Thursday, June 19, 2008

Illegal funding of legislative committees

The recent directive of the Presidency to the effect that federal ministries and agencies must, henceforth, stop offering funds and acceding to financial requests from members of the National Assembly or its committees to carry out their activities is expected. It is coming at a time the N300 million unspent health ministry allocation is causing ripples in the country.

According to the circular issued by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, it is illegal for ministries and agencies to buy vehicles for National Assembly members or grant loans to them as the legislature has an independent budget to carry out its functions.

In recent weeks, the people of Nigeria have been inundated with the scandal on how ministry officials and their National Assembly collaborators shared N300 million which the ministry of health could not spend in the 2007 budget. Of this amount, the Senate Committee on Health as well as its House of Representatives counterpart received N10 million each for the purpose of facilitating a capacity training tour.

The unsavoury development has already led to the sack of Prof. Adenike Grange and Mr. Gabriel Aduku who were Minister of Health and Minister of State for Health respectively. They are currently standing trial on charges brought against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The ghost of the N300 million is also haunting Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello who, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, collected N10 million from the ministry of health.

The propriety or otherwise of national assembly committees collecting money from the ministries they are supposed to oversee on the excuse that such money is meant for capacity building or for training purpose has been a matter for heated debate. But the preponderance of opinion seems tailored towards the burden which such gratification poses on the supervising agency. The reasoning is that when a national assembly committee which is supposed to oversee the activities of a government department or parastatal collects money from such a department or agency to do its job, it compromises itself.

Chances are that it would, henceforth, lack the moral authority to ask necessary questions or query the actions or inactions of such a department.
In fact, many believe that a situation where government agencies offer funds to National Assembly Committees amounts to outright bribery. It is for reasons such as this that Grange and Aduku are being tried for financial crime, among other charges.

There is no doubt that there was nothing in our statute books before now that suggested that legislative committees are at liberty to receive gratis of this nature from the executive branch of government. It is just that Nigerians have a way of circumventing the rules and treating such acts as normal.
It is situations such as this that have now implicated those who have been charged by the EFCC. It is therefore necessary for government to issue a clear directive on this illegal practice so that defaulters will no longer pretend as if they are ignorant of the law or the rules and regulations. For this reason, the directive from the office of the SGF is in order and very welcome.

Before now, there have been a lot of abuses in this regard. Many untoward things have taken place between the executive and legislative arms of government. Where there were supposed to be checks and balances, there have been compromises and undue fusion of roles. This is most reprehensible. It negates the essential ingredients of the principle of separation of powers.

Even though this practice was commonplace before now, those who have been abusing the system were still quick to pay lip service to public service and the job they were assigned to do. We have had enough of this brazen deceit. We just hope that the trial of those who have been arraigned over the N300 million scam will serve as a deterrent to others who may want to toe their dishonourable path. But the directive from the Presidency on the issue will tie the loose ends so that future violators will not seek alibi on the altar of ignorance.