SPECIAL REPORT: How National Assembly forced Buhari to divert N121 billion meant for poor Nigerians

Senate President, Bukola Saraki
Senate President, Bukola Saraki

At least N121 billion of the N242 billion federal lawmakers approved for the 2019 general elections will be drawn from funds meant to cater for poor Nigerians.

The money is to be drawn from the N500 billion allocated to the Special Intervention Programme (SIP), a fund set aside for the social safety programmes of the Buhari administration.

The decision to divert the fund for this use was the brainchild of Nigerian lawmakers who picked on the cash as the best source of funding for the elections, presidency officials say.

On November 7, the Senate approved a N242 billion virement for INEC and other agencies for the conduct of the 2019 general election.

Virement means the funds are re-assigned to different subheads other than previously approved in the budget.

While granting President Buhari’s request on the matter, the lawmakers ordered that N121 billion be sourced from the capital allocations of 30 agencies while another N121 billion should be sourced from the SIPs.

Mr Buhari, in his letter to the Senate on July 17, asked the lawmakers to delete self-enrichment projects they smuggled into the 2018 budget to free funds for more important projects.

The president also requested that part of the funds that would be recovered after the removal of the corrupt insertions be used in financing the elections.

Mr Buhari had accused lawmakers of smuggling 6,403 projects of their own, amounting to N578 billion, into the 2018 budget.

In a letter to the Senate in July, the president said he would not submit a supplementary budget to fund priority projects or the election budget. Instead, he urged the lawmakers to remove their projects so that more money could be available for more important projects.

“Accordingly, I invite the distinguished senate to consider, in the national interest, relocating some of the funds appropriated for the new projects which were inserted into the 2018 budget proposal totalling N 578, 319, 951, 904 to cover the sum of N228, 854, 800, 205 required as noted above,” Mr Buhari wrote.

Social Intervention Programmes To The Rescue

But in passing the 2019 election budget virement, the senators acted contrary to the president’s request.

Instead of approving funding for the election by removing the frivolous projects, the lawmakers directed the president to cut N121 billion from the special projects meant for poor Nigerians.

A presidency official familiar with the matter said Mr. Buhari was ‘arm-twisted’ to accept the lawmakers’ action, and was disappointed that “lawmakers could even suggest that money should be taken from the poor to fund INEC”.

The official said the presidency has remained quiet over the matter because it does not want to be distracted at this time with any crisis with the National Assembly.

If the president implements the lawmakers’ resolution, the federal government will be left with far less cash for the N500 billion interventionist projects targeted at indigent Nigerians.

Programmes such as Home Grown School Feeding Programme for primary school pupils; the Conditional Cash Transfer to the extremely poor; the N-Power volunteer Corps 500,000 jobs intervention scheme for university graduates; and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme, which is essentially a loan scheme handled by the Bank of Industry may suffer.

Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) frowned at the action of the lawmakers, saying it showed the lawmakers always act in their own personal interests.

“It tells us the nature of politics in Nigeria,” Ms Hassan said “The politics is such that the interest of the people are never consistently followed. It is the interest of the political class that actually matters (to them). That is what is playing out.”

Hamzat Lawal, the chief executive officer of Connected Development (CODE), accused the lawmakers of marginalising the poor.

“Now the National Assembly is dipping their hands into funds for social programmes for poor people,” Mr. Lawal said. “They did not dip their hands into the recurrent expenditure that pays them salaries and bogus allowances, that of the executive or heads of parastatals.

“Now they want to take something that benefits poor people. It tells you that democracy as it is today and the rule of law works for the elites, not for the poor people.”

We Acted In Nigeria’s Best Interest

But lawmakers said they took the decision with the best of intention and in the interest of the Nigerian people.

Sabi Abdullahi, the spokesperson to the Senate, said lawmakers adopted the controversial virement proposal for two reasons.

“We considered two things,”Mr. Abdullahi said. “One was the ease with which the virement descision could be taken. The other is the historical performance of the social intervention projects.

“We realised that they (the executive) have never exhausted the allocation made to the SIPs in the past years. So we believed that by viring some amounts from the allocation made to it in the 2018 budget, we will not be infringing on the SIP Projects.

“What we did was done with the best of intention and to find a workable solution for an urgent national problem. Besides, all the projects in the budget are targeted at the poor and other Nigerians and it is wrong to create the impression that the poor was targeted.”

Laolu Akande, the spokesperson for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, in whose office the implementation of the SIPs is domiciled, confirmed that releases for the SIPs in the past two years have been low.

“The programme got N140billion out of the N500billion budgeted for it in 2017,” Mr. Akande said. “In 2016, only N80 billion of the budgeted N500 billion was released. So the total sum so far released is N220billion of N1 trillion budgeted for the programme within the two-year period.”

The presidential spokesperson, however added, “The releases so far cannot be a justification for cutting the budgetary allocations to the programme.”

When asked if the budgetary cut effected by the lawmakers will affect the implementation of the programme this year, Mr. Akande said that has yet to be determined.

Buhari And The Social Investment Projects

Launched in December 2015 as part of the 2016 federal government budget, the SIP is a social safety programmes targeted at eight million Nigerians, under different schemes.

In his anniversary speech on May 29, Mr Buhari harped on the benefit of what he called the most ambitious SIP in Nigeria’s history.

He said,”The Social Investment Programmes (SIP) has been created as a means to graduating our citizens from poverty through capacity building, investment and direct support. The major strategic objective is to restore livelihood, economic opportunities and sustenance for the poor across the country.

“The SIP programmes and projects include:

a. Home Grown School Feeding Programme – About 8.2 million pupils are currently being fed from 24 States of the Federation with over 75,000 Catering Staff engaged under the programme.

b. The Conditional Cash Transfer has so far recorded over 297,000 caregivers and being trained by 2,495 Community Facilitators in 21 states. Less privileged Nigerians are now being paid N5,000 monthly stipend in 9 pilot States of Bauchi, Borno, Cross River, Ekiti, Kwara, Kogi, Niger, Osun and Oyo. Eventually the scheme will cover all the 36 states of the federation including the FCT.

c. Under the Government Enterprise Empowerment Programme – About 264,269 loans had been disbursed to 4,822 societies in the 36 States and FCT, while another 370,635 are awaiting release of funds.

d. N-Power Job creation Scheme – is targeted at providing jobs for unemployed young graduates and has so far recruited 200,000 youths while the next batch of 300,000 have been selected, verified and would soon be deployed across the 36 States and the FCT. Furthermore, 20,000 non-graduate volunteers have also been selected to kick off the N-Build programme in collaboration with the National Automotive Design and Development Council and the Council of Registered Builders of Nigeria.

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