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Constituency projects: Still a long way to getting value for money

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Tractors recovered from Senator Misau at the premises of Ganjuwa local council in Bauchi State

• FG Must Enforce Effective Budget Monitoring, Evaluation Body To Track Project, Standardise Verification – Ilevbaoje
• Level Of Citizen Participation In Democratic Process, Governance Unimpressive – Effiong
• MDAs Involved In Short-changing Nigerians And Taking Advantage Of Lax Institutional Regulatory Enforcement – Kolawole

In August last year, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) through its Constituency Projects Tracking Group (CPTG) initiative, recovered and sealed items worth N117m, which were stashed away in a compound in Mkpologu Town, Uzo-Nwani Local Council, believed to be owned by the senator representing Enugu North Senatorial District, Chukwuka Utazi.

The ICPC explained that the tricycles, motorcycles and grinding machines recovered were meant to be distributed in Utazi’s constituents, to empower them as part of the Federal Government’s efforts to alleviate poverty.

A statement signed by the ICPC’s spokesperson, Rasheedat Okoduwa said, that contract for the purchase of the items was awarded on January 23, 2018, under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as part of Utazi’s constituency projects.

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“The items covered by this amount (N117m) and recovered from the legislator are 168 and 51 motorcycles and tricycles respectively. They were discovered stashed away in a compound in Mkpologu town of Uzo-Nwani Local Government Area, believed to be owned by the Senator.

“Additionally, ICPC recovered 203 grinding machines, 60 motorcycles and 5 transformers in the compound which had been procured under another constituency project. Thereupon the Commission impounded all the items and sealed the senator’s compound,” the statement added.

Not long after the shock finds by the ICPC, Utazi, who was the Chairman, Senate Committee on Anti-corruption and Financial Crimes between 2015-2019 distributed the items. This development forced some constituents to accuse the ICPC of “questionably” approving Utazi to hurriedly distribute the seized items, as a way of protecting the senator. The accusation was made at an anti-corruption sensitisation programme, at Sunshine Hotel, Enugu.

A few days after, the anti-corruption agency’s drive to recover items from lawmakers, who allegedly failed to properly use funds allotted for projects, which they nominated, took them to Akwa Ibom State.

There, hospital equipment worth millions of naira, which were meant for a constituency project, were recovered from the premises of Mma Obot Foundation, allegedly owned by the former governor of Akwa Ibom State and Minster of Niger Delta, Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio.

The CPTG team, according to a statement by Okoduwa, after the raid recovered a “dialysis machine; ECG monitor; oxygen regulator; anaesthetic machines; power generators, and other hospital equipment meant for a cottage hospital in Ukana, Essien Udim Local Council of Akwa Ibom State.”

She added that the ongoing project tracking exercise by the ICPC and its partners, through the CPTG, has led to multiple recoveries of items, hospital equipment, vehicles and funds, and also informed that six tractors meant for the use of farmers in six local government areas of Bauchi Central Senatorial District, were also uncovered.

The tractors recovered from a farm belonging to Isa Misau, the ICPC said, were already showing signs of wear and tear, “formed part of the N430m contract for the supply of pumping machines and other agricultural machinery to farmers in the senatorial district, which was awarded in 2015, by the Federal Government as part of the senators’ constituency projects across the nation.

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“The CPTG team for Bauchi discovered that N76.6m was paid for the tractors in December 2015, but they were only supplied in March 2016… They were supposed to have been distributed for the use of farmers in each of the six local government areas in the senatorial district that included Misau, Dambam, Ningi, Warji, Darazo and Ganjuwa. It was found out that the tractors had not been distributed as required in the terms of the contract.

“In the efforts to trace the tractors, Isa Hamman Misau, the then-senator under whose auspices the project was included in the budget to be executed by the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) Office, met with officials of ICPC in Bauchi and a written statement claimed that the tractors were kept in Yuli Village.

“However, the CPTG team did not find any of the tractors there, and some of the intended beneficiaries who were interviewed claimed not to have ever seen the tractors in the village as claimed by the senator,” the agency’s spokesperson had disclosed.

The tractors, which are already showing signs of dilapidation as a result of usage, with some leaking oil, were seized by the ICPC and handed over to the Chairman, Ganjuwa Local Council for safe keep pending a full investigation.

Over the years, scenarios akin to the three above have routinely played out in different parts of the country, as far as Zonal Intervention Projects (ZIPs) also known as constituency projects are concerned. These glaring breaches have also succeeded in making the initiative one of the most notorious corrupt schemes since the return of democracy in 1999.

In many constituencies across the country, constituents have been brainwashed by their representatives to see constituency projects as being personally funded by these political representatives. But in fact, the constituency and other projects are funded by the government with public money, which means that they are not gifts or donations to communities by political representatives. They belong as fruits of national resources and government responsibility to the people.

