By Jaye Gaskia
Fourteen years after the practice and phenomenon of constituency projects began to evolve in the legislative practice and appropriation process of the 4th Republic, the phenomenon has grown to become pervasive across the Federation with both Federal and state legislatures now fully embracing the practice. Yet, nearly a decade and half on, there is still no clarity regarding the practice, with respect to any form of agreed framework guiding its implementation.
There is, as of the moment of writing this piece in 2018, no policy, legislative nor institutional framework underlying and providing not only pragmatic, but also scientific criteria and parameter for determining the why, how, and where of constituency projects.
And even though there are currently draft bills being considered by both chambers of the National Assembly [NASS] aimed at providing a regulatory framework for the practice, the bills have nevertheless remained stuck within the opaque labyrinth of the legislative process of the 4th Republic.
This lack of priority given to the provision of a regulatory framework backed by enacted legislation by the NASS is leading observers and analysts to speculate on the reasons for this contradiction between the urgency with which legislators’ approach and insist on including constituency projects in annual budgets on the one hand; and their seeming reluctance to legislate for a regulatory and institutional framework to guide the practice. This is again one more evidence of the endemic culture of impunity among political office holders, who are quick to make claims, but dismiss any attempt to make them transparent and accountable.
In an article titled ‘’Budget padding, constituency projects and corruption’’, written in the wake of the budget padding crisis that engulfed the 2016 budget, and published on the 2nd of August 2016, I had written with respect to constituency projects as follows: “Add to this pool the so-called constituency projects that have been budgeted for, and for which allocations have been made since the inception of inclusion of constituency projects in the annual budgets in 2004.
Between the 2004 inception of the annual constituency projects budget and now is a period of 12 years. There are 469 members in the federal legislature, the NASS; if each federal legislator since 2004 have had constituency projects budgeted and allocated for, by now there should have been a total of 469 multiplied by 11 [that is a combined total of 5,159 federal constituency projects] federal constituency projects dotting the landscape of Nigeria, enough to go round the 774 LGAs approximately 7 times over. The implication of this is that there ought to have been an average of 7 Federal constituency projects per LGA spread across the country by now, at a combined cost of N900bn in total budgetary allocations since 2004.
And mind you this only just at the federal level; if we add state legislature constituency projects to the pool the figures will be nearer 10,000 such projects that ought to have been completed across Nigeria, the LGA average also rising to more than 10 projects per LGA, and the combined cost to public expenditure of nearlyN1.5tn over 11 years.
The appropriate questions to ask include where are the footprints of these constituency projects across the country? Where is the impact of this humongous N1.5tn of public investment on the infrastructural development and infrastructure deficit of the country? Where did the monies go? How were constituency projects selected? What were the criteria for selection of projects? Siting of projects? What is the procedure for selection of contractors to implement the projects?
These constituency projects, into what national or state level development planning framework do they fit? What is the level of congruence between the selection of the projects and the priorities of the respective Federal and state governments? Is this constituency project contract award processes subjected to the provisions of the Public Procurement Act 2007, and the Public Procurement Manual 2011? Or are they in gross breach of this act? Can we therefore say that the National Assembly is consciously engaged in the process of wilful breach of laws enacted by itself?
Before we go on, let us take a look at even the constitutionality of the constituency project phenomenon. As it is presently, the constituency projects regime has no legal framework nor were they envisaged or provided for in the present constitution. This is why the process is largely arbitrary and subject to repeated and serial abuse. It is in fact as it presently operates a system of officially sanctioned corruption. The reason it has turned out this way cannot be isolated from its origin in the arm-twisting relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government and the consequent submission of the executive arm to legislative blackmail, in large part as a means for the executive to also protect itself from scrutiny by the legislator.
The constituency projects system arose in Nigeria as a result of an understanding by two arms of government to condone and officially sanction some degree of corruption in the fiscal regimes and processes of either arm. This is why the current crisis, provides an opportunity for active citizens to enter into the fray, and to compel not only a holistic interrogation of the process and system since its inception, with a view to tracking how the resources have so far been utilised, identifying pilferers of our common teal, prosecuting offenders and recovering looted funds; but it should also provide an opportunity for a total and complete overhaul and reform of not only the constituency projects system, but also the entire budgetary and development planning processes, mechanisms, and structures across the federation.
