Buhari and his National Assembly friends

By Tonnie Iredia

Mutual distrust and suspicion between the Saraki-led 8th National Assembly and the Buhari-led Executive arm of government was an open secret.

However, the problem did not begin with delayed passage of annual budgets as some people tended to amplify; it was there from the very beginning because Bukola Saraki, the then Senate President and Yakubu Dogara, Speaker of the House of Representatives got into office against the arrangement of their party, the All Progressives Congress APC. If the 8th National Assembly was recalcitrant, the APC and the Presidency did much to hurt the leadership of the legislature. The case against Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the refusal of the Senate to clear certain presidential nominees for critical political offices and many other antagonistic acts were all perceived as part of the cat and rat game which characterized the era. It was obviously not the best environment for good governance and President Muhammadu Buhari never missed any opportunity to denounce the development. Indeed, it was not a conducive option for attaining national development which the different of arms of government must be collaboratively committed to.

The end of tenure of the 8th Assembly presented to a reelected President an opportunity to ensure that the rancour of the last 4 years did not recur. So, the reelected ruling APC stringently avoided the elements that prompted the unnecessary bitterness of the past. The leadership of the National Assembly had greater personal reasons to act as good party members. The new Senate President Ahmad Lawan and his colleague in the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila, were the same two party members previously anointed for their jobs which were overturned. They were thus not positioned to exhibit any headstrong signs. It was therefore a good beginning for both arms of government. The lack of understanding of this background was what made some analysts to express apprehension over a likely rubberstamp legislature – an apprehension exacerbated by the publicized manifesto of the leadership of the legislature as a team prepared to support anything from the Presidency.

The current National Assembly has understandably been run like what may go down in history as the most cooperative relationship with the Presidency in Nigeria. But how genuine is this friendship between both arms? This question is relevant because while many see the National Assembly as malleable, others suspect the deliberate underdog position as a ploy to insulate its members from public scrutiny of hidden illicit gains. None of the two elements can help the country’s growth because a positive aspect of the separation of powers is the opportunity the design gives to all arms of government to function together in the interest of the people. In other words, wherever one arm goes wrong should be corrected by the other; none should by commission or omission facilitate the perpetuation of any wrong by the other. This may not be easy to attain as both parties may not wish to roughen the feathers of the other even where the silence hurts society.

The 2022 Budget and the Electoral Act Amendment Bill have however left gaps for criticisms of a supposed cooperative relationship between arms of government that is hardly beneficial to the public. At the signing of this year’s budget into law, President Muhammadu Buhari was constrained to deprecate what he called “worrisome changes” to the budget by the National Assembly. We disagree with those who misunderstood the President as envisaging a situation where the legislature would pass the budget without ensuring that it would facilitate good governance. What should bother anyone is the scope of the changes whose numerical strength could derail governance. As Buhari disclosed, as many as 6,576 new items (not previously discussed behind closed doors by the two arms) were suddenly inserted into the budget as if it was a very poorly written report by a junior staff which his supervisor had to virtually rewrite.

The President does not appear to be the only one who is worried, BudgIT, a foremost civic-tech organization engaged in the advocacy for fiscal transparency and public accountability in Nigeria has explicitly expressed greater worries on behalf of many. From BudgIT we are able to learn that there are 460 duplicated items amounting to N378.9billion in budget 2022. Worse still is that several projects were inexplicably assigned to Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). For example, the National Agency for Great Green Wall, set up to prevent land degradation and desertification afflicting parts of the country is to get N1.3 billion for purchasing motorcycles, street lights and other projects which are outside its mandate. The Ministry of Environment, which is not a security agency reportedly has N67.8million to construct ‘Gun Armouries.’ This trend ought to worry any well-meaning Nigerian more so as this is not the first time of its occurrence in our budgets. Last year, as many as 316 duplicated projects were inserted into the 2021 Budget approved by the National Assembly.

The point must be made again that the ample time which our legislature spends on scrutinizing the budget is commendable because that is more likely to bring out the best of the budget. Interestingly, they do not appear to subject the request for loans by the executive to the same type of scrutiny. This is particularly curious because despite the very loud public disapproval of the numerous loans incurred by this government, none of the requests for loans is ever rejected and no changes are ever made either to the amount needed or the nature of its components. Yet, the National Assembly is made up of the same professionals of different academic and occupational backgrounds who always pick holes in budget estimates. Could it be that the Executive arm is never able to deploy the same expertise it puts into working on loans into the preparation of budgets or are presidential liaison officers not the same for budgets and loans?

The absence of a unity of direction between the Presidency and the National Assembly on the subject of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill is even more complicated. The refusal of the President to assent to the bill because of its anti-democratic feature of disallowing our political parties from having options of primary election modes cannot be faulted. But it is obvious that some legislators may have felt bad because as friends who speedily approve executive requests, Buhari should have also reciprocated by accepting the wishes of his friends to reduce the powers of governors. But then by refraining from perpetuating what is wrong, the President taught his friends a huge lesson that it makes more sense for a leader to support his friends only when their viewpoint will not hurt the public. Whereas legislators who are lawyers are fully aware that a law which is targeted at a specified group is bad law, both themselves and their other colleagues who are not learned should hereafter realize that to blindly support a friend can be injurious to both a policy and many innocent persons involved in the process.

Accordingly, our legislators who are mandated to ensure that nominees to certain public offices are fit and proper persons should stop the ‘bow and go’ contrived scheme which allows nominees with poor baggage to assume offices. The power to screen a person for an office, as we have always argued in this column, cannot be logically extended to include the power to exempt some from screening. If the Presidency nominates people for offices, the constitution requires the senate to reject those who are unfit such as partisan politicians nominated to the electoral body because the contrary would amount to perpetuation of wrong and would in turn hurt the electoral process. As President Buhari is currently struggling to reduce both our numerous institutions and government’s inability to meet University teachers’ requirements, this is not the time for friends in the legislature to be making fresh laws to create more institutions. People must learn to support their friends in office to end well.

Tonnie Iredia
February 20, 2022.

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