Transparency and accountability are key issues in the reform of any governance system. This is more so in systems that relate to revenues, expenditures and how public resources are managed. Again, there cannot be a successful campaign against corruption and abuse of public trust if the systems remain opaque and have no clear processes of accountability. The discourse is about a revenue and expenditure system where the processes of accruing public revenue can be understood and are clear enough for majority of citizens to follow while expenditure streams are not shrouded in secrecy. Also, the leadership makes a habit of reporting to the people and legally designated checks and balances institutions perform their duties.
For inexplicable reasons, which are not backed by any law, the National Assembly upon designating their budget funds as statutory transfers started the bulk sum approach to budgeting without providing the disaggregation and details. Civil society organisations, the media and majority of Nigerians have been on the “Open National Assembly” campaign since then. Suits have been filed and won in court and various letters, freedom of information requests, print and social media work have been done on the subject. However, NASS still treats the subject of making the details of their expenditure known as a priviledge and as a bargaining chip for which its leadership will claim some achievements. In the process, they have simply opened up their budget a few times since the constitutional amendment.
But there is a big picture and background to NASS keeping its votes as a bulk sum. It is the illegal practice of putting all statutory transfer as bulk sums in the budget. This relates to the budgets of agencies such as the National Judicial Council, Niger Delta Development Commission, National Human Rights Commission, Public Complaints Commission, Independent National Electoral Commission and the Universal Basic Education Commission. And this practice has also started for federal government interventions in the North East. There are also very huge bulk un-disaggregated sums under service wide votes. The votes of these statutory transfer agencies constitute a sizable chunk of the budget, most at times being about N500billion and when service wide votes are added, they are usually more than a trillion Naira.
Nigerians need to look deeper and understand where the rot actually stems from. It is the duty of the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Budget and National Planning and Budget Office of the Federation to publish budget proposals and approvals. This has been done consistently for non-statutory transfer votes over the years. However, the basis of the refusal of the Budget Office of the Federation to publish the details of the votes of these agencies on statutory transfers after publishing the details of others needs to be interrogated. What informs the decision of the Budget Office of the Federation? Did they receive any order from agencies on statutory transfersnot to publish the details of their votes? The Budget Office is best positioned to explain the reasons for their action. Having searched through the Laws of the Federation, case law, etc., the author of this discourse has found no legal justification for this practice. Rather, there is a provision in section 48 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act which states in clear terms that: “The Federal Government shall ensure that its fiscal and financial affairs are conducted in a transparent manner and accordingly ensure full and timely disclosure and wide publication of all transactions and decisions involving public revenues and expenditures and their implications for its finances”.
This is a clear and unequivocal obligation, which the executive should implement to the letter. Now that the leadership of NASS has agreed to make their expenditure open, there is the need to institutionalise same and move beyond the campaign to Open NASS. The way forward is for the NASS to start the publication of the budgets of all agencies that come before it for approval. All it takes is for NASS to upload the detailed proposals as well as the approved/assented budget votes of these agencies on its website. Alternatively, NASS can write it in as clause in the Appropriation Act that the details of the budget votes of all agencies must be publicized by the Budget Office of the Federation. This recommendation is anchored on the fact that all budgetary provisions should have their details available in one place and no one needs to start going from agency to agency to look for the details of the votes of the agencies enjoying statutory transfers.
The reason(s) for the publication of the budgets of these agencies is not far-fetched. Many of these agencies from time to time complain of under-funding and there is no evidence upon which any reasonable person would come to a conclusion of their under-funding unless the details of what has been provided is made available to the public. At least, Nigerians need to know what they spend the available resources on before joining the chorus for increase of their votes. In the case of the votes for the Niger Delta and the North East region, they need the widest publication considering that the resources are budgeted for the benefit of vulnerable groups. The elites have always found a way to steal resources that should have been used to alleviate the plight of the vulnerable. If the situation were otherwise, there can be no explanation for the continued misery in the Niger Delta so many years after the establishment of the NDDC.
Structured reforms of this nature are vital for the institutionalization of the anti-corruption campaign because what is hidden and not known to the public cannot attract public intervention. And the anti-corruption campaign cannot succeed without public and citizens participation. Publishing these budget votes can be a fit parting gift by the leadership of the National Assembly to guarantee enforcement of laws since the executive agency charged with making budgets public has failed to perform its statutory duty. It is not just about publishing their votes alone; their quarterly expenditure reports should also be distinctly published so that Nigerians are kept abreast of how public resources are spent.