By Adesoro Tolu Austen.
Recently, the nation’s media space was awash with the news of staff of the National Assembly under its union Parliamentary Staff Association (PASAN) of the National Assembly chapter embarking on protest and threatening a four day strike over the alleged nonpayment of their accrued allowances called CONLESS since 2010.
The reasons for this has been attributed to the non implementation of the 2018 Budget. The question now is if the Executive will seat back refusing a timely intervention of this avoidable crisis that may affect the entire nation? The situation may be like the proverbial fight over a penny where parties involved refused to let go of a token.
In any democratic setting, the importance of the legislature cannot be over-emphazised as it remains the only symbol of democracy. That explains why political pundits aver that any democracy without the legislature equals dictatorship. It is also for this singular reason that each time the military disrupts any democratic project by way of coup d’état, the first thing they usually do is to suspend the legislative arm of government. And it is equally within this context that analysts insist that the survival of any democratic experiment rests primarily on the legislature, which performs critical oversight functions on the executive arm of government.
However, legislators cannot function optimally without the support of Parliamentary aides. This can be likened to a school with qualified teachers without students. So, judging from the foregoing, it was with shock and utter disbelief that Nigerians woke up on 13th December 2018 to the news of the protest embarked upon by the legislative aides over the non-payment of their Consolidated Legislative Salary Structure (CONLESS) and now another threat of a four days strike action which may hinder the presentation of the 2019 budget due for presentation on Wednesday 19th December 2018 by President Muhammad Buhari to the National Assembly.
Reliable sources disclosed that CONLESS was approved for staff since July 2010 and appropriated. However, its implementation suffered a monumental setback as only 22 per cent out of the approved 100 per cent has so far been implemented due to the federal government inability to fund national budget appropriately as proposed.
Squeaky hinges produces rasping noise when moved, but when lubricated it goes silence. A saying from where NASS Staff drove the picketing that got the Political and bureaucratic leaderships thinking on available options to address the issues.The notice of PASAN industrial actions transmitted via Congress communique is aimed at getting it benefits.
As it may not be interested in breakdown of order as some politicians may want to take advantage to pursue its selfish political motives. Be it the Executive or Legislature that constitutes clog in the wheel of this situation our national interest must be considered first as any attempt to politicise the national Assembly bureaucracy may not tell positively on our democracy.
Recall that the President of the Senate, at the peak of the picketing, promised that all hands must be on deck to meet the staff needs.
Its worthy to note that the provision of Constitution that defines Financial Independence(First Line Charge) for the Legislature is gradually undermined by partial implementation of the 2018 Appropriation Act. To avoid the Squeaky wheels, concerned authorities should apply the needed grease.
As part of going efforts to settle the crisis, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, have been urged to use their good offices to ensure that the 2018 Appropriation Act is faithfully and clinically implemented with a view to tackling the multifarious challenges confronting the nation’s economy, just as both chambers of the Assembly have been tasked with the onerous assignment of taking a critical look at the challenges occasioned by non-implementation of budget , which is likely to further trigger more labour-related crisis in the polity.
As part of this brief, the National Assembly is expected to invite all ministers and key government officials vested with the implementation and monitoring of budgets to explain why there are so many noticeable nay avoidable lapses with implementation of the 2018 Appropriation Act especially to an Arm of government that is on first line charge.
Though, a temporary truce was attained in this current face-off between PASAN members and the leadership of the NASS, it is not yet completely Uhuru as the strike threat may affect our National interest as the blockage of 2019 budget may not go down well with the nation. From all intents and purposes, the crisis has thrown up several topical issues begging for pertinent answers especially in a democratic period of our nation. They include: the implication(s) of another NASS shutdown in a period of budget presentation ; negative consequences of non-implementation of budget on the economy and the National Assembly ; the impact of a well remunerated NASS staff on legislative assignments,the fear that this may be another face of legislative -Executive face off where political jobbers may be out for selfish gains,the negative perception this may portray Nigeria among comity of nations.
It beggars belief that few days to the end of the outgoing year, the 2018 Appropriation Act is yet to attain any appreciable level of implementation, yet the President is scheduled to life submit the 2019 budget to the National Assembly . This is a clear indication of how unserious we are as a nation with our budget implementation which now seems to be an annual ritual.
The National Assembly and the Judiciary are the most hit in this regard with selected implementation of the 2018 budget. Surprisingly, these two arms of government are supposed to be on Fist Line Charge. To be on first line charges means it is the first or most important method to be used in dealing with a problem. In the context referred to above, it also means prioritizing the financial needs of both the legislature and the judiciary.
