Some federal agencies and their heads have alleged that National Assembly members are ‘harassing’ them for bribes to pass budgets.
The Nigerian senate
Some Nigerian federal lawmakers are demanding bribes as conditions for passing the 2018 budgets of federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), some heads of these agencies have told PREMIUM TIMES.
The officials say the unceasing demand for gratification is responsible for the reluctance of a number of heads of MDAs to honour invitations by Senate and House of Representatives committees to defend their budgets.
Four officials of notable MDAs, who spoke to this newspaper in separate interviews alleged that the senators and members of the House are desperate and bent on shaking them down because ”the 2018 budget is the last they would consider before the next general elections”.
“Many of them need money for re-election and they see this budget approval process as a way of finding the resources to prosecute their forthcoming elections,” the director-general of one agency said.
The Senate had in February issued a one-week ultimatum to MDAs, who were yet to submit details of their proposed spending to appear before the various committees to defend their budgets.
The lawmakers accused ministers and heads of MDAs of ill-preparedness to attend scheduled meetings, ignoring invitations and sometimes not providing relevant information needed by the lawmakers to carry out their jobs of scrutinising the proposals.
However, three weeks after the ultimatum was issued, majority of the MDAs are yet to comply, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
In fact, the situation got so bad that President Muhammadu Buhari had to issue a directive to the heads of agencies ordering them to avail the National Assembly of their budget details as well as attend budget defence sessions.
The head of a key agency, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES but does not want his name mentioned for fear of victimisation, said: “I can confirm to you that National Assembly members are brazenly harassing MDAs for bribes, using budget process and oversight.
“They have become very desperate this time. They ask pointedly and try to make life difficult for those who don’t play ball by summoning them endless times, asking irrelevant questions, asking for unrelated documents.
“I think they are desperately looking for money for election. I think they have also seen that they could do all these and get away with it, as the executive is not really pushing on anti-corruption against them.
“Until this year, we have managed to manage ourselves. They did not ask for money directly and we did not give. Occasionally, they asked that we employ someone or some people or give contract to some companies. For those pointed demands, we would explain why we could not meet their demands and they understood.
“I had no doubt that some MDAs were even giving them money without their asking. I wanted us to be seen as one of the agencies that don’t give and hoped that they would let us be.
“But this year is different. They have become more direct and more brazen. Their new practice is to ask the chief executive to wait behind and go see their chair or their deputy chair. And they pointedly ask, what are you giving us?
“If they sense you are not playing ball, they do everything to frustrate you, ask you questions and not allow you to answer, ask you to come back over and over.”
He said fear of victimisation was not allowing most of the agencies affected to cry out for help.
“I am sure other heads of agencies are going through the same but I don’t know who will talk on or off the record. As I said earlier, they are desperately looking for money for primaries and elections, and they have seen that the executive is not really bothered about bringing them to order.”
Another chief executive of an agency spoke along the same line, saying his experience with the lawmakers has been ‘frustrating’.
“These guys (the lawmakers) are not even afraid anymore,” he said. “They keep demanding cash and asking us to insert projects in our budgets for them. I can’t definitely satisfy their needs because I don’t want to go to jail because of some frustrated greedy lot.
“With all the millions they collect every month, they are still not contented.”
The MDAs had earlier been defended by Ben Akabueze, director-general of the Budget Office of the Federation, who said in a statement that the budget was submitted with every details the lawmakers need to do their work.
He said the budget proposal included details of all federal MDAs based on the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS) templates suggesting that the scrutiny by lawmakers ”should be an easy task”.
Despite Mr. Akabueze’s intervention, the MDAs are still going through a tough time with the committees.
Another head of MDA, who spoke about his experience wants the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to intervene.
“Your paper will help us a great deal if it can help us alert the EFCC of what we are going through,” he said.
Yet another MDA official said, “Demanding bribes is something that has been endemic over a long period of time. This thing started since (year) 2000, the first budget.
“All these other things they used to get in the past, under this government they can’t get those things. The MDAs are also afraid because the president is very serious. Any MDA that does nonsense and is discovered you know…
“Even in a public hearing at the House of Reps. They intimidated a man. A lot of these members of the various committee, both senate and Reps, wanted bribe but the man refused to oblige them. It’s just intimidation. MDAs are afraid and these people (Senate and Reps committees) are not relenting.
“All these things that they said they didn’t do, MDAs have done these things. A lot of them have gone there to defend. They are just dragging this thing because they want to get extra. Election is coming that is why.
“The MDAs are in a dire state. They will not flout the directive of the president and these people are just insisting. A lot of them are not coming back to the National Assembly. They want to make as much money as they can make and those that feel they can come back, they need money in buying people, either delegates or voters.”
With the cat and mouse relationship between the heads of the agencies and the lawmakers, the fate of the N8.6 trillion budget presented by President Muhammadu Buhari in November 2017 hangs in the balance, it appears.
Also, the wish of the executive to resort to the January-December calendar year budget seems unachievable.
In a belated move to salvage the situation, President Buhari last week ordered ministers and heads of MDAs to appear before the National Assembly to defend their proposed 2018 budget estimates.
The order was given at the end of a meeting the president had with the leadership of the National Assembly led by Senate President Bukola Saraki.
Meanwhile, the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriation, Sonny Ogbuoji (Ebonyi-PDP), denied the allegations levelled against his colleagues.
“It’s a big lie,” he said. “The president has directed them to submit to the committees. If they submit and the committee does not receive it, they should blow it open. This should not be a secret. It’s a big lie. Such things (bribery) should not be entertained.”
Mr. Ogbuoji had on February 28 called the attention of the senate to the refusal of MDAs to either submit details of their 2018 budget proposal or their amendments as requested by Senate committees.
He said the allegation was an ‘escape route’ concocted by the MDAs to cover up.
“People are looking for escape route for their ineptitude. If they say they are demanding bribe, its human beings that are demanding the bribes. They should say the person’s name. There should be no cover up. Nobody should entertain such story.
“If it is me, they should call my name. Hiding it is like virus. If you cover virus, it will never die but the moment you expose it to the atmosphere, it will die. They should say which committee is demanding it. Let them not just say and give a wrong impression.”