Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
In the last two weeks, the leadership of the National Assembly, apparently in a bid to get first information on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, has been interfacing with various agencies of government involved in the fight against the pandemic, directly or indirectly.
The leadership of the National Assembly, during its meeting with the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, last Thursday, requested the executive arm of government to come up with a proposal for the utilisation of funds donated by individuals and corporate bodies towards the fight against the pandemic in the country.
The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, who is also the chairman of the National Assembly, had told the PTF led by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, that, that will ensure better management of the fund.
Lawan said: “We hear of donations made by various corporate organisations. But there is no coordination. “National Assembly, we have also made donations. I believe we must have a central body to receive and manage the funds.
“Whatever money has been raised by NNPC, the IOCs, everybody, should be in one account. Where the PTF should have a request, it should pass through us…where everybody is just collecting, will put us in a bad shape.”
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, concurs. Gbajabiamila, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Lanre Lasisi, insisted that it is imperative for the legislature to appropriate the donations by individuals and organisations to avoid controversy in future.
According to him, “What we are trying to do is to see if constitutional provision is brought to bear on this issue as stated by Section 80 of the constitution, that disbursement from the coffers of government can only be in a manner prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.
“What we can do is to convene as soon as possible and give you, even if it is a one line item for you to appropriate these monies; this is because to do otherwise may become a subject of litigation, and the court can say you have no power to disburse from the money that is coming to the coffers of government.
“Right now, there is no consequence for reneging on promises made on donations because there is no legislation. There must be some form of legislation to that effect, an instrument to compel pledges must be in place.”
However, the request of the National Assembly to legislate over the COVID-19 donations, has been generating concerns in the polity.
The National Publicity Secretary, Peoples Democratic Party ( PDP), Kola Ologbondiyan, told Daily Sun that he is aware that the constitution empowers the National Assembly to legislate on donations by individuals and organisations to the government.
According to him , “If the Federal government is saying that they want to go and borrow money. it must pass through the National Assembly. On that one, they are on course. So, if what they want to legislate on the borrowing that the Federal Government wants to do or the virement that the Federal Government wants to do, to fight COVID which was not provided prior to this time, it is understandable. But National Assembly cannot say they want to legislate on donations. My party will not align with any situation that is outside the law, particularly the 1999 constitution ( as amended).”
Similarly, the Executive Director, Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA), a Civil Society Organisation(CSO), Mr Suraj Olarenwaju told Daily Sun that the National Assembly has no business legislating over donations made to the government for the fight against COVID-19 in the country.
Olarenwaju stated that it is the business of donors to tell the government what they want their donations to be used for. He noted that at best, the parliament can ask for the relevant government agency to give account of how the donations is utilised.
According to him, “ The only thing the National Assembly can do is ask for accounts and report of the utilisation of the fund, to ensure that the money are not misapplied. And when it suspects that there is misapplication or diversion or corruption, then the appropriate law