Instead, scant regard is paid to this fact as they are treated with disdain when it comes to release of their budgetary allocations. More shocking is the fact that the personnel overhead cost of the National Assembly for 2018 is yet to be released.
And what does this ugly development portend for the nation? First and foremost, the independence of the legislature and the judiciary as enshrined in the Constitution is under severe threat as such independence cannot be fully exercised in the absence of financial autonomy. This brings to the front burner the fierce urgency of granting financial autonomy to this two arms of government. Again, due to non release of budgetary allocation to the National Assembly, its oversight functions have virtually been torpedoed. Similarly, the efforts and proposed reforms of the Management of the Parliament at addressing critical challenges confronting it has suffered serious setback.
All over the world, lack of fidelity to faithful implementation of Appropriation Act is a serious offence that attracts severe reprimand such as impeachment of the President. And the powers to do that is vested in the National Assembly. That our President still sits pretty in office despite consistently breaching the provisions of the Appropriation Act is due to the magnanimity of the National Assembly, which is committed to protecting the nation’s democratic project without rocking the boat. This obviously deserves commendation from all and sundry.
It is equally an established fact that in the last three years, the Executive arm of government has acquired notoriety for subverting the provisions of Appropriation Act either through partial or non-implementation of budgets. Apart from late release of budgeted funds to Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, including the National Assembly, the Executive Arm of government most times, inexplicably fails to implement budgets for reasons best known to it. This has thrown spanner into the wheels of the smooth running of the MDAs ,the National Assembly and the Judiciary which ought to be empowered to fight corruption also in the areas of meeting its obligations to staff and contractors.
For a number of years in Nigeria, the national budget has become a mere paper document which implementation has not only been largely jettisoned but left to the whims and caprices of the Executive who uses release of funds as a political tool against perceived political enemies like the National Assembly is perceived to be now due to its leadership political status of being members of the opposition. In a nutshell, the Executive has been engaging in selective implementation of budgets that is no doubt inimical to our hard earned democracy. Most times, it uses budget as a political tool to victimize perceived opponents like the National Assembly that fails to dance to his tool. The effects of this sad development are as many as they are grave. In the immediate past year (2017), it was reported that there was only about 20 per cent implementation of the budget. In 2016, the implementation was 59 percent and it was extended to June 2017 for this to be achieved. However those of 2015 and 2014 did not fare better.
The chief effect of non implementation is zero or at best snail speed progress in the land. Therefore, no government will jettison its Appropriation Act and hope to succeed in the provision of the necessary things to the governed. This, probably, necessitated the Senate on January, 16, 2018 deliberating on a Bill seeking to provide stiff penalties, including impeachment, for non-implementation of the budget. The bill, which the legislature said would be passed before the end of this legislative session, also provides specific timeline for the preparation, consideration and enactment of national budgets.
Section 33 of the Bill states that anybody found to have breached any of the budget processes would be deemed to have committed an act of misconduct. Sanctions provided in section 35 of the Bill against any public officer, legislator, or civil servants found to have committed such acts of misconduct include impeachment, suspension from office, written warning, removal of chairmanship of committee and termination of employment.
At this juncture, it is necessary to warn of the dire consequences of allowing the NASS to be shut down on account of non -implementation of budgetary provisions by the Executive. On this note, all relevant authorities must stand up to be counted on the positive side of history by way of ensuring that all genuine grievances of PASAN members are promptly met. The National Assembly is a critical component of the nation’s democratic superstructure and as such, it must be allowed to function without let or hindrance by granting it financial autonomy. Its importance is too strategic to the survival of the nation’s democratic project to be trifled with.
Before concluding this piece, it is necessary to state that legislative staff, if well-remunerated, has all the potentials of executing their assignments clinically well, which is bound to impact positively on Nigeria’s democracy. As stated earlier, the effective performance of any legislature depends to a large extent on the support of legislative aides or bureaucrats. So, there is an urgent need to evolve good conditions of service for these aides. On this note, an increase in their salaries and basic allowances and regular and prompt of such will allow them have more disposable income, and that means they will be motivated to discharge their functions duties appreciably well. And of course, democracy will be the ultimate beneficiary in the long run.
Finally, well-meaning Nigerians should prevail on the Executive Arm of government to quickly release whatever that is left of the 2018 budget so that funds can be made available for the execution of all approved staff benefits and projects. Similarly, considering its strategic importance to the survival of the nation’s democracy, there is the need to grant the National Assembly financial autonomy so that this unsettling game of musical chairs been constantly played with staff welfare can be brought to a permanent halt.
Adesoro Austen is a legislative scholar,public policy analyst and a journalist.