After 18 months in the saddle as President of the Senate and Chairman of the National Assembly, Bukola Saraki has refused to honour repeated promises to Nigerians to publicly disclose the details of the lawmakers’ budget.
Mr. Saraki came to office in June 2015 promising accountability and transparency, but ever since, he has reneged on every promise to open the budget of the National Assembly to the public.
With N23.347 billion in 2003, the National Assembly’s budget now stands at about N115 billion, representing over 492 per cent rise in 13 years. Until 2016, the budget had often gone as high as N150 billion.
In 2010, when the budget hit a shocking record sum of N154.2 billion, David Mark, Mr. Saraki’s predecessor, decided to block Nigerians from knowing details of how the National Assembly’s jumbo allocations were spent, especially how much members earned in allowances, thus wrapping up the federal legislators’ finances in utmost secrecy.
So, in one masterstroke of legislative brinkmanship, the National Assembly’s budget, hitherto open to public scrutiny, like those of ministries, departments and agencies, suddenly became secret after the body legislated, in 2010 under Mr. Mark, to make itself member of an exclusive club of opaque agencies whose budget details are never disclosed but whose finances are deducted en-bloc (first-line charge) via statutory transfers.
Mr. Saraki clinched the Senate leadership in June 2015, days after Muhammadu Buhari was inaugurated Nigeria’s president. In the spirit of the high hope that waste, corruption, impunity and opacity would be fought in the country’s public institutions, Nigerians reignited calls for an open budget at the National Assembly.
Apparently conscious of the popular wish, Mr. Saraki included in his inauguration speech the vow to “change from impunity and elite arrogance to a life of accountability,” and then circulated a text in which he named a committee “to review NASS budget, to make it open and more realistic.”
The said committee, as mentioned in the text, included Dino Melaye, Ben Bruce, Shehu Sani and Gbenga Ashafa.
With his initial promise of accountability yielding no result, on November 15, 2015, Mr. Saraki again promised to open the NASS budget.
“You will see what goes to the Senate, what goes to the House of Reps, you are going to see what goes to management, what goes to Legislative Institute, we are going to make all these open and clear. That is part of the openness we promised,” he said.
Then on February 2, 2016, Mr. Saraki again promised a detailed breakdown of the NASS budget while addressing journalists during the commissioning of the renovated press centre at the Senate.
“I can assure you that we are going to move away from the time of one item line National Assembly to National Assembly where there will be breakdowns according to the different sections,” he said.
On March 13, 2016, the promise was repeated. That day, Mr. Saraki in a statement promised the budget details would be released ‘next week’.
March 13, 2016 was a Sunday. Therefore, Mr. Saraki’s promise should have materialised between March 14 and 19, being the workdays within his ‘next week’. But again, he failed to keep the promise.
Towards the end of 2016, it was becoming clear Mr. Saraki was not sincere about his vaunted commitment to #OpenNass, thereby becoming a target of criticisms by Nigerians trying to hold him to account.
“We knew from our engagement with the leadership of the National Assembly that the budget doesn’t exist,” said Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough, a civil society group.
But the National Assembly actually has a budget, though, it is so mysterious that many of the lawmakers do not know its details.
In March 2016, PREMIUM TIMES had a rare access to the general framework of the NASS budget and made it public.
Against the background of the renewed criticisms in December, Mr. Saraki, through his media aide, Bankole Omishore, promised the budget details would be released in a “few days’ time”.
The last promise was made on December 20; but 15 days later, the promise is yet to be redeemed.
The National Assembly may commence work on the 2017 budget proposal by Mr. Buhari when it resumes next week without fulfilling the pledge to disclose details of its 2016 budget.
After #OpenNass, Mr. Saraki is currently preoccupied by #madeinNigeria on Twitter, promoting goods made in the country.
The Senate President’s spokesperson, Yusuph Olaniyonu, Thursday morning justified his principal’s false statements.
“Are you people not tired of this thing,” said Mr. Olaniyonu when pressed for comment on his principal’s failure to make the NASS budget public.
“We are no longer in 2016; this is 2017.”
He said it was “not logical” to account for what was promised last year in the current year.
“It is like asking me to predict a match that had been played. Event has overtaken it.”
While Mr. Saraki continued to make unfulfilled promises to Nigerians, the Senate as a body does not appear to believe in the need to allow Nigerians see details of its finances.
When PREMIUM TIMES spoke with the spokesperson of the Senate, Aliyu Abdullahi, on Wednesday, he claimed that the Senate’s “budget has always been open as far as I am concerned”.
The repeated public demand for the budget is baseless, said Mr. Abdullahi, adding that, “the National Assembly does not have same budget structure with the Executive and it is not in the public interest to see everything in the budget (of the NASS).”
He was reminded that the budget of the NASS pre-2010, when Mr. Mark enthroned the culture of secrecy, had detailed breakdown like those of the ministries.
“I don’t know because I was not there,” he replied.
He however said a committee was working on improving the budget process of the National Assembly.