We need to have a legislation to regulate the constituency project process; and set out the principles on which the system will be managed, and the criteria for project selection, project siting, and project implementation. We need to return to a national development planning framework that is informed by periodic needs assessment, periodic performance reviews of annual budgets, medium and long-term development plan implementation processes; and that in turn informs public investment priorities and profile in the short, medium and long terms.
As it is our current budgetary system and process is grossly defective, it is not informed by scientific and empirical analysis and information; it promotes guess work; and in turn enables an environment for fraud and corruption.’’
Alas, nearly two years since the publication of the article, nothing has really changed; in spite of the fact that since 2015, we have supposedly been governed by a Change Government. In fact, not only has the practice continued unabated and unregulated under the watch of a government one of whose main governance agenda is to fight corruption; the practice has instead become more shrouded in mystery.
So, what are the facts of the matter again? They are so important if we are going to correct this practice of legalised corruption and legitimate fraud, that they bear repeating. First up till now the practice still lacks appropriate policy, institutional and legislative framework that can ensure openness, transparency and accountability. In this sense the practice is both unconstitutional and illegal. The most charitable thing that can be said is that it has become an extra-legal practice.
Secondly, because of the lack of a National Development planning framework, combined with the absence of a regulatory framework, the practice of constituency projects is rooted in arbitrariness, and vulnerable to fraud and corrupt practices.
Third, properly undertaken, and within the context of the rule of law, the practice of constituency projects could become a major vehicle for channelling public funds appropriately towards infrastructure development; and in particular rural, that is community infrastructure development across the country. Let me illustrate what I mean. There are 3 senators representing each state for instance. And as we now know each senator is allocated an average of N200m annually for constituency projects. So over a four year period, each senatorial district should at least witness the infusion of a minimum of N800m in public investments focused on development, management and effective delivery of basic infrastructures and services at community levels, amounting to N2.4bn in Federal public Investment targeted at rural and community infrastructures for each state every four years.
Remember, these figures are only for the Senate, by the time we include the House of Representatives [HoR] Figures, we should be having not less than N3bn – N5bn per state over a four year period. If we proceed to add figures for the state legislative assembly projects, then we are inching towards the N8bn – N10bn per state mark in total constituency developments, that ought to directly into constituting part of the funding for community governments to develop community infrastructures and services.
Given, that this is a Federal public investment, it means that under the terms of our federation as enshrined in the 1999 constitution as amended, the only way Federal funds can be utilised for community infrastructure development would have been through a legislative act that makes these Federal constituency projects funding, a Federal contribution to subnational governments to help improve community infrastructures and services.
The most impactful way to ensure that this will happen, will require undertaking a fully fletched root and branch radical reform of governance, focusing on its processes, content, and institutions. In this sense, a reform of governance that ensures establishment of democratically elected formal community governments will play a big role. This constituency development funds backed by legislation will be established, with community governments applying to draw from the funds according to set criteria. A mechanism will also need to be put in place to ensure spread and equity in terms of successful community applications to the funds.
All said and done, the practice of constituency projects is like a double-edged sword; as currently practiced, it is bedevilled by fraud, impunity, corruption, and thus actually undermines national development efforts. On the other hand, properly regulated, and appropriately utilised, it can become a tool for funding rural and community aspects of national infrastructure and basic services delivery processes; and thus help to mitigate the current existing infrastructure deficit, and also contribute to a more inclusive and equitable national economic growth and human and national development process.
It can become one of the major attributes of a developmental and welfare state; that is a state that is playing the leading role in the development process, as well as in the provisioning of the security and wellbeing of citizens, in accordance with section 14 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria [CFRN] as amended.
Jaye Gaskia is Director Praxis Centre & Convener Take Back Nigeria Movement