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Senator Ningi’s hoopla: a case of “honour among thieves” principle?


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Senator Abdul Ningi’s exposé of the national assembly’s budget padding has generated a lot of excitement and activity. His protest smacks more of a violation of “honour among thieves” principle and a betrayal of confidence. Put differently, robbers won’t steal from one another, and this adage implies that criminals uphold a moral code of honour by not committing any unlawful acts against their fellow criminals.

Recently, there was a report of a kidnapping victim who paid his ransom with fake money, and the kidnappers saying to him, “God will judge you.”

“Honour among thieves” is a phrase suggesting trustworthiness within a group that is not considered trustworthy to outsiders. Top authors have explored the theme: Honour Among Thieves (novel), a 1993 novel by English author Jeffrey Archer. At least five other novels have explored “Honour Among Thieves” as a theme.

Throughout these books, even dishonourable men experience a sense of betrayal when betrayed by their own.

Abdul Ningi served as the House Majority Leader of the Nigerian House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007 and was a member of the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2011 before moving to the Senate. Senator Ningi has been involved in the NASS since 1999 and perhaps knows about budget padding more than anyone else.

He began his career in the House of Representatives, where he advanced to become House Leader, and ended it in the Senate, where he is currently a ranking senator. Abdul Ningi served as the Deputy Majority Leader in the Senate where he is now a key member.

Senator Ningi claimed that the 2024 budget was inflated by the Senate, of which he is a member, to the tune of N3.7 trillion. He didn’t even try to elaborate. Ningi turned it into a puzzle that he tossed at enraged citizens of the country who are reeling from the devastation of the double headwinds of naira floatation and fuel subsidy removal.

Nigerians, in typical misplaced aggression, think the National Assembly, not the executive branch, is the source of their problems. They even thought that N500 million in cash was shared rather than N500 million worth of constituency projects.

Thus, the Senate or National Assembly bears the responsibility for the budget that was improperly drafted and submitted to the NASS by the president or the executive branch.

Ningi is aware of the mob psychology that shapes public opinion and drives perception in Nigeria and believes that claiming that N3.7 trillion had been padded would be sufficient to incite Nigerians to demand the resignation of Senate President Godswill Akpabio.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s budget presented to the Joint Session of the Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday, November 29, 2023, was N27.5 trillion; the National Assembly passed the budget, adding 1.2 trillion, bringing the total amount passed to N28.7 trillion. So, how did Ningi arrive at N3.7 trillion padding when NASS added N1.2 trillion?

Since the ranking senator now serving suspension intended for Nigerians to solve the puzzle, the following is how to interpret the absurdity that Ningi’s vituperation might pass for: There have been two main points of contention between the executive and legislative branches ever since the return to democracy in 1999.

First, does the National Assembly have the authority to insert constituency projects in the budget, and if so, when should that be done? Secondly, does the NASS have the authority and right to alter the budget after the president has submitted it?

Neither the Executive nor the National Assembly has approached the Supreme Court to ascertain the powers granted to them by the 1999 Constitution regarding the yearly budget. The executive contends that the NASS lacks the authority to increase or decrease the budget, while the NASS maintains that it has the authority to add to and remove from the budget since appropriation is not rubberstamping.

This disagreement is the source of what has become known as budget padding. Everything that the NASS has added is now seen as budget padding, which makes it unethical, if not unlawful. However, NASS has refused to accept this label and has kept adding to the budget. This is the case with the 2024 budget, against which Ningi is objecting for opaque reasons.

When Ningi’s hysteria is examined in more detail, it becomes clear that his grievance lies not with the budget’s padding itself but rather with the method used, which he said marginalised him and his native North.

Sources say he objected, for instance, to being given an envelope of N250 million to nominate constituency projects in the 2024 budget. He questioned why, as a ranking senator, he would only receive N250 million in nominations for constituency projects but other ranking senators would receive envelopes worth N500 million to billions of naira.

This claim makes it evident that Ningi would not have raised the alarm if he had received the same N500 million or billions in project nominations as some of his ranking mates. If the practice is, as Ningi wanted Nigerians to believe, immoral, unlawful, and wrong, then what caught his attention should not be the partiality in Akpabio’s sharing formula.

However, the question is: Is it improper, immoral, or unlawful to add constituency projects to the budget? Not necessarily. When Nigerians want projects like schools, health centres, and even highways from legislators whose statutory role is to make good laws, they are directly requesting constituent projects.

Legislators are under pressure to initiate and complete projects in their constituencies, and the lawmakers know that the number of projects they can secure effectively determines whether or not they will be re-elected. So, the issue of constituency projects has become a necessary evil created by Nigerians themselves.

It is crucial to note, though, that the issue of constituency projects is fraught with malpractices: legislators have frequently insisted on nominating contractors for the execution of the projects they have either nominated or attracted to their constituencies.

Many of these contractors are unqualified, produce subpar work, and occasionally fail to complete the projects even after being paid in full or in part. This is illegal and a bad practice.

To get an interpretation of the legislative branch’s limitations on the authority to add to or subtract from the presented budget, the attorney general needs to approach the Supreme Court, and in that way, put the controversy to a final rest.

Nigerians also need to know that what is going on in NASS isn’t budgeting. There are no clear particulars in the items that are submitted to NASS. A line budget, for instance, might only have the item and amount, say N2 billion, for the purchase of cars.

There is no information on the type, quantity, or price of any given vehicle. Even for building roads, only lump sums are provided. The amount of work already done there and still to be done for ongoing projects, as well as the issues that the earmarked sum will take care of, are not disclosed in the proposed budget for the fiscal year.

All of the budgeting processes need to be redesigned and made more organic and transparent. The performance of the previous year’s budget should serve as the foundation for the new one and be based on actual problems the budget intends to address. This is not what’s being followed by NASS.

Nigeria’s existing budgeting system is a hoax, at best serving as an approximation and formula for national cake distribution by the select few elites who have made it to the table.

This needs to change, and that is what Senator Abdul Ningi should face, not how much the lawmakers share as cash or constituency projects; or, the violations of the “honour among thieves” principle as appears to be the case in his recent tirade.

Dr. Law Mefor, an Abuja-bas ed forensic and social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thought; drlawmefor@gmail.com; Twitter: @Drlawsonmefor.

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