Constituency Projects: Akpabio, Ranking Senators and Budget Padding

Constituency Projects: Akpabio, Ranking Senators and Budget Padding
By Zekeri Idakwo

Since President Bola Ahmed Tinubu took office, his administration has been mired in controversy, with accusations of corruption, poor governance, and now budget padding.

The removal of fuel subsidies has led to economic hardship, protests, and strikes, while allegations of corruption against his sacked Humanitarian Affairs Minister further undermine the government’s credibility.

The recent Senate suspension of Senator Abdul Ningi of Bauchi State over budget padding claims has only fueled the controversy.

The Godswill Akpabio-led Senate suspended Senator Abdul Ningi for three months over accusations that he claimed the 2024 budget was padded with N3.7 trillion. Senator Ningi made the claims during a recent Senate session, but the Senate leadership dismissed them as unfounded and damaging to the institution’s reputation.

Recall that in order to meet the country’s needs and urgently reduce the effects of fuel subsidy removal, the National Assembly passed the 2024 Appropriation Bill, with a total of N28.7 trillion. This is an increase of approximately N1.2 trillion from the executive’s initial proposal of N27.5 trillion.

Senator Ningi’s suspension has raised questions about the Senate’s independence and whether it can hold the executive branch accountable. Some have argued that the Senate effectively acts as a rubber stamp for the president rather than a check and balance on executive power. The senator’s suspension has also highlighted the fractured nature of the ruling party, with divisions and factionalism coming to the fore.

The suspension of Senator Ningi sparked reactions, whether he was betrayed or whether his allegations were valid. More so, following the allegations of budget fraud, Economic Confidential reports that Senator Godswill Akpabio-led NASS approved a total of N8.4 trillion for capital projects in the 20 federal ministries in the 2024 budget. Of this amount, 71.98% was allocated to projects that are difficult to track or have significant accountability issues. These findings raise concerns about the accuracy and transparency of the budget.

Apart from the revelations at the Senate plenary that 34 ranking (senior) senators got a total of N17billion allocated at the sum of N500m each for their constituency projects votes in the 2024 budget, the Senate President is alleged to have allocated over N20.5b for his constituency. Senator Akpabio’s Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District got N2.5billion from the Budget of the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs to cover five empowerment projects at the cost of N500,000,000 for each of the projects for which there was no survey and cost evaluation carried out.

Similarly, the same Akwa Ibom constituency is allocated N18 billion from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture 2024 Appropriation Act under the disguise of purchasing some units of Transformers and installing solar street lights. There was also an allegation that the Presidency equally approved another N2.5 billion for the same Senator Akpabio for the procurement of Deep Freezers, Generators among other items, as empowerment projects for the people of his constituency.

Furthermore, according to the report, some of the specific projects in the budget are not within the statutory mandates of the ministries or agencies that are responsible for them. Moreover, many of the projects are located outside the operational jurisdictions of the relevant organizations, which raises further questions about the accuracy of the budget. It is unclear how these projects will be implemented and monitored effectively.

Seun Onigbinde, co-founder of Budgit, provided insight on the allegations by Ningi during an appearance on Channels Television’s program.

Onigbinde acknowledged Ningi’s concerns about the lack of detailed project allocations in the N28.78 trillion budget, specifically regarding approximately N3.7 trillion. He clarified that no evidence supports Ningi’s claim that Nigeria operates on two parallel budgets.

He said, “While Senator Ningi is correct in emphasizing the need for a detailed breakdown of the budget, the claim of two concurrent budgets lacks a factual basis.”

Onigbinde stressed the need for transparency and accountability in budgetary allocations, particularly for ministries, departments, and agencies. The executive and National Assembly should prioritize transparency and ensure effective use of funds.

In a swift reaction, the appropriations committee chairman, Senator Lekan Solomon, debunked Ningi’s padding claims. What Ningi called padded figures, he said “were the first line changes of some agencies which are not normally reflected in the budget.” He referred Ningi to the 2021, 2022 and 2023 budgets, where the Senate applied the same rule of thumb of not inserting the details of the budget of certain institutions like the judiciary and the national assembly itself in the appropriations act.

Amid the controversy over Senator Ningi’s allegations of budget fraud, Senator Tony Nwoye of the Labour Party revealed that he had been allocated N250 million but did not receive N500 million. Senator Jarigbe also made similar claims about not receiving the full amount of his budget allocation. Both senators raised concerns about the lack of transparency and potential fraud in the budgeting process.

Like Senator Nwoye, Senator Jarigbe, representing Cross River North, also claimed that some “so-called senior senators” received N500 million for constituency projects, while he did not. He stated that no senator has the moral authority to criticize Senator Ningi, given the lack of transparency and possible fraud in the budgeting process.

Equally, the Senate’s swift suspension of Senator Ningi has drawn criticism and suspicion, with some believing that more time should have been allowed for a proper investigation before taking any action. This raises questions about due process and whether the Senate acted rashly in suspending him.

However, some Northern leaders have distanced themselves from Ningi’s claims, while others supported him. For instance, the Governor of Bauchi State, Bala Mohammed, said, “Yesterday, I was very sad that the Senate suspended one of our best from Bauchi for telling the truth, for standing up to be the beacon of the truth.”

Meanwhile, budget padding has been a long-standing issue in Nigerian politics. The practice of inflating budgets to include unauthorized or unnecessary expenses is often seen as a way for officials to embezzle public funds or reward political allies.

A conspiracy within the government budgeting process allegedly influences the process. There are allegations of fake projects being added to the budget, with money allocated and cleared as ‘executed’ using counterfeit documents. The monetary allocations are shared among government officials and contractors.

Budget padding has witnessed high-profile cases involving lawmakers and government officials. In 2016, some lawmakers were accused of inserting unauthorized projects and inflating costs without due process. The controversy affected the House of Representatives which led to the suspension of Abdulmumin Jibril, the chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation. He was suspended for 180 legislative days. He was also removed as Chair, House Committee on Appropriation over an allegation he leveled against the speaker of the house, Yakubu Dogara and three other principal house members, Yusuf Sulaimon Lasun, Alhassan Doguwa and Leo Okuweh Ogor.

It is important to note that the similarity between the 2016 and 2024 budget padding allegations is that both lacked clear evidence. In both cases, despite an investigation by the EFCC over Jibrin’s allegations, the issue was largely forgotten, and it is unclear if any action will be taken to address the problems raised by Senator Ningi.

Regardless of the truth of the allegations, the controversy has revealed underlying tensions and divisions within the Nigerian political landscape.

The impacts and implications of continuous budget padding include misallocation of funds, lack of accountability, and public outcry.

I strongly recommend that there should be efforts towards addressing this issue through stronger legislative oversight, legal measures, and increased public awareness.

However, it remains a significant challenge for the Nigerian government and the budgeting process, and efforts should be made to address this issue and ensure more transparent and accountable budgeting practices.