As the release of the N9billion allocated for cancer machines that could check the deaths of 10,000 Nigerians annually suffers delay without explanation, the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, has so far released N120 billion for pet projects by lawmakers at the National Assembly, PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively report today.
Eight federal university teaching hospitals were identified for immediate supply of cancer machines in the 2017 budget after relentless calls for the federal government to address the collapse of the less than 10 machines available in the country.
Medical experts say only two radiotherapy machines are working out of a combined seven in a country of an estimated 180 million people.
But as hospitals and learning institutions across the country suffocate amidst abysmal release of their allocations by Mrs Adeosun, the minister has advanced up to N120 billion to Nigeria’s 469 lawmakers for their so-called constituency projects which are neither urgent nor transparent.
The funding of lawmakers’ self-enriching projects were intensified despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s promises that his government would not tolerate slush payments to lawmakers, especially at a time of harsh economic realities that calls for austere measures.
But the finance minister would rather prioritise the repainting of a town hall in rural Enugu at a whopping N20million ahead of life-saving concerns like the replacement of the epileptic cancer machine at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, an ongoing investigation by PREMIUM TIMES and UDEME shows.
Our findings show that the payouts were released in three tranches of N50billion for 50 per cent implementation for Zonal Intervention Projects (ZIP); N50 billion for so-called constituency projects surreptitiously tucked by lawmakers in budgets of federal ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs); and another N20billion for zonal intervention projects.
Federal lawmakers have always allocated N100 billion yearly for zonal intervention projects. But after getting that N100billion in the 2017 budget, the lawmakers also proceeded to secretly insert in the budgets of MDAs projects insiders said would cost the nation above another N100billion. They call those constituency projects.
Those familiar with the arrangement said nothing differentiates ZIPs from constituency projects. Lawmakers devised the semantics to evade scrutiny from citizens and advocacy groups who have long identified constituency projects as one of the multiple layers of corrupt enrichment by lawmakers.
“It was only in recent years that lawmakers reworded constituency projects as ZIPs,” a National Assembly insider told PREMIUM TIMES. “What they now describe as constituency projects are initiatives they secretly insert into budgets of MDAs.
“On the surface, the items appear in the budget as though they are capital projects of the domiciled MDAs, but they only serve as another conduit for lawmakers to siphon taxpayers’ money through the back channel.”
Our findings show that the scheme has become so pervasive that it is difficult to establish how much of constituency projects are inserted in federal budget by lawmakers, largely at the expense of critical developmental projects.
The projects could range from training and supply of tailoring equipment for artisans to erosion control in a remote village.
The N50 billion released for constituency projects tucked in MDAs is what PREMIUM TIMES and UDEME were able to confirm based on Ministry of Finance documents. The amount released could be significantly more.
Local business, national funding
PREMIUM TIMES and UDEME analysed cash releases for projects lawmakers initiated and compared them with funds made available for priority projects compiled by the executive. The process uncovered higher intensity of releases for low-priority projects suggested by lawmakers.
The review also found that projects nominated by principal officers of the National Assembly are more and received significantly higher cash backing than those of ordinary members.
The Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, could muster barely a half of his ministry’s N305billion budget for critical road infrastructure, but Mrs Adeosun generously released N50billion for some 165 pet projects initiated by lawmakers.
Thousands are estimated to die annually on Nigerian roads that have long remained in a state of disrepair and have become death traps, but the country’s funds managers do not appear to see this as a problem needing priority funding.
The Ministry of Health budgeted about N1 billion for the replacement of the radiotherapy machine at the UNTH, Enugu, but no release has been approved by Mrs Adeosun, and the facility’s authorities fear time is running out for the close of the budget year.
The hospital’s radiotherapy facility is the only one in the South East, but Mrs Adeosun prioritised release of about N1billion for a slew of pet projects promoted by Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and his colleagues from the zone, which include the repainting of a town hall and construction of a rural access road that sees only a few users a day.
In Kwara, Mrs Adeosun released over N2 billion for pet projects initiated by Mr Saraki, including N485million for the construction of junior model schools in Kwara Central. The Appropriation Law provided N450 million for the project. But in what has continued to baffle many people, the finance minister released N485million for the project, N35million above the approved amount.
Mrs Adeosun could not be reached for comments. Calls and text messages to her telephone lines went unanswered for two days.
The spokespersons for Messrs Saraki, Ekweremadu and Dogara did not respond to requests for comments for two days.
While Mr Ekweremadu’s media aide, Uche Anichukwu, initially acknowledged receipt of enquiries and promised to get back on time, he failed to do so. Subsequent calls and messages sent to him were neither returned nor acknowledged.
