by Bassey Udo
Nigerian lawmakers are stepping up the pressure on the federal government and President Muhammadu Buhari to promptly release all funds earmarked for their “constituency projects” in 2014, in addition to new allocations for the same projects in 2015, PREMIUM TIMES can report today.
Ministry of Finance officials fear the money could be misused and are cautious in dealing with the lawmakers, who they believe are cash-strapped as they have yet to reap a major windfall since their elections in March.
Of the N100 billion allotted for the constituency projects last year, N51.88 billion was not released due to funds unavailability, officials say.
The government provided additional N50 billion for the projects in the 2015 budget.
Since budgeted funds are released quarterly, the government has approved N12.5 billion for the projects for the first quarter of 2015, which is between January and March, and has also approved the release of another N12.5 billion from last year’s balance.
But the lawmakers want the entire last year’s shortfall of N51.88 billion and this year’s first quarter allocation of N12.5 billion [totalling N64.4 billion] released immediately, and have ramped up pressure on the government for weeks, claiming contracts for the projects had already been awarded.
Constituency projects should be development programmes recommended by members of the National Assembly for implementation in their constituencies. The projects are financed through special allocation included in government budget annually.
Funds for the projects are kept in a special account from which contractors are paid directly.
Over the years, “constituency projects” became bywords for corruption as dubious lawmakers pocketed allocated funds several fraudulent schemes.
Officials well briefed on the matter say although constituency projects are advertised as required by law, lawmakers have devised dubious ways of ensuring that only companies fronting for them, or those belonging to their cronies are pre qualified.
They then share the proceeds of the contract with their hand-picked firms after executing a bit of it, or abandoning them altogether, officials at the finance ministry told PREMIUM TIMES.
Afraid that releasing the money under President Muhammadu Buhari could backfire, the ministry opted this time for a thorough process and have refused the release the money, irking the lawmakers.
A Development Fund General Warrant – an authority to make payments – signed by the permanent secretary in the ministry of finance, A. M. Daniel-Nwaobia, dated September 10, 2015, asked the Accountant General to release N12.5 billion for the first quarter of 2015, and another N12.5 billion from the unspent 2014 budget.
The lawmakers have intensified their lobbying after it became clear even the approved money had not been released.
Those familiar with the matter said the federal lawmakers have readied contractors they would recommend to execute projects once the funds are released, and are becoming increasingly impatient with the finance ministry for withholding the funds.
The lead director of Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said the development portends a major crisis for the executive.
“Constituency projects should be harmonised in the 2016 budget in line with the priorities and policy goals of government,” Mr. Onyekpere said.
“Ideally the allocations for constituency projects should not be released to the National Assembly members, but to the supervisory ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs, that would implement the projects.”
Since the budgeting process does not prioritize expenditures in accordance with available resources, he said the executive would be faced with the challenge of deciding what project to release funds to and what to leave out.
He noted that the issue should be a lesson for the administration, which needed to ensure that capital expenditures were reviewed in the 2016 budget, by matching available resources.
The Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, Auwal Rafsanjani, agreed, saying he was totally opposed to the practice of getting lawmakers play roles in the execution of constituency projects.