HomeCommunitiesPoliticsEven, With N125bn budget, National Assembly is still underfunded

Even, With N125bn budget, National Assembly is still underfunded

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Aliyu Sabi-Abdullahi, is also a member of the Committee on Appropriations. In this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU, the lawmaker representing Niger North Senatorial District talks about issues surrounding the 2017 Appropriation Bill and the National Assembly’s budget

What made the difference in the processing and passage of the 2016 and 2017 Appropriation Bills, especially as a budget padding scandal marred the process last year?

Whatever process that people do not understand properly, they are bound to have one or two issues with it. The needless controversy over budget padding last year was occasioned by, perhaps, some misconceptions and lack of understanding of the issues. I said it then and I will repeat it for the umpteenth time that within the context and confines of what a legislature is constitutionally empowered and mandated to do, there is nothing like budget padding. But then, I want to submit that the lessons learnt during that particular period have informed the modification and changes that both the executive and the legislature adopted for the 2017 budget. One of the things that was missing the last time was the lack of consultation and engagement. In this particular cycle of the 2017 budget, there were some engagements between the leadership of the National Assembly and the relevant authorities in the executive. I think that has helped to narrow the gap and remove the mutual suspicion that pervaded what transpired during the passage of the 2016 budget.

Beyond that, it is on record that the National Assembly clearly, even before the 2016 budget controversy, said there was the need for budget reforms and it was very clear in our legislative agenda. It was properly captured that we were going to do some budget reforms. Our distinguished and amiable Senate President (Bukola Saraki) constituted a technical committee to look at the various issues bordering on the reforms of the budget process. On the basis of that, the various recommendations coming from that technical committee – which is still a work in progress – actually guided the operations and the way we handled the 2017 budget. There were a lot of meetings between the leadership of the two houses (Senate and House of Representatives) to the extent that they agreed that the committees of the two houses should work closely together. By the time the reports from the sub-committees were submitted to the Committees on Appropriations of the two chambers, 90 per cent of them – if not all –had harmonised their reports. That went a long way in reducing the unnecessary tension and acrimony that we witnessed the last time.

The 2017 budget was raised from N7.298tn to N7.441tn. Does the National Assembly have the power to do that?

It is within the power of the National Assembly. In the course of discussions, whatever that is brought (presented) by the executive in line with Sections 80 and 81 is actually a proposal. The Constitution calls it “estimates” and when you say estimates, it is like a suggestion or proposal. So, in this case, in line with its constitutional mandate, what the National Assembly did was to first look at the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper under Fiscal Responsibility Act. It is at that level that we look at the various assumptions – benchmark, crude oil price, exchange rate and the output of the major source of our revenue, which is oil. We retained the exchange rate of N305 (to the dollar) and the oil output of 2.2 million barrels per day as suggested. But in terms of the exchange rate, we saw that there was a huge disparity in the prices of crude oil. We saw that the prices were hovering between $50 and $53 (per barrel) for almost half of the year. We felt that it was soothing enough and rather than adopt the proposal by the executive, which was $42.5, we added $2 to make it $44.5. The portion accruable to the Federal Government as a result of the $2, is the reason why we increased the budget.

The National Assembly, in the course of engaging the ministries, departments and agencies and legislative interventions, realised that there were critical areas that had not been captured in the proposal submitted to the National Assembly. It was in that context that we decided to make allocations for those critical sectors, notably the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport’s second runway, knowing that we had just concluded the emergency repair of the (only) runway with all the attendant noise and inconveniences with relocating passengers to Kaduna (airport). We decided that we didn’t have to wait for another emergency situation; it was time we put on board the second runway arrangement and we made provision for it – about N15bn. We also realised that there were issues with the National Youth Service Corps and the scheme is very important to national integration and the unity of this country. We decided to fill the shortage in terms of the emolument and mobilisation. You will agree with me that there are a lot of youths still waiting for mobilsation. I think about N5bn was allocated to that. There is also the Aladja Rail Line from Itakpe (Kogi State) that was supposed to transport steel and iron ore. The rail line has been abandoned since the 90s. Now that the government is talking about diversification of the economy and the fact that the government is looking at alternative mineral resources, we decided to fund the project.

