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The disclosure of the NASS budget

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LAST week, in fulfillment of the pledge made by Senate President Bukola Saraki that the details of the expenditure plans of the eighth assembly would be made available for Nigerians with the passage of the 2017 budget, the leadership of the National Assembly released a 33-page document outlining the details of the N125 billion allocated to the Assembly in the 2017 budget. Going by the document, the National Assembly will expend the sum of N6.7 billion on personnel cost, N6.2 billion on overhead cost and N2 billion on capital allocation.  Senators’ salaries and allowances will gulp N1.8 billion. The sum of N25 billion is earmarked for overhead costs and N4 billion for capital expenditure. The members of the House of Representatives have N4.9 billion as personnel costs, N39.6 billion as overhead costs and N4.5 billion for capital projects, totaling N49 billion. Again, the National Assembly Service Commission has a total allocation of N2.4 billion, while legislative aides will earn N9.6 billion. Finally, the National Assembly Legislative Institute will be spending a total sum of N4.3 billion on personnel and capital expenditure in the year under reference.

The release of the budget, according to the leadership of the National Assembly, was informed by the need to be more open and transparent about the processes of governance as they relate to the various organs of government. Indeed, since the return to civil rule in 1999 when the assembly was hit by allegations of legislating to steal following the rather profligate tendencies suspected in its leadership, the National Assembly has had to contend with the demand by Nigerians that the salaries and allowances of its members be made public. However, because the challenge was never taken up until now, various figures, most of them stupendous, have been bandied in the polity in support of the thesis that Nigeria’s legislators are the highest paid in the world.

Indeed, the non-disclosure of the National Assembly’s budget recently led to public altercation between the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Yakubu Dogara and the governor of Kaduna State, Malam Nasir el-Rufai, who had suggested that the lack of openness in the operations of the National Assembly had been a hindrance to governance under the present system.  The Speaker had promptly made available the details of his earnings as a lawmaker and challenged the governor to provide details of his spending of security votes. In our previous editorials, we had also noted that the whole edifice of governance in Nigeria currently betrays a lack of accountability and openness and that no organ of government should be allowed to keep expenditures secret under a democracy. We argued that it is only when such is done that the country would be truly on the path of real democracy.

Against this backdrop, the disclosure of the National Assembly’s budget is indeed a welcome development. We applaud the Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara-led eighth National Assembly for keying meaningfully into the advocacy for openness in the budgetary and fiscal processes of the Senate and House of Representatives, in line with the global best practices. It is now the duty of members of the intelligentsia, civil society groups and the general public to undertake critical analyses of the released budget details and point out their strengths and weaknesses. We, on our part, will be engaging the disclosure in future editorials, not least because it has far-reaching implications for the image of the legislature.

The apparent willingness on the part of the leadership of the eighth Assembly to chart a new course for the legislature by discontinuing the opacity and secrecy inherent in the workings of past legislatures is certainly bound to have a salutary effect on the polity. We cannot also fail to acknowledge the various positive legislative interventions of the Nigerian Senate on a number of issues, including the stoppage of the attempt by the Customs to subject vehicle owners to payment of fresh duties, the accelerated work on the Petroleum Industrial Governance Bill as well as the sustained efforts to maintain the independence of the legislature, in the face of the seeming intimidation by the executive arm of government and some of its appointees.

However, in spite of the new move by the National Assembly’s leadership, the task of entrenching the tenets and processes of good governance in the operations of the legislative arm of government has only just begun. This is because, however receptive to public opinion the eighth National Assembly appears to be, its members will not be in the Red and Green chambers for life. They thus have a duty to ensure that what has just been done is institutionalised in such a way that future legislatures will have no option but to toe the same path. It should be possible to go to their website and download their budget details at any point in time. In the same vein, we urge the state Houses of Assembly to take a cue from the action of the National Assembly and make details of their financial operations public. It is only after this has been done that the country as a whole can be said to boast of a vibrant, open and transparent legislature.

In any case, Nigerians also expect a review of the 1999 Constitution to grant greater powers to constituent units and ensure fairer allocation of fiscal resources. The eighth National Assembly should accomplish this task without delay.

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