Statutory Transfers And Transparency.

It is amazing how Nigerian leaders make very simple issues appear complex and complicated. The idea is to give the impression that they are doing so much when they are doing so little. The usual game plan is to draw out the patience of the public so that when that little is done, the public is expected to applaud the leaders for doing what amounts to nothing. In the process, the idea of the big picture is forgotten and the public dwells on virtual inanities.

Since 2011, Nigerians have been asking the National Assembly to open up its budget so that everyone can know the full details of what it is spending public money on. It has been a ritual of lump sum budgeting of N150bn except in 2015 when the lawmakers came down a little. Before 2011 when the National Assembly budget became a statutory transfer, the details were available to the public and it was subject to criticism like any other budget of a Ministry, Department or Agency of government. When the constitution was amended and they came on statutory transfer, the music changed. Like other agencies on statutory transfer, they simply publish the lump sum and leave the rest to the imagination. Thus, the National Judicial Council, Independent National Electoral Commission, Niger Delta Development Commission, Public Complaints Commission, National Human Rights Commission, among others all have their votes stated as bulk sums in the budget without details.

However, no law including the constitution authorises expenditure of public funds in a way and manner that is not known to the public. I dare say that the bulk sum statement of the appropriation of these agencies is unlawful, illegal and an attempt to cause mischief through the budgeting process. The laws that make the funding of these agencies a first line charge or a statutory transfer never stated that their votes should be lump sums. The laws never authorised secrecy and the current practice is an administrative policy that has no basis in law. I challenge any one with the evidence of law to come up with the legal basis for this practice.

The secrecy surrounding the details raises many posers. What benefits accrue to the agencies by this lump sum statement? What exactly are these agencies hiding considering that secrecy is usually surrounded by mischief? Can someone light a lamp and hide it under a bushel as queried in the bible? Which law(s) justify the continued secrecy? Is it fair that mere donees of power can decide to become more powerful than their principal or is an agent greater than his principal? Is it not an abuse of due process for this secrecy to continue? The questions are legion and all the answers seem to contradict this secrecy.

It is this secrecy in a democratic environment that has allowed a lot of financial mismanagement to thrive. Look at the allegations around the NDDC and try to form a mental picture if this would have been possible in a very transparent system. Beyond outright embezzlement of funds, there are allegations that projects funded by state governments and other agencies are always replicated in the NDDC budget. Because of the secrecy, it is usually easy to pull out the funds when the projects have been paid for by other agencies. When citizens, beneficiaries of appropriation do not know what was appropriated (opening balance), how can they be in a position to confirm that the projects have been implemented (closing balance)? What is so special about these agencies that they decide to hide the details of their votes when military establishments publish the full details of what they want to do with public resources? The military is even in a position that would be understood by all to make a case for secrecy of a good chunk of their votes. Yet, their votes are published.

An agent can never be greater than his principal. In this case, the constitutional aphorism is that sovereignty belongs to the people, from whom government derives all its powers and authority. Unless there is an attempt by an agent to abuse the trust and the relationship, there is no basis for this budgeting process that hides the details. For the judiciary, there is the perpetual cry of underfunding. How can a reasonable person join the chorus for more funds for the judiciary when he does not know the details of what is already provided or even how what is provided is spent? I believe it is even in the interest of most of the agencies especially those that complain about poor funding to open up to Nigerians.

For the National Human Rights Commission, it is unfathomable that a human rights agency should agree to be part of this mischief. Even if it did not ask for secrecy, once it was offered, the Commission was duty bound to reject such a Greek gift and champion the cause of transparency and accountability to the people. Rather, it chose to surreptitiously join the bandwagon. I do not see what INEC, an electoral umpire, has to gain by this practice. It perpetually complains of poor funding. But how do we verify without the details? What exactly would an electoral umpire be hiding in its budget?

The focus of many campaigners has been on the National Assembly and many lawsuits have been fought to open it and in some cases, other beneficiaries of statutory transfers. The National Assembly may have enjoyed an unequal share of the focus due to its preeminent role in appropriation and oversight on the expenditure of public resources. The case of the parliament brings the picture of making very simple issues complex. The current leadership of the National Assembly has promised on so many occasions that it will open up the process and let Nigerians have the details of their budget. It takes only an instruction or a stroke of the pen from the leadership to have it done. But all we see is a process to make opening up the estimates and approved votes of the National Assembly to look like rocket science. Even rocket science is no longer esoteric considering the exploits of the world powers in space.

When the 2016 estimates were published, some of us rushed online to the website of the Budget Office of the Federation and to our disappointment, the National Assembly estimate was still the lump sum. When the National Assembly started considering the estimates of other agencies, I thought the time to give us the details had come. But no such detail was made available to Nigerians. Now, it says it will conclude the consideration of the estimated by March 17, 2016. So, would the details be available after the consideration or will we still wait? Further, if they publish after considering the estimates, Nigerians would have lost the opportunity of making inputs into the approval process. What is so special about the National Assembly budget that would close it up if Nigerians can have access and critique the estimates of the Presidency and State House?

I have a message for Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara, Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively; Open up the National Assembly budget and by extension, all statutory transfers, without further delay and equivocation. It is a duty you owe Nigerians.

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