Misau

The concept and implementation of constituency projects is evidence of the government’s good intentions for grassroots people. The aim is to spread development to all the nooks and crannies of the country, through the intervention of the people’s representatives in the legislature, who should be in tune with their areas of need.

Sadly, the people have been denied the use of these otherwise life-changing projects because most of their representatives have thoroughly abused the initiative turning it to veritable conduits for corruption.

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Peeved by the ugly development, the ICPC in May last year declared that it would prosecute recalcitrant legislators, who are gifted to diverting funds meant for constituency projects.

The chairman of the commission, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, said in an interview that the Commission, in its bid to look at the kind of corruption that affects ordinary people, would investigate the execution of constituency projects, with no intent of witch-hunting any lawmaker, but to ensure that projects meant to benefit the masses are executed, particularly if they have been funded.

“They (legislators) facilitate the placement of the projects in the budget but it is the executive that decides the contractors that handle them. Of course, there are situations where we have rumours that some legislators influence who gets the contracts, but such situations may be few and far at the end of the day. We have politicians who want to clear their names. I appreciate the legislators who said they are ready to work with us. We know that not all projects in the budget are eventually funded. This move will help us remove rumours surrounding project funding and execution.

“The steering committee we put together for this project has the civil society groups, media and the Nigeria Institute of Quantity Surveyors who are professionals that can help us evaluate projects. The ICPC is not selecting the projects that will be investigated alone, that group will select projects. Because of cost, we are limited in finance, but we will do it gradually. We expect that when we start our work, so many people will go back to the site and complete their work. Those who have diverted funds will also channel them back. In some cases, which are egregious, we may have to enforce. At the end of the day, it is the ordinary people that will benefit.”

Five months ago, President Muhammadu Buhari, while speaking at the National Summit on Diminishing Corruption in Public Sector, which was organised by the ICPC, in conjunction with the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, lamented that there is little to show for over N1t budgeted for constituency projects of the National Assembly members in the last 10 years.

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“That is why I have reiterated on many occasions that corruption is an existential threat to Nigeria. It is a major threat to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals and the socio-economic transformation we are all working hard to bring about in Nigeria.

“It is on record that in the past 10 years, N1t has been appropriated for constituency projects, yet the impact of such huge spending on the lives and welfare of ordinary Nigerians can hardly be seen.

“The first phase report of tracking these projects by the ICPC confirms our worst fears that people at the grassroots have not benefited in terms commensurate with the huge sums appropriated for constituency projects since inception.

“I invite the legislative and judicial arms of government to embrace and support the creation of Special Crimes Court that Nigerians have been agitating to handle corruption cases. I, therefore, urge the legislature to fast-track the passage of the Special Crimes Court Bill.”

In the recent past, the ICPC discoveries have been made by the commission to the effect that many government ministries, departments and agencies dabbled into contracts that had nothing to do with them, a development that led to inflation and duplication of some contracts.

While informing Buhari of the ugly development, Owasanoye said: “Sir, we discovered that some agencies of government are favourites for the embedding of constituency projects irrespective of their core mandate and capacity of these agencies to deliver or supervise projects. Most notorious in this regard are the Border Communities Development Agency, and Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria.

“Duplication of contracts with the same description, narrative, amount, location awarded by the same MDA to bring the amount allocated within approval threshold of the executing agency, or to expend allocation to sponsor of the constituency project.

“Many of the contracts were inflated yet poorly executed. Substandard items were used against specifications in the Bill of Engineering Measurements and Evaluation thus diminishing the value of the projects to the intended beneficiaries. Many projects were also not built to specifications.”

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He also pointed out that: “Empowerment and capacity building projects are very popular, but are highly prone to abuse and very difficult to track. We find that almost 50 percent of budgetary allocation to zonal intervention projects goes to these opaque activities. Empowerment items are sometimes stashed away by sponsors and not distributed till the next budget cycle while in some cases, the same items are re-budgeted and duplicated.

Akpabio

“Many community members believe that sponsors pay for projects from their funds, rather than from public treasury. Thus they are beholden to the sponsor rather than claim their rights.”

These and other alleged criminal activities involving the lawmakers, were contained in a recent report by the Constituency Projects Tracking Group (CPTG), a task force of the ICPC. The report pointedly accused some lawmakers of conniving with agencies to embezzle billions of naira meant for constituency projects.

After Buhari lamented that what was on the ground was not commensurate with the amount so far spent, and the CPTG report became public knowledge, some lawmakers have been battling to come clean of the president’s allegation.

Uadamen Imoukhuede Ilevbaoje, Lead Tracka at BudgIt, confirmed that constituents have been conditioned to believe that constituency projects are projects sponsored by their elected representatives, while adding that over the years, Nigerians in rural communities have little or no ideas about government projects in their communities. But with the intervention of Tracka, which enables citizens to collaborate, track and give feedback on public projects in their communities, the atmosphere is changing gradually.

