By Kemi Busari
On June 11, the tenure of Bukola Saraki as president of the Senate, will end. Mr Saraki will not be returning to the Senate having lost the February National Assembly election.
In the past four years of his term, the 56-year-old drew criticisms and commendations for his leadership.
In all, Mr Saraki led the Senate to pass important bills including the Electoral Amendment Bill, Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill, and the Police Reform Bill, and also made important interventions in policy and governance.
But he will be leaving on a disappointing note, amidst unfulfilled promises, late budget passage and clear failure of the Senate to limit its cost. The Senate also failed to initiate badly needed policy framework and legislations to help an ineffective executive arm confront insecurity, unemployment, healthcare and education crises.
This analysis assesses the outgoing Senate president on these parameters, as they remain the best channels a government — be it executive or legislature — can touch the lives of citizens.
Here are some of the most notable things Mr Saraki will be remembered for.
NASS Budget : After much pressure from civil society organisations and other Nigerians, the National Assembly in 2017 published the National Assembly budget. It was the first time since 2010 when former Senate president, David Mark, blocked disclosure.
Intervention in Primary Healthcare: In May 2019, the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, said 22 states showed interest in accessing the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF). This would not have been possible without the intervention of the Senate under Mr Saraki. The Senate in May 2018 approved the N55 billion fund to cater for healthcare in Nigeria. The BHCPF is one per cent of the federal government Consolidated Revenue and contributions from donor grants set aside to fund the basic health needs of Nigerians.
Budget public hearing: In March 2019, the Senate held its third edition of public hearing on national budget. The initiative, introduced under Mr Saraki’s leadership, started in 2016. At such hearings, Nigerians, represented by interest groups, are given the opportunity of contributing to the national budget before passage. Although the legislative process of budget passage should include public hearings, that was not implemented under the previous administrations.
Not-too-young-to-run bill: This important legislation, initiated by the civil society, was passed by the National Assembly in 2018 and signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2018. The law reduces the age limit for Nigerians seeking the office of president from 40 to 35; governorship from 35 to 30. It saw to an unprecedented number of young contestants for the 2019 general election.
Record number of bills passed: As of May, the Senate had passed 293 bills, above the numbers passed by the three previous Senate since the return to democratic rule. The 7th senate passed 128 bills; 6th, 72 and 4th senate 129.
Security: While this is the Executive’s direct responsibility, Mr Saraki’s Senate showed interest in responding to the nation’s growing security crisis. In one of such measures, the Senate in February held a security summit. Apart from the summit, the legislators, almost every week, passes resolutions on security-related issues although few of those were implemented by the executives.
Also, in order to cater for victims of insurgency in the North East, the Senate passed the North East Development Commission bill.
Budget transparency: Even though Mr Saraki as chairman of the National Assembly made public the budget of the parliament in three consecutive years, the releases did not reveal line items. The summarised version only contained vague block figures, without specific funding for each budgeted item. For many Nigerians, the National Assembly continued to conceal how it spends public funds and merely tried to be smart by making halfhearted disclosures.
Delay in budget passage: This was a scandal for the previous sessions of the National Assembly and, at best, it stayed the same, or got even worse, under Mr Saraki.
Just as it has been a problem in previous assemblies, the 8th senate also failed to pass the national budgets in due time. In 2016, President Buhari presented the budget on December 22 but it was not passed until March 23 of 2017.
For the next round, the budget was presented on December 14 in 2017 and passed on March 11 of the next year. The budget passed on April 30 was first presented to the National Assembly in December 19 2018.
For these delays, the National Assembly has at different times raised their defence which include late presentation, failure of MDAs to appear before committees, oversight functions among others.
Budget padding scandal: For the four parliamentary years, the National Assembly was accused of inserting extra costs into budgets. The extras sometimes end in pockets of lawmakers and their cronies through dubious implementation of projects. In 2016, the parliament was accused of padding the budget up to the tune of N481 billion. Similarly, in 2017, Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo delayed signing of the budget because of removal of priority projects and introduction of projects by lawmakers.
The following year, Mr Buhari accused the lawmakers of cutting essential projects and inserting non-essential ones. He said the lawmakers introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to 578 billion Naira. It was a similar situation in 2019 when the President said the addition of about N90 billion to the N8.83 trillion he submitted to the legislature would make it difficult for the government to realise its set objectives.
While the National Assembly has argued on the one hand that it has the power to alter the budget as it is not rubber-stamp, the executive sees the alteration as impediments.
Skewed allocation: Under Mr Saraki, the practice of uneven allocation of resources to lawmakers continued. Each year, the National Assembly gets up to N100 billion from the national budget to execute constituency projects. Over the years, some lawmakers get more than others and this practice continued by Mr Saraki.
A PREMIUM TIMES analysis in 2018 showed that the annual N100 billion is always shared on an agreed 60:40 per cent ratio by the two legislative chambers. The House of Representatives takes the bulk with N60 billion and the Senate with N40 billion. By interpretation, the 360 members of the lower chamber have N60 billion to initiate, implement or complete projects in their constituencies while the 109 members in the senate have N40 to do same. Out of the N40 billion budgeted for the senate, the leadership of the chamber takes N20 billion to fund projects in their constituencies. The remaining N20 billion goes to about 100 other members of the chamber.
Projects to be initiated by lawmakers are determined by the amount allocated to them by the leadership of the Senate or House. Shehu Sani, a senator in the 8th assembly, gave more insight to the sharing formulae.
“The constituency project itself is given on a zonal basis and almost every senator will go with a constituency fund of about N200 million, but it is not the cash that is given to you,” Mr Sani had said.
The above formula explains why Kwara Central, Enugu West, Osun Central have more projects than constituencies of first senators or those not in the ranks.
Checks and Balances: Regardless of being led by the opposition, the Senate under Mr Saraki tried but could not properly check the executive. For instance, while it repeatedly turned down Mr Buhari’s appointment of Ibrahim Magu as head of the EFCC, it failed to curtail the excesses of the former police IG, Ibrahim Idris.
Worse, the Senate — and the National Assembly — in 2018 failed to hold the executive accountable for making extra budgetary military spending without its approval.
In that case, Mr Saraki was strongly criticised for the lenient treatment given to President Buhari. The president had withdrawn $496million from state coffers and used same for the purchase of aircraft from the United States without the National Assembly’s approval. Two senators had called for the invocation of Section 143 to start the impeachment process of the president but Mr Saraki stalled the process.
Instead, the Senate president referred the issue to the Committee on Judiciary to advise on best step to take. The committee never submitted its report.
Education: Education is one of the direct ways a government can touch the citizens. While the executive implements programmes, the National Assembly can support them with laws and policies.
In terms of policies and budgetary allocation to education, the 8th Senate under Mr Saraki performed not better than predecessors. In 2015, the last year for Mr Mark as Senate president, budgetary allocation to education stood at 7.74 per cent. This soon dropped the following years under Mr Saraki and Yakubu Dogara at the House of Representative. It was 6.10 per cent in 2016, 7.38 per cent in 2017, 7.03 per cent in 2018 and 7.05 per cent in 2019.
Despite this low allocation, the Senate passed a record number of bills for creation of new higher institutions. In October 2018, PREMIUM TIMES published a story on how 20 senators are pushing for establishment of universities, polytechnics and Colleges of Education. Most of these bills and many more thereafter were passed by the Senate.