By Victor Agi
When Nigerians see a contract signpost around their constituencies with the following inscription: “this project is sponsored by Senator A or Honourable B,” the conclusion for most citizens is that their National Assembly representative has graciously funded the project from his/her personal earning or allowances. These signposts have become a yardstick for knowing if a representative at the lower and upper chamber of the National Assembly is performing, regardless of the fact that lawmakers are constitutionally elected to make laws.
For this reason, some lawmakers don’t stop short at taking ownership of constituency projects with phony and mostly deceptive inscriptions that suggest they personally fund such projects so they can remain darlings of their constituents, and it comes with such encomiums that typical politicians crave to remain relevant.
But then, is it out of place for lawmakers to own projects that they nominated and facilitated into the appropriation bill?
Perhaps, this explanation of what constituency funds and projects entail would clarify. Constituency funds, essentially, are those monies set aside or appropriated for certain projects in a particular constituent, which are more often than not nominated into the year’s appropriation by the representative of a constituent.
Cosmas Ofoma Urama Esq writing on the constitutionality or otherwise of constituency projects sees the concepts as a “developmental project sited in the constituencies of house of representatives and senators by various ministries, departments and agencies of the government as appropriated in the budgets of federation or state.” To this end, the obligation of lawmakers with regard to the process of conception and implementation are simply those of nomination of such projects and oversight to ensure funds are released for proper execution of such projects.
This intervention would leave the burden of explaining the constitutionality or otherwise of constituency project to our “learned” friends, but to simply point out that the 1999 constitution is clear about the roles of the Executive and Legislative arms of government in Section 4 and 5.
In Section 4 (1&2) of the 1999 Constitution: (1) The legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in a National Assembly for the federation which shall consist of a Senate and a House of representatives. (2) The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the federation or any part thereof. And in Section 5 (1&2), (1) The executive powers of the federation, Shall be vested in the president and may be exercised by him either directly or through the Vice president and ministers of the Government of the Federation or officers in the public service of the federation and Shall extend to the execution and maintenance of this constitution, all laws made by the National Assembly and to all matters with respect to which the National Assembly has, for the time being power to make laws.
From the foregoing extract of the law, it is unambiguous what roles the legislatures should play with regard to the issue of constituency projects; but today, indications are that, lawmakers nominate and implement constituency projects, which is clearly against the nation’s constitutional provision and the principle of separation of power as spelt out in Sections 4, 5 and 6, which defines the roles of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary respectively.
Historically, the subject of constituency project came into the nation’s political equation during the early years of the President Obasanjo administration, when legislatures voted money for certain choice projects in the appropriation bill. There were rifts between then led Obasanjo’s Executive and the National Assembly, but the dispute eventually became a non-issue as the then executive cowered as it needed the legislature to equally grease its own hands on other matters.
Till date, the constituency project “arrangement” has continued and has arguably created more problems than the development the initiative was supposedly intentioned for, with budget padding and mismanagement of earmarked funds by lawmakers becoming the order, amid abuse of constitutional provisions.
Recently, the Independent Corrupt Practices & Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) released its Constituency and Executive Projects Tracking Group (CEPTG) phase three report. This project was initiated by the Commission to “facilitate good governance, transparency and accountability through proper implementation of government projects across the country, in line with the Commission’s preventive and enforcement mandates.” The interim report which investigated and monitor fraudulent procurement practices in the award of contracts for constituencies across the nation revealed several infractions by authorities.
Significantly, the report exposed how the National Assembly padded the 2021 budget of MDAs, which affected its performance and the year’s fiscal development plans. The investigation which the commission said tracked various zonal intervention and executive projects valued at over N114.1bn between 2019 and 2020, exposed how some lawmakers also site projects on their personal properties, and indirectly transfer ownership of the project to themselves.
The following excerpt from the report provides further insight into the extent of corruption perpetuated through the constituency project scheme: “Analysing the 2021 National Budget alone across key sectors of education, water resources, health, power, science and technology, environment, works and agriculture, we found duplication to the tune of over N20 billion.”
Similarly, the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (then Premium Times Center For Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) investigated through its UDEME project, the performance of constituency projects, and found that government released about #200 billion for implementation of 6399 constituency projects across Nigeria in three years; 2016-2018, Premium Times had reported.
These illegal insertions and release of funds for constituency projects can best be described as a “conduit pipe” for diversion of public funds by some lawmakers, and betrays the very purpose of seeking equal representation and distributions of development projects across the country through the 360 federal constituencies.
The position of this piece is that, despite the constitutional debate surrounding the legality and otherwise of the scheme, with lawmakers trying severally to pass a bill legitimizing the process, there is an urgent need to entrench the principles of checks and balances and separation of power in the system to forestall further mismanagement and diversion of public funds. The culpable lawmakers have been successful to the extent that they have the cooperation of the executive arm who failed to do due diligence before funds are released for projects, and also failing to monitor their implementation.
It must be stated unequivocally that the current 1999 Constitution does not permit the legislature to execute projects, but can only nominate and provide oversight towards seeing that projects are properly executed.
Like the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch (CeFTIW), media and Civil Society Organizations should assist in monitoring and creating awareness about constituency projects in order to disabuse Nigerians of the wrong notion that lawmakers use their personal funds to execute constituency projects; to the extent that they can demand accountability from their representatives.
Victor Agi is the head of public affairs at the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch (CeFTIW), and writes from Abuja