A federal high court sitting in Lagos had ordered the federal government to commence the immediate prosecution of principal officers of the National Assembly indicted for the padding of the 2016 budget. The court also ordered President Muhammadu Buhari to instruct the anti-graft agencies that investigated the alleged budget padding incidence to submit the report of their finding to his office for necessary action.

This judgement follows a suit by a nongovernmental organization, the Socio-economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), which last year instituted the court process following the rumpus that broke out in the National Assembly in 2016 over illegal insertions in the national budget estimates submitted to it by the President.

SERAP had gone to court to compel the government to prosecute the indicted principal officers of after it learnt that the report of the investigations carried out by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Department of State Services (DSS), had implicated principal officers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, for which the bank accounts of some of them containing alleged illicit funds were frozen.

This ruling is the culmination of the crisis that broke out in the law making body in 2016 after the then chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin, accused the Speaker of the House of Representatives and three other principal officers, the Deputy Speaker Yusuf Lasun, Chief Whip Alhasan Doguwa and Minority Leader Leo Ogor of padding the budget with N40 billion for themselves and called on security agencies to institute an enquiry into the matter. Subsequently, Jibrin was suspended for 180 legislative days from the House for making the perceived false allegation. He recently resumed duties after nearly two years.

Budget padding occurs when lawmakers make illegal and fraudulent insertions into the appropriation bill submitted to them by the president. Coming under the budget line of constitutional projects (or zonal intervention), the practice started during the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration when federal lawmakers insisted on including projects for their constituencies into the budget in order to have some physical achievements to show during the next round of campaigns. It was believed that such projects would impact the grassroots being the brainchild of their representatives.

Expectedly, the practice was abused as certain lawmakers saw it as slush funds. In some instances, such projects, even when embarked upon, were abandoned once the political exigencies that threw them up no longer existed. However, despite the huge sums allocated for constituency projects every year, there is nothing tangible to show for it. A report by a civil society organization, BudgIT, revealed that only 33 percent of the constituency projects in the 2015 budget were completed. Many of them are unsustainable either because of the inferior materials used, or there is no maintenance plan in place to keep them functional. So, most of them are grounded and unused and, in some cases, unusable by the constituents.

It is noteworthy that the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances are paramount in any democracy. The former stipulates that the responsibilities of the executive shall be different from those of the legislature and the judiciary, while the latter provides that one arm of government shall be a check against other arms from indulging in excesses.

We wish to point out that the appropriation bill is an executive bill, and as such it is the president’s prerogative as to how to allocate the resources available for the needs of the people. The role of the legislature is to scrutinize the appropriation bill when it is presented to them to check whether there are untoward provisions in it that do not bode well for the country. If the legislators feel strongly about any projects, they are at liberty to lobby the executive at the drafting stage before the budget is laid on the floor of the House. The phenomenon in which the lawmakers now make whole sale insertions into the executive bill is beyond their brief and negates the principle of separation of powers.

The recent federal high court judgement is a welcome development and a very important step towards curtailing the pervasive culture of corruption and impunity that has for a long time bedevilled the yearly budget cycle. It is our considered opinion that the federal government should quickly execute the court judgement. Doing so will not only send the right signal that corruption and abuse of office are not to be condoned. The federal government will also be adhering to the rule of law which is another key principle of democracy.