By Lateef Adewole
There has been an issue in the Nigerian public space which has refused to go away. It has to do with the proposed and approved 37 billion naira for the “renovation” (not reconstruction o!) of the national assembly (NASS) complex in Abuja. This was revealed in the 2020 budget signed into law by President Buhari on the 17th of December, 2019.
This has pitched the citizens against the lawmakers, who could not phantom why such humongous amount should be spent just to renovate the complex, despite the claim of cutting wasteful spending by the president and the government as a whole. Moreover, we have always been told of the paucity of funds to finance public infrastructures, which are used by majority of Nigerians; like roads, rails, housing, power, hospitals, schools, and so on.
In fact, from the 2020 budget, that amount is far more than allocations (capital and recurrent expenditures) to many ministries. For example, budgets to few of them are; Labour and Employment 35.87, Environment 30.72, Justice 29.06, Finance, Budget and National Planning 25.43, Mine and Steel 21.34, Communications 18.68 and Women Affairs 8.18. All in billion naira.
Again, the budget is a deficit budget. Which means, substantial amount of money, as much as 2.28 trillion naira, will have to be borrowed to finance it. This will push our national debts to the “next level”, given the current 25 trillion naira debt, requiring as much as 2.72 trillion naira to service it this year alone. Why should any reasonable government further wastes any money?
Many nigerians complained that it cost 7 billion naira to build the edifice in 1999. Granted that the cost of goods and services in 1999 could not be compared to 2020, given the wide disparity in the exchange rate too, but to spend 37 billion to renovate same building, in a poverty-stricken country, with over 100 million people in one degree of poverty or another, is nothing but criminal. It should never be allowed to fly.
Seeing the criticism that trailed that action, I have read on social media, how some lawmakers, especially of the lower chamber, have begun to distance themselves from such insensitive, self-serving proposal. They claim not to be aware of it during the period the budget was being worked on. That brings me to another concern about how the budget was “rushed”.
Firstly, let me commend the NASS members for the efforts they put into the budget, with the aim of getting it passed in record time, which they did, within just about eight weeks, from 8th of October to 5th of December, 2019, when the budget was passed and transmitted to the president. They varied their sitting rules to allow them sit on days they normally do not sit or work. They even postponed their annual break. That was praise worthy.
The consequence of that is the new national budget cycle which has now become January to December, as the president also assented to the budget on 17th of December, 2019 (his birthday), before the year ended. These are commendable efforts from both the legislative and the executive arms.
However, adequate and detail scrutiny of the budget proposals from the presidency/ executive should never be sacrificed on the altar of budget cycle. The annual national budget is the singular most important piece of legislation in any country. No time is too much to do a thorough job on it. This is because, we heard of some complaints raised by some honorable members, who claimed they did not receive the full details of the budget while it already passed the first and second readings.
Although, some of us dismissed it as “political statement” given that most of the complainants are from the opposition party members. However, their complaints may not be far from being true, considering other precedence, based on the actions, utterances and dispositions of the NASS leadership since elected and inaugurated last year June. They have been “loyal and serving” the president and the executive well.
The senate president, Senator Lawan Ahmed did not mince words when he said categorically that whatever the president sends to them, whether as bills or nominations, can only be for the benefits of Nigerians, and hence, will be given accelerated passage or confirmation from the NASS. That spoke volumes as far as letting go of the independence of the legislative arm of government is concerned. “Bi oju akata ba ti e l’eewo, ki s’enu adiye loye k’ati gbo” (if the fox develops boil in its eyes, it should not be the chicken that should announce it).
This has made the president to be less scathing when talking about the current NASS, especially their leadership, even when they do the same or similar things as the previous ones did. For instance, the same President Buhari made a huge fuss about how the 2018 budget was altered and “padded” by the 8th assembly. He said that would make the budget unimplementable. Also that the NASS budget of 125 billion then was humongous.