He said it has become the norm for lawmakers not to reach out to their immediate constituents for needs assessment, the reason why over 50 percent of projects nominated by them to the respective agencies are mainly empowerments programmes, which provisions are short-term and meet only the individual’s immediate needs but without any long-term impact on the community.

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“This usually includes generating sets, grinding machines, sewing machines, tricycles, and motorcycles. The challenges with empowerment provisions are numerous. The main one being the inability to track them (in terms of full implementation and accurate delivery). Lawmakers supporters and/or their wives benefit from these items, and the lawmakers also use these projects as a means of rewarding their supporters and political allies. This is a wake-up call for the civil society and the general public to pay more attention to how public funds are expended.

“In 2018 budget, substantial amounts of money were allocated for training and workshop in fishing production and feed making for women and youth in Edo North Senatorial District at a cumulative cost of N90 million, with the venue for the training untraceable in the whole Edo North six LGAs…”

Giving perspectives on projects domiciled in agencies that cannot execute them, he said projects worth billions of naira were earmarked for constituency projects in the 2020 Appropriation Act in agencies that do not have the mandate to execute them. A total of 988 projects fall under this category and this further raises serious questions on accountability and proper execution of such projects. SMEDAN was mandated to execute an N100m supply and installation of transformers in Ado-Ekiti and Irepodun/Ifelodun LGAs, Ekiti State. A quick reminder that SMEDAN is an MSME development agency.

Ilevbaoje, who alleged that there is an agreement between lawmakers and the implementing agencies, added that in most cases when these projects are allocated to the agencies that cannot execute them, the lawmakers would blame the executive, while the executive will also blame the lawmaker.

He, therefore, advised that: “Since the fundamental purpose of constituency projects is to ensure that rural communities feel the impact of the Federal Government, representatives should engage their constituents in the budget-making process to ensure their priority needs are well-captured in every annual fiscal plan. Project locations should be included in the budget, for easy access by citizens and organisations. As noted, in several cases, budget line items identify project titles, specifications, and amounts, but fail to establish the actual project site. Provisions like these are extremely prone to misappropriation of funds and corruption.

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On effective forms of tracking for constituency projects in a bid to ensure their satisfactory execution and for the country to obtain value for money released, he said: “To achieve inclusive growth for the country, the Federal Government must enforce an effective budget monitoring and evaluation body to track project progress and standardise verification. The government could also adopt an independent reporting mechanism for capital projects ultimately to monitor their progress and ensure judicious use of public funds in creating value for the people. This must be prioritised to ensure public participation in contract award with details of all contracts (contractor’s name, government budget benchmark, terms of the agreement, bill of quantity, etc) available in the public domain. The government can control incompetence and contract fraud through this initiative via the provision of updated contact information.

“Elected representatives must be engaged and request for the status of public projects in the community made of them. Community/town hall meetings should be organised by residents to find out the status of projects with residents in the community. Visits should be made to project sites to follow up with execution, and findings should be reported to Tracka.ng.”

Convener, Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (COHRD) Inibehe Effiong, deplored the attitude of Nigerians towards holding their elected representatives accountable, even when they are glaringly found wanting.

According to the Principal Counsel/Head of Chambers, Inibehe Effiong Chambers: “As a country, the level of citizen participation in the democratic process and governance is not impressive. Most Nigerians have surrendered to fate. People are reluctant to engage the system and hold their elected and appointed representatives accountable. Part of the problem is that people do not have confidence in anti-graft institutions. There is a strong perception that petition writing hardly results in a diligent investigation. Also, government official have deliberately made themselves inaccessible. However, we have to continue to sensitise Nigerians not give up on the country.”

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Commenting on why lawmakers, who are conniving with agencies to embezzle billions of naira meant for these projects are not brought to book to serve as a deterrent, the Deputy Director, Socio-Economic Rights & Accountability Project (SERAP), Oluwadare A. Kolawole said: “There is little or no oversight over constituency project funds by the executive since it involves the legislature. There appears to be some sort of political trade-off here between the legislature and executive that allows members of the legislature to ‘manage’ constituency projects as they see fit. Unfortunately, this has continued to short-change the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people, who need access to these basic public services.”

He stressed that “the MDAs involved in this corrupt practice take advantage of the lax institutional and regulatory enforcement to connive with legislators in one of the most notorious corrupt schemes since the return of democracy in 1999. There have also been reports of how legislators connive with supervising MDAs and contractors to facilitate award of constituency project contracts to cronies, fronts and family members. Some members of the National Assembly obtain the release of funds for constituency projects, but divert the funds to their personal use without executing the project, only for the same projects to resurface in the national budget in the next budget cycle under the same name or in other names.

“We have consistently advocated for the strengthening of the office of the Auditor General of the Federation to check corrupt practices in the use of public funds, including constituency projects. But then, MDAs also are not submitting audited reports to the Auditor General as required under our law. But they are getting away with it. MDAs ought to be held to account, and SERAP will push for this to happen.”

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