The other aspect is that the infrastructural deficit is so huge. In terms of road, it is on record that there is a deficit of N1tn in terms of pending and abandoned projects. We decided to add N25bn to road projects. There is also the issue of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation; there is a particular fund that the government is supposed to pay to UNESCO to attract certain benefits. It is like a counterpart fund. That was also budgeted for. There are other issues I cannot remember now. Even the Nigerian military is a beneficiary of extra funding for security.

Overall, what the National Assembly did was patriotic, sensitive and we cannot sit down and claim that we have money when we have issues to address with the money.

But some Nigerians, especially human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana; and Yoruba leader, Chief Ayo Opadokun, have criticised the National Assembly for jacking up the budget. They described the Appropriation Bill passed by the legislature as illegal and asked the Presidency not to accent to it. Is it not a case of being morally right and legally wrong?

The issue is very funny. Since 1999 to date, the National Assembly has been increasing budgets. How come, suddenly, both Ayo Opadokun and Femi Falana – with due respect to their standings in the society – who have been in Nigeria did not see it until now? For me, their arguments or points have no basis. We are mandated by the Constitution.

Which part of the Constitution backs your claim?

The Constitution is very clear; Sections 80 and 81 say whatever is presented is a proposal. Within this context, we have a bill and a bill is worked on to become an Act. The same Constitution – I don’t know the section now – says if we pass a bill and it is forwarded to Mr. President and he does not assent to it, we are empowered to veto it.

What if the Presidency agrees with critics of the 2017 budget and the President or Acting President withholds his assent to it?

You mean if he does not sign it? We will wait until that happens. We are not to preempt anything. My take is this: the Presidency knows that we are the elected representatives of the people and those people (Opadokun, Falana and other critics) are not; they are not courts either; they are individuals like any other Nigerian and they are exercising their right to self expression, and they are entitled to it. Like I said earlier in an interview, he is just seeking relevance and I just see him like somebody doing ‘Charly-Charly’.

Who are you referring to?

Femi Falana. He is the one who was quoted to have said so.

The National Assembly increased its budget from N115bn to N125bn. Why is the legislature jacking up its budget at a time the government is talking about austerity measures due to economic recession?

What are the austerity measures? Is it an austerity budget? How much was the country’s budget in 2016 and how much is it this year? What is the inflation rate? People need to understand this. Even when people are saying that we have jacked up the budget; in nominal terms, we did but when you look at the actual terms, the budget is still below the budget that the National Assembly had some years back. If you look at the value of the currency today, then you will know that what has happened is not meeting the requirements of what the economy dictates. If other people’s budgets have been increased, why should ours not be increased to face the reality that our economy brings to us? Are they saying that we are not entitled to carrying out our duties? Are they saying that we are not entitled to spending government funds in the course of carrying out our responsibilities?

Why then has it been difficult to raise the minimum wage from N18,000 to N56,000 being demanded if the civil servants are also working for government and they are facing same economic realities?

The minimum wage (fixing) is not by us. The issue of minimum wage is not as simple as people think and that is why it is always a tripartite thing. People should not forget that the government is just one of the partners; the organised private sector and labour are there. That is why it is called national minimum wage.

And the National Assembly has always stood by the people; we have never been averse to it. It is not our duty to do the negotiation; it is the duty of the Federal Government and I think we have intervened several times and urged the parties to engage one another. To God be the glory, the parties have started the process of the engagement.

Simply because we have added N10bn to our budget, somebody is sitting somewhere crying blue murder. Like I told you, out of the N148bn (added to the budget), it means that over N130bn is going to various critical areas that, we, in our wisdom, thought national requirements that should be upgraded. Sometimes, it is a disservice and, in fact, I make bold to say that from what I have seen here, the National Assembly is actually underfunded.

With a budget of N125bn?

Yes, it is underfunded. Let me tell you: people like to borrow what suits them. If you want to borrow, borrow completely. People have been saying we are the highest paid legislature, which is a lie. Studies have been conducted by the National Institute for Legislative Studies and they show that we are not. In 2015 when we went for a climate change conference in Paris – we had the GLOBE, which is a platform for legislators in support of the climate change (campaign) – the senators from the United States who came had five professors/experts each on the subject matter. For that alone! From the research I have carried out, I am aware that they have very solid provisions for consultants on every subject matter.

