Friday, July 21, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Legislator Responds to Jibrin Ibrahim's Column


Daily Trust, 21st July 2017


 Rep. Sani Zorro 

"The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable especially when the questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power, or power uses us."

-       J F Kennedy, 1963.


Every day, everywhere, the media seem to bother more about power and those who exercise it, than perhaps other existential issues of society lumped together. On a good day, imagine what the headlines, breaking news and commentaries are all about – how power-drunk-and-driven men and women are with power, everywhere.


Professor Jibrin Ibrahim's well-meaning perspective on the subject matter, "National Assembly: You Cannot Have Powers Without Responsibility" (Daily Trust, July 4, 2017) fits this bill, and he has questioned (legislative) power disinterestedly, too. All who know him judge him by his integrity, motivated only by the national interest and the public good.


In an earlier scenario in 1981, James Curran and Jean Seaton dropped a bombshell on the powerful British media, causing chaos in newsrooms, sending many editors scurrying for cover. Their book, 'Power Without Responsibility' had since helped a great deal in exposing media excesses as the fourth estate of the realm. As a Reporter, and a legislator in the last two years, I dare say the columnist's criticism of the national assembly could have set a panic mode into motion, but for the fact that it did not fully take the other side's viewpoint into consideration.    


For me, the annual budget ritual remains an exercise about how to spend the nation's resources not in the vertical interest of those we all pretend to serve, but more in the horizontal interest of its authors and vested interests. Our bickering and grandstanding in processing budgets have therefore been artificial and self-serving on both sides.


I start from the Constitution that allocates powers and responsibilities to our institutions, public officers and ordinary citizens. In the representative democracy we all subscribe to, whom would you rank as more representative between an executive branch of government headed by only two elected officers, while the other is populated by 469 elected representatives of federal constituencies and senatorial districts? Most (political) scientists and students are unanimous in their pro-parliamentary verdict, the world over.


On appropriation issues, the powers given to the president in our Constitution starts and ends with, "causing to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly … estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the federation…. (Section 81), while section 58 (4) directs him to assent to bills of the National Assembly, failing which the latter can have its way by overriding him on account of Section 58 (5).


And, so bad for Mr. president, the appropriation bill as prioritized by Section 59 (subsection 1 [a]) is the first over which the National Assembly could punish him. While this should significantly put to rest, the issue of where power lies on this front, the Nigerian legislature has not exercised this power with impunity over the years. Instead, it has exhibited maturity even in the face of unfounded charges of "legislative rascality".  


Angered by Minister Babatunde Fashola's recent incitement against the National Assembly's alleged insertions of 1,170 "petty projects" in the 2017 budget of the Works, Power and Housing ministry, the columnist angrily branded us, "irresponsible, who must be stopped in the national interest". But, legislators the world over have evolved to put the points across, after the people's anger subsides.


To us, the pertinent question to ask is whether these petty projects are destined for Nigerians living in Nigeria, and not for Guinea Conakry, Djibouti or Haiti, the additional effect of serving legislators' egos notwithstanding. Again, I think it is easier said than done for "legislators to go behind and collect monies they have inserted …. as the author asserted. Should that be the case, however, I will venture into saying that Minister Fashola and his colleagues should be held responsible for harbouring crooks along their corridors (knowingly or otherwise). For, it takes two hands to clap, invariably.   


Again on insertion(s), memory lapse would not allow us to remember how the Lagos-Calabar coastal railway project got "smuggled" into the 2016 budget process, this time by executive officials, as it was originally not in the bill laid by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2015. The brouhaha this had initially triggered notwithstanding, the provision sailed through on account of the National Assembly's give-and-take spirit, than to anything else. Yet, one of the masterminds of the smuggling act also turned a wordsmith for the executive by inventing and accusing legislators of "budget padding".


But, what can lawmakers do about their muckraking, even if unfair in most cases? They simply sulk and take solace in Abraham Lincoln's prophesy that, "public sentiment is everything, without which nothing can fail, or succeed. He who moulds public opinion is greater than he who enacts laws". In political communication practice, politicians and policy makers of the executive branch are busier at flying kites, testing waters or sampling opinions by their control and influence of the media. In a situation where the parliament does not control BBC, VOA or NTA, and is not in mutually-beneficial relationship with the Rupert Murdochs of this world, our law making hands can only be up in surrender, as far as the battle for the control of hearts and minds and power to wage the disinformation war is concerned.  


True, key national projects should ideally be the extracts of manifestos and programmes of ruling parties, but the last time I checked my party's documents, such critical infrastructure projects, which the author thought had been properly conceived, designed, or costed by the executive, could not be traced. Priority projects are indeed relative and I subscribe to the saying of a colleague that as legitimate as the quest for Lagos-Ibadan Express Way may be, it must be balanced against the existential need for a borehole for others also in dire need.


I represent one of the most underserved communities in Nigeria, where major towns and villages are yet to produce secondary school leavers, where there are no salaried workers, dispensaries, or rural roads that symbolize government's presence. Yet, education is both a human right and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights, as the Pakistani girl-education activist, Malala Yousufzed who visited our shores early in the week, keeps saying.


The extent to which executive estimates tabled before the legislature are, but a nightmarish exercise can best be gleaned from the fantastic review of the 2017 federal appropriation bill and estimates, published by Citizens Wealth Platform, anchored by Eze Onyekpere and his professional team. I strongly advice everyone to read their analysis.  


Space and time constraints would not allow for a full expose of the inadequacies inherent in budget preparation by the executive and perceived parliamentary excesses of our legislature. But, except we agree on the jurisdiction of the legislature to balance lopsided spending proposals against geo-political priorities, socially-relevant projects as agriculture to guarantee food security, basic education as a human right, as well as investments in health to safeguard the right to life, we will continue to wobble and dissipate energy in blowing hot air, while the nation pays for our imperfections. It may sound impracticable to the ears, but one way of redressing budget injustice against our teeming population is by trying out the participatory model, where resources are deployed to constituencies based on needs and their democratic rights to informed choices and preferences.


Sani Zorro represents Gumel/Gagarawa/Mai Gatari/Sule Tankarkar Federal Constituency, Jigawa State in the House of Representatives.


Professor Jibrin Ibrahim
Senior Fellow
Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja
Follow me on twitter @jibrinibrahim17

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