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Padded Budgets, Padded Change



padded budgets, padded change

By Okey Ndibe…I have often argued that the Nigerian state is, at bottom, a criminal enterprise, organized to serve the interests of its most unconscionable criminals, often chaps who go by the pompous designation of political stakeholders. And, save for cosmetics and a higher hypocrisy quotient, there is little in today’s political environment to warrant a revision of my dour opening claim.


It is still their wont to serve themselves first, serve themselves next, and serve themselves last. They remain specialist profiteers from Nigerians’ collective misery.


On any given day, members of Nigeria’s state and national legislatures—whose chief mandate is to propose or pass laws—provide proof that their country is a lawless, ethics-free, anything-goes space.


The latest chapter of Nigeria’s absurd legislative drama is tied to what’s now known as “budget padding.” More than a week ago, Speaker Yakubu Dogara of the House of Representatives announced the removal of Abdulmumin Jibrin as the chairman of the appropriations committee. The erstwhile chairman was blamed for the illicit sneaking in of billions of naira into the 2016 budget. That shady and embarrassing affair, tagged padding, created a further fiasco in the 2016 budgetary process.


If Mr. Dogara thought he was going to have the last word, that the former appropriations man would shamble off to a corner and bow his head in a penitential act of shame, well, Mr. Jibrin either didn’t get the memo—or he was having none of it. Far from exhibiting contrition, Mr. Jibrin—like a reeling boxer bolstered by a sudden rush of adrenaline—went into a ferocious attack mode.


First, he dismissed the idea that he had been punitively removed. Instead, he had decided to step down for wholly personal reasons, he said, and after consultation with his family. And then he unleashed a flurry of counter-punches. In personal statements, tweets and releases by his law firm, he accused the speaker and three other major officers of the House of Representatives of conspiring to remove him because he had, in fact, resisted their pressure to illegally insert N40 billion into the budget for their personal benefit.


What followed was typical political flimflam. An official of the House stood by the speaker, excoriated Mr. Jibrin, and declared that fellow legislators would soon deal with him. The speaker demanded that the ex-chair of appropriations recant and retract the allegations he made, or face a lawsuit. Ever defiant, Mr. Jibrin reaffirmed his claims and told Nigerians that Mr. Dogara’s threat to hasten to court was a well-worn strategy for sweeping the scandal under the carpet. For—according to him—once the case is in court, where interminable adjournments are the rule of the game, the speaker and his cohorts could foreclose any further discussion simply by stating that the matter was sub judice.


If the late Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, were around, he would have a pithy phrase for the entire odoriferous affair. Let’s just say, in the spirit of that musical genius who possessed an uncommon insight into the pathologies of Nigerian life, “yeye dey smell!”


Let’s pause for a simple test. I want you, dear reader, to name three bills passed by the National Assembly since 1999 that have uplifted Nigerians in a significant. Go ahead, take thirty minutes and think about it. Okay, exhale. Now, let’s do another test. Think of the various scandals that have shaken the National Assembly in sixteen years. Exhale again!


It is no secret any more: Nigerian legislators (it’s become a tacky cliché to call them legislooters) are some of the highest paid of their kind in the world. Yet, many “honorable” members hardly ever stand up to say “good morning” in the legislative chambers. Oh, forget about initiating or co-sponsoring a bill. In fact, many of Nigeria’s 109 senators and 360 representatives hardly bother to show up for work. Just go to youtube and watch a few videos of legislative sessions and see how scandalously sparse attendance is. Each year, Nigerians left raggedy by poverty, millions of them scrounging about on less than a dollar a day, richly reward state and federal legislators for work NOT done. We take food from the mouths of malnourished, dying infants to hand premium perks to some of this earth’s most indolent men and women.


Nigerian senators officially and flatteringly address themselves as Distinguished Senator This and That. Yet, many of them are incapable of asking a single serious question when screening ministerial nominees. It’s as if these senators are either nose-deprived or (as the Nigerian expression goes) can’t “hear” a smell, even one that’s rubbed against their noses. How many stinky nominees did these lawmakers look at and, asking nary a question, use that most facile phrase, “Take a bow and go!”


Often, Nigerian legislators, those at the National Assembly as well as their “junior” counterparts at the state level, are most vociferous in matters concerning money. And I mean money in their pockets. Some of the fiercest fights between governors and state assemblies have had cash at their core. And in the reckless pursuit of lucre, some legislatures have had no qualms invoking the threat of impeachment against an obstinate, tightfisted governor.


The brouhaha over budget padding has given Nigerians one more evidence of the raw deal they get from the misshapen bunch in Abuja and thirty-six state capitals who presume to run the country—but are specialists in serving their guts alone, ruining others’ lives in the process. In a telling interview, a member of the House, Lawal Gumau, disclosed that budget padding was a longstanding crime. Mr. Gumau said he arrived at the National Assembly in 2011 and has been fighting the blight of budget padding since 2012.


Here, then, is a memo to those who persist in the fiction that “change” touched down in Nigeria when the All Progressives Congress came to power in 2015: both Speaker Dogara and Representative Jibrin are APC members. At the very least, one of them is guilty of transporting a PDP-made malady into the APC dispensation. That’s why I long argued that both parties struck me as Siamese twins.


As I write, President Muhammadu Buhari has not deemed fit to voice one word of moral revulsion on the budget padding matter. Nor has Nigeria’s attorney general, Abubakar Malami, announced that his office had launched an investigation into the crime. It’s as if the matter of a grave crime, the unconscionable wastage of billions of naira of public funds in a country where millions are unemployed and hundreds of thousands of the employed are being owned salaries—it’s as if this grave crime is being treated as side entertainment.


So I ask: what has changed with change?


The whole scandal is an opportunity to rethink the structure and size of Nigeria’s machinery of governance. I’ve said before, and restate here: There’s no financial or political sense in having full-time legislators in Nigeria. In many states in the US, lawmakers are part-time, and merely receive sitting allowances if and when they meet to do the people’s business.


Nigerian labor unionists, students, peasants and professionals (who actually earn their keep) should insist that, a., the size of the House be significantly cut (I’d suggest, by half), and, b., that those who wish to make laws for us accept to do so on a part-time basis. Not only would we save ourselves a ton of money, we’re likely to attract savvier lawmakers—those who truly wish to do public service, rather than engage in primitive stuffing of outsized bellies.

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