Constituency projects: Of wealth distribution and corruption

ON resumption from a three-week Sallah break, our legislators focused on three issues — all about themselves. Immunity for their leaders (House of Reps); protection of their leaders from criminal charge of forgery (Senate) and the bid to ensure that their constituency projects are funded (Senate). It is incredible that our legislators are so unaware of the picture they cut as being self-centered. Or they just do not care about what we think of them.

However, I will like to focus on the constituency projects; these are projects inserted into the national budget by the legislators to, as they claim, bring something home to their constituencies. There is no evidence that feasibility studies are done for such projects. The aim is that each legislator has a project in his/her constituency. If we take the figure for this year as stated during the agitation of the Senators for N60 billion, and we have 109 Senators and 340 House of Representative members, on average, the constituency projects will run into trillions of naira. Unfortunately, as we all know, the projects are not the target of the legislators, but the money in their pockets!

The concept of constituency projects is not peculiar to Nigeria. Most legislators around the world angle for such projects, so that they can appeal to voters in their constituents since they seek votes just as the executive does. In some political circles, it is known as pork-barrel politics.

As Wikipedia explains it, it is a process used to obtain funding from a central government to finance projects benefiting the legislators’ local constituents. The benefits of such projects do not extend beyond a legislator’s constituency, even though the funding was obtained through taxation of the larger geographic region. It is also known as earmarking in some nations. There is opposition to constituency projects all over the world as they are used in fuelling corruption, and there have been agitations that an end be put to it.

An example of constituency project at its most licentious can be found in the Philippines, where funds are allocated to members of the House of Representatives and Senate to spend as they deem fit. It can be used for ‘hard’ projects such as buildings and roads or as ‘soft’ projects like scholarships and medical expenses. In that country, the practice was so replete with corruption that there were massive public protests against it in 2013 and the Supreme Court abolished it as unconstitutional in the same year.

In Nigeria, information gathered for this write up shows that the distribution of project fund goes through many channels in a way that it actually results in wealth distribution. Post budget approval, the first beneficiary is the bureaucrat. He is consulted to ensure cash backing and release of fund for the project. Then the legislator takes the lion share of the money. He gives some money to the contractor whose name/company had been used as front and who will process the papers back to the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat takes a second helping in certifying the project completed. Where some circumscribed work had been done (in quite a number, nothing at all is done), the community leader ( Emir, Oba, Chief, ward leader, among others) are ‘encouraged’ to attend the launching. The press is also co-opted into the gravy train to favourably report on the project ‘execution’.

At the end of the day, the legislator who takes the lion share has enough money to give as largesse to his penurious constituents, stash away some for the next election and record a handsome profit on his investment of contesting for public office. Of course, this scenario will be disputed by the legislators, but there is a way to resolve the issue. The Senate and the House of Representatives should publish a year-by-year records of their constituency projects. The details should contain the project name, the location and the cost. We will then require two levels of certification as to the existence, completion and durability of the projects from their constituents and anti-corruption Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). The BudgiT Organisation has done some work in this respect. Their efforts should be complemented and the CSOs should popularise the report using it as a basis for nationwide campaign.

Constituency projects have the following wealth distributing effects — the politician who benefits most from the fund of the project is able to give some cash/material gifts to his poverty-ridden constituents, sustains young men on his pay as thugs, acquires properties and is able to stash away some money to prosecute the next election; we have been told several times that politics in Nigeria is an investment. Clearly, one of the profit lines is the constituency project, and there are more. The bureaucrat who earns like N150,000 per month is able to make the equivalent of six months’ salary from just one constituency project. He can leave a more handsome feeding allowance, send her/his children to that exclusive school he would not otherwise be able to afford. He has excess cash to satisfy his friends, and in particular, girlfriends.

With a consistent flow of constituency projects, he/she could start that housing project which he would otherwise not have been able to afford in his entire 35-year career. The contractor makes a few million naira for just been close to the legislator and serving as a front.  The community leader makes a cool earning from the launching; he smacks his lips and may just acquire a new wife.

On the negative side, however, the constituency projects do not add to societal development, as most of them do not serve the needs of the people.

Constituency projects destroy the soul of the nation in ways deeper than we will acknowledge, and it should be discontinued. Civil society organisations should, therefore, include mobilisation against constituency projects in their campaigns for a more just and prosperous nation.

  • Akinyanju is of the Dept of Microbiology, University of Ilorin. ([email protected])