As the tenure of the eighth National Assembly comes to an end soon, Nigerians are mounting a last-minute pressure on the federal lawmakers to bring an end to budget secrecy in the parliament.
Nigeria’s National Assembly traditionally hides its budget from the public, despite a relentless nationwide campaign against such practice.
The campaign, tagged #OpenNass, began in 2015.
The current assembly published a breakdown of its budget only once, in 2017, after much pressure from the public through the #OpenNASS campaign.
Nigerians, once again, have taken to the social media to revive the campaign, with the hope that the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, can still abolish the budget secrecy.
Mr Saraki failed in his bid to return to the Senate in the just concluded 2019 election, while Mr Dogara (PDP/ Tafawa Balewa/Bogoro Federal Constituency, Bauchi State) has been re-elected as a member of the House of Representatives for a fourth term.
The #OpenNASS campaign is spearheaded by BudgIT and other civil society organisations in the country.
BudgIT said in March on Twitter that between 2003 and 2018, NASS budget “skyrocketed from N23.3 billion to N139.5 billion, with zero accountability”.
It added, “Overall, @nassnigeria has less than 10,000 staff but its yearly allocation is higher than annual budgets of 21 states with more than 4 million people combined.”
In 2015 Appropriation Act, a whopping N150 billion was allocated to the National Assembly which consists of 469 members (109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives), excluding legislative aides and other workers.
The N150 billion allocated to the National Assembly at that time was enough to fund the capital votes for 20 Ministries, Departments and Parastatals (MDAs), an analysis by PREMIUM TIMES had shown.
BudgIT issued a statement, earlier in March, this year, calling on Mr Saraki and Mr Dogara to take steps to make the budget of the assembly accessible to the public.
“Aside from the lawmakers being ranked as world’s top-paid legislators, at public expense, the annual budget of the National Assembly is a one-line statutory transfer which is neither reviewed by any authority nor, at very least, made accessible to the public, thus enabling unbridled corruption,” BudgIT said in the statement, signed by its Communications Associate, Shakir Akorede.
“At this age of digital governance plus global calls for transparency in public institutions, it is a national disrepute that the parliament has refused to eschew anti-democratic practices, as it continues to bury its yearly allocations under the hallowed chambers.
“More disappointing is the fact that, despite Nigeria’s membership in Open Government Partnership and tons of pledges by Senate President Bukola Saraki to run an ‘open NASS’, the National Assembly immediately relapsed into its default setting after a breakdown of the budget was made public in 2017, thanks to public pressure.
“Asserting that the 2017 record must be made permanent, we are making a renewed demand from the leadership of the eighth assembly to fully redeem its promise. Starting again with the 2019 budget, a line-by-line breakdown of the NASS allocation must be made public going forward.
“It is worth the call that Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker Yakubu Dogara should leave behind a great legacy, one that history would never forget, by truly and finally opening NASS,” BudgIT said.
A Twitter user, Franklin Odukwu (@odukwufrank), called on other Nigerians on the social media site to ask @bukolasaraki, @iamekweremadu and their representative at the Senate “to open the books on @nassnigeria”.
“Transparency is the right of all Nigerians,” Mr Odukwu said.
Another Twitter user, Adegbite Bolaji (@omoobaadebola) appealed to Mr Saraki to make the budget of the National Assembly public, “for posterity sake”.
A civil society organisation, EiE Nigeria (@EiENigeria) tweeted that since Mr Saraki was not returning to the Senate, he could use the “opportunity to #OpenNASS”.
“#OpenNASS was what @bukolasaraki campaigned on going for that Senate President post and he got there & forgot power is transient and its always about what legacy one leaves behind.
“I asked this question before and I ask again, what would Senate President Saraki be remembered for?” said Aisha Yesufu (@AishaYesufu), the co-convener of the BringBackOurGirls (BBOG).
“One great deed may at times tend to erase or atone for a million wrongs. Senate President Bukola Saraki @bukolasaraki, this might be one of them. You can #OpenNASS within the next two months that remain of your tenure,” said a Twitter user, Bamidele Atiba (@DeleAtiba1).
Another Twitter user, Coker Adeniran (@Deniran1), said many Nigerian politicians were comfortable “retiring” to the National Assembly because of lack of accountability in the parliament.
“If we are going to move forward as a nation, we have to ensure accountability in NASS, and we need to strategically place truthful people there,” Mr Adeniran added.
Mr Akorede of BudgIT told PREMIUM TIMES on Friday that the #OpenNASS campaign was making some progress, but that Nigerians need not relent on it.
Mr Akorede said Mr Saraki has given his words that the National Assembly would publish its budget once the 2019 federal budget is passed.
He said Mr Saraki has accepted to have a dialogue session with BudgIT, although no date has been fixed yet.
“Our stand remains that the National Assembly before Saraki and Dogara leave, it’s a promise, they made a promise, and nobody knows who comes in next as Speaker and Senate president.
“Before they leave, they should fulfill that promise, they should make the 2018 and 2019 budget of the National Assembly open, and we would be able to take it forward from there with whoever becomes the head of the National Assembly in the next dispensation.
“We are now looking at legislation that would compel the National Assembly and, of course, other government agencies to make their annual budget open. But we want the National Assembly to lead by example.
“If you are representing the people, the people should be able to know how much you are receiving and how much you are spending, and on what.
“It is going to be difficult to achieve accountability if there is no transparency,” Mr Akorede said.
Mr Akorede said #OpenNASS ”is not just about making the National Assembly budget accessible to Nigerians”.
The National Assembly, he said, should use electronic voting in their legislative proceedings so that Nigerians could know how each of the federal lawmakers votes on a particular issue before them.
The campaign, he said, is also asking for the National Assembly to avail Nigerians with lawmakers’ attendance record in the assembly.
Nigerians, in the past, were kept in the dark on how much a senator ends as salary and allowances, until the senator representing Kaduna Central, Shehu Sani, revealed in March last year that he and his colleagues were receiving N13.5 million monthly as “running cost.”
Mr. Sani said the “running cost” did not include a N700,000 monthly consolidated salary and allowances which they also receive.
Nigerians were outraged by the revelations.
The lawmaker, Mr Sani, also spoke on the controversial constituency projects for federal lawmakers.
“The constituency project itself is given on a zonal basis and almost every senator will go with a constituency fund of about N200 million, but it is not the cash that is given to you.
“You will be told that you have N200 million with an agency of government for which you will now submit projects equivalent to that amount. And it is that agency of government that will go and do those projects for you.”
Mr Sani said the process of executing the projects was fraught with fraud.