‘No going back’
In recent years, lawmakers have acknowledged citizens’ concerns that they are using constituency projects to enrich themselves. But rather than suggest a water-tight solution, principal officers like Mr Dogara have slammed concerned citizens as ignorant and mischievous.
At a forum on 2018 budget in late March, the Speaker praised the pet projects by lawmakers as “the only evidence of federal government presence in most rural communities of Nigeria.”
He vowed that lawmakers would not be cowed by the condemnations that have trailed the constituency projects scheme over the years.
Lawmakers also consider constituency projects as parts of their larger charitable intervention to constituents.
It is true that “MDAs execute some of our projects,” said Lanre Smart, a legislative aide to Femi Gbajabiamala, the House Majority Leader who inserted N1.25 billion in ZIPs in the 2017 budget. “But to say that Mr Gbajabiamila “received certain amount for some projects is false.”
Mr Smart said his principal “struggles to attract several projects to his constituency” by drawing from his own pocket or partnering with international organisations.
Several lawmakers said their constituency projects brought enormous benefits to their constituencies.
But that lawmakers benefit financially from constituency projects is perhaps the worst kept secret, said a former lawmaker who served between 2003 and 2007.
“It is okay for my former colleagues to deny, but Nigerians have known this technique for as long as it has been in existence,” said the lawmaker from a North-Central state who preferred not to be named because he is still a consultant to nearly a dozen serving lawmakers.
The lawmaker said the president could stop the projects or at least frustrate lawmakers’ ploy to corner funds through them, citing an approach once taken by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
“I remember a year when I pushed for a massive hospital for my constituency,” the lawmaker said. “My plan was that I would nominate a contractor then earn a good kick-back from it, but by the time the contract was awarded, it was so random that they gave it to a contractor from Adamawa State.”
“This is someone I never even heard of in my life,” he said. “It was the same thing that most of my colleagues experienced in the hands of Mr Obasanjo at the time.”
Chidi Duru, a former House member from Anambra State, said he had been a long time opponent of pet projects because they proffer simplistic solutions where a broader approach is required.
“It is better to have a water works office that covers a 10-kilometre radius than to construct a borehole that would last only a few months at most,” Mr Duru said. “It is also the same way that a trunk-A road that cuts across constituencies is expected to be jointly sponsored by lawmakers from those constituencies rather than having a lawmaker insert project to build a road that truncates after two or three kilometres away.”
Mr Duru said the president could exercise discretionary powers over constituency projects, especially when they fail to conform with an administration’s policy thrust.
“Budget process is a holistic intervention. It is a strategic thrust of government on how policies should be implemented,” he said. “This haphazard approach of releasing money for pet projects by lawmakers should be discouraged.”
Lawmakers’ move to shore up their constituency projects by cutting funding for projects the Buhari administration consider key to national development sparked a major row with Mr Fashola last year.
The minister scolded senators for slashing appropriations for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Second Niger Bridge, amongst others. But this was rejected by the Senate, which said low-priority projects must be funded to “achieve equity”.
Shady past, shady future
The constituency projects scheme was introduced during the regime of Mr Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007. But its initial purpose had little or nothing to do with self-enrichment, said anti-corruption campaigner Ezenwa Nwagu.
“There was a little benefit for the citizens from the beginning and now lawmakers have completely ambushed the process and using it to benefit themselves rather than the people,” Mr. Nwagu said.
He said constituency projects play key role in executive-legislature relations and that lawmakers appear to be having a better bargain.
“This is lawmakers muzzling the executive to get their projects into the budget and in turn they cooperate with the president’s requests,” Mr Nwagu added.
“They’ve registered borehole drilling companies and construction companies,” he said. “You don’t carry out corruption in a brazen manner like this. A borehole that was installed in my constituency has never supplied water to residents despite the huge amount sunk into it.”
Martin Obono, an Internet rights and transparency advocate, said he had tracked constituency projects over the years and found that they are hardly executed.
“By and large, what we found was that constituency projects usually turn out as white elephants,” Mr Obono, head of Cyber Crimes and Fraud Awareness Foundation in Abuja, told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Obono attributed this to the insufficient fund release for the projects, but said lawmakers are okay with this disorderly approach because it is usually a win-win for them.
“Even when they know money would not be fully released, they push MDAs to start the project so they could use it to amass votes from their constituency.”
“They would share whatever is released and ask contractors to go and start the project, and still use the project even when it is not completed to boast that they brought federal presence.”