out, various procurement units of the MDAs are subjected to enormous pressure, as they are “normally” expected to “follow” the Procurement Act in the award of the padded jobs. These jobs are normally advertised… This is the stage, where padded “interests” must chase their figures.

Many parliamentarians would not also forgive the Speaker; if she reshuffles the leadership of various committees without allowing for financial year “oversight” to enable persons concerned to “protect” their padded items within such a fiscal year.

NDEBUMOG hopes this is not why Nigerians pay for empty seats during legislative days, with many of the parliamentarians not seated in the chambers. Are they chasing something…What are they chasing outside the chambers?

Curiously, when the jobs/contracts as “appropriated” are finally “awarded,” a good public expenditure evaluator can weigh-in on the fact of why the lowest bidder may not get jobs/contract as contemplated by the Public Procurement Act, PPA, since the highest “responsive” bids can also get such jobs/contracts. MDAs are further strangulated in the bid to get such contracts and monies out within the tenets of the PPA and thresholds permissible for each agency’s accounting officer. It could be interpreted as a sour point of conflict between some legislators, political office holders and top bureaucrats, whose voices have been swallowed by the Public Officers Protection Act and Official Secret ghosts.

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 Given an abridgment of expectations from legislative oversights, any discerning mind could see the serious conflict of interests here, including; why many NASS members hardly make good pro-poor impact with the tool of legislative oversight at their disposal.

Nigerians and patriots within the National Assembly, must, therefore, unite and not miss this opportunity of using the embarrassing budget padding scandal in the House of Representatives to demand a total overhaul of the entire budgetary processes, breaking undemocratic secrecy vis a vis inclusion and alignment of interests of a few persons within the legislature.

We urge the Executive Arm of government to conduct a pre/post submission situational analysis on the 2016 Appropriation Act; as such, will help to identify actual projections submitted, credible constituency projects included and the padded items in question. Procurement Officers can then conduct cost-integrity checks through their in-house expenditure plans per each envelope to extract evidence for prosecution.

If the budget processes are not reformed, transformed, opened up, re-jigged, made inclusive and all embracing for the interests of citizens, whose sense of participation has been ignited through this scam, then the opportunity of redeeming the budget process by our democratic generation is gone…

The APC as a Political Party should recognize Hon. Abdulmunim Jibrin’s constitutional rights and his entitlement to freedom of speech. We are convinced that Hon. Jibrin is ready to go to Prison, as there is provision for a N460, 000,000 prison project –– the Construction of New Satellite Prisons (CoA-NPS0117015758) at Nafada, Bagoro, Kabacha, Tambuwal Gwaram, D/Kudu in the 2016 Appropriation Act under Ministry of Interior that any of the actors that may be convicted can serve their prison terms. They knew the old prisons are already too congested…

Anticorruption agencies, must, therefore, be allowed to do their work concerning the scam in question. However, the matter involves billions of naira and some actor’s political future depends largely on it, hence, the thoroughness that the investigation demand cannot be underplayed. Attempts could also be made to compromise investigators.

Nigerians should keep their eyes open! President Muhammadu Buhari should spare no stone in demanding a thorough investigation. This is not about the independence of any arm of government; after all, Mr. President may have signed a compromised budget document against his wish “for Nigeria to move forward”.