In 2020 budget, which the president expeditiously and ceremoniously signed into law, the NASS altered the total figure from 10.33 trillion naira submitted by the president, to 10.59 trillion naira, which the NASS approved and sent back to the president, “padding” it with 264 billion naira. Also, they approved 125 billion naira (just like in the past) for themselves as their budget. No as much as a whimper from the president. What changed? Was that not double standards?
Or, is it now a case of “you scratch my back, I scratch your own”? Had it mean it was the 8th assembly, led by Senator Bukola Saraki, that proposed the 37 billion naira for a mere renovation of NASS complex, President Buhari might withhold his assent to the budget, and return it. But now, it is “their people” who are in charge. No complaint. That is hypocrisy.
When the issue broke out last year, my reaction was a simple condemnation of such wasteful spending. Period. I never deemed it important enough to expend my time and energy to write about it. However, just some days ago, exactly one week, I stumbled on a tweet from a social media “influencer”, known to promote the good works of President Buhari and his administration. He is Omasoro Ali Ovie, with tweeter handle @OvieAli.
In that his tweet on 4th of January, 2020, 7.34 am, he brought to the public knowledge, how the federal government, led by President Buhari, just completed the first phase of a magnificent housing estate of 764 units located in Zuma town, near Abuja. They are built for Nigerians to own on mortgage basis and pay over a period of 20 years. He also said that over 10,000 people in that area were employed to work in thee site. That is massive.
He put the cost of the project at about 3.7 billion naira only! He said that the federal government plans to replicate that feat across the country. I was elated. That is very impressive and praiseworthy. And kudos to President Buhari and those involved in bringing such legacy project to reality. That is the kind of news Nigerians are happy to hear.
That struck a cord in me. I realised that the total cost of that project is just 10% of the amount that the lawmakers wanted to use to renovate their complex. I then wondered how and why the same President Buhari would agree to that, like he had done to some other things from them. By extrapolation at the same average rate, it means that the 37 billion naira for NASS building renovation can actually build at least, 10 times that number. That is 7,640 flats. Incredible!
So, that amount can build the same 764 housing units project in 10 states across the country. In fact, by economy of scale, and considering lower cost factor in many other states outside the “expensive” Abuja area, each unit might cost less to build. Places like Osun, Ekiti, Jigawa, Ebonyi, and many other less expensive locations, 37 billion naira might build as much as 10,000 units. Meaning that, with such amount, 10,000 families can be housed. But, the same amount was budgeted to be spent on a building used by 469 lawmakers, and their staff, working within the complex. That is most insensitive. That is prodigal.
The same NASS leadership has been justifying and defending the plan by the president to borrow 29.6 billion dollars. That is 9.028 trillion naira, at the official rate of 305 naira to a dollar. That amount is about 85.3% of our entire 2020 national budget. It will push our national debts to about 34 trillion naira from the current 25 trillion naira (36% increase in one fell swoop!). Who does that? But, it is like the case of what the Yorubas will described as; “t’enu ba je dodo, enu ko ni s’ododo mo” (when a someone partakes in sharing of “immoral” largesse, such a person can no longer complain of the impropriety of it).
If all the rhetorics of how Nigeria is broke, how we need to tighten our belts, how we must cut wastages, how we must make sacrifices, how the government is curbing corruption, how we must kill corruption before corruption kills us, and many of such, that President Buhari, his party APC, his supporters and loyalists, usually bombarded Nigerians with, have any iota of truth or seriousness in them, now is the time to display that, by revisiting such wasteful expenditures as 37 billion naira for renovation, among many other things. Otherwise, they should keep such rhetorics to themselves. They are all faux. Meaningless.
As we begin the year, we will keep our fingers crossed and wait for what steps and actions that President Buhari will take on this issue, following the protest against it by many Nigerians. It is his integrity that is being put to test, once again. Whether he will rise to the occasion, or dance to the tune of his “paddies” at the national assembly, we shall all see. The lawmakers are also being watched. Nigeria belongs to all of us.
May God continue to guide us aright.
God Bless Nigeria.