I am a senator and when you bring an issue concerning petroleum, I should be able to contribute to the debate as it affects my constituents and the country generally. Who is supposed to advise me when I am not a petroleum engineer? The best you can ever be is to have insights into three professions. How many professions do we have within the context of the economy? And you must legislate, and you cannot legislate in ignorance; you must legislate from a very solid standpoint of knowledge with fact – well proven facts – so that by the time you legislate, it will work in the real world. You will not create problems for the people, you will not stifle them but give them the opportunity to express themselves and reach the peak of their innate potential that God has given to them. How can you do that without sound knowledge? If we legislate and the legislation goes wrong, Nigerians will blame us. Yet, when it comes to spending money for us to get the facts… When you think that knowledge is expensive, try ignorance. Even the legislative aides we are given are just to help us carry out the routine jobs we do. They do not and cannot provide for the heavily technical areas that we require people to give us expertise ideas in carrying out our mandate. The people who even make this noise, who are they?

Are they not the Nigerians who voted you lawmakers into the National Assembly to represent them?

No, I don’t agree. The bulk of the people who make this noise are not the ones who made me their representative because one person like Femi Falana, in the context of the Senate and House of Representatives, belongs to one senatorial district and one federal constituency and one state House of Assembly constituency, which means he has only one House of Assembly member, who has one vote in the assembly; he has one member of the House of Representatives, who has one vote; and he has one senator, who has one vote. Femi Falana did not vote me in Niger North. Those who voted me in Niger North are there and they have absolute faith in me to represent them.

If you feel that the National Assembly as presently constituted is underfunded, is it not appropriate to take the advice of those who are calling for unicameral and part-time legislature to cut cost?

Those are ignorant people and I say this with no apology.


It is because those who thought it wise in the first instance are not fools; they are great men and women of this country who have diligently served, who have not corruptly served and who paid their dues. They sat down, thought very deeply, knew what it meant before they came out to say this is what it should be. Countries that are homogenous are the ones that can enjoy such kind of system. Due to the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious or let me say multi-dimensional nature of Nigeria, this is about the best system for us. Any other system cannot stand these dimensions that I have mentioned. Because of these dimensions, it means it will prevent somebody from being dictatorial. The licence for moving into dictatorship is when you have a unicameral legislature. Without the intent to demean the states, let us look at what obtains in the states where we have unicameral legislatures right now. What happens? The governors are known in many states to have pocketed the houses of assembly, literally. They are right there in their (governors’) pockets; whatever they like is what they (assemblies) do. So, what are we talking about? We don’t need to even go far. We are aware of how several state houses of assembly are at the whims and caprices of the governors. These are the issues and they are not new.

Nigeria is a very dynamic country with a lot of diversity, and the National Assembly, as presently constituted, has saved Nigeria from treading the path of dictatorship when the third term was being pursued by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. You could see the dynamics. It is difficult enough for you to grab one house, put it into your pocket, but will the other house allow you to grab it too? It is not possible!

That is the system of checks and balances and basic principle of democracy is checks and balances. Where the system of checks and balance is removed, it is not democracy.

What about having a part-time legislature?

When people say part-time, I am coming from the executive (as a civil servant) and I entered into the National Assembly; I had 20 years of service at the Federal Government level before joining politics. Right now, what I have seen is that anybody who says we should have a part-time legislature is ready to hand over the key of representative governance and checks and balances to somebody who, straight without any question, will become a dictator because of the level of work that we do right now. Within the confines of what the National Assembly is mandated to do – lawmaking, representation and oversight – these can never be done under any part-time arrangement. I think it is a misnomer borne out of ignorance.

The National Assembly decided to publish the details of its budget this year but why did you fail to make the remuneration of each lawmaker public?

You guys are just being sinister and I say it with a pinch of anger in my heart. The salaries of members of the National Assembly are fixed by the National Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission.

What is secret about it? Which public officer have you seen that has ever come out to publish their pay slip? That is personal to people. Are we the only Nigerians? We make laws for the good governance of this country. People exploit these same laws to make huge sums of money. Why are Nigerians not asking them how much they are making from the laws that government has made? We need to understand that there is a limit. I am a public officer but I have my privacy, and my privacy is guaranteed by the grand norm of Nigerian democracy, which is the Constitution. And in public service, whatever it is that is being done, it is government money that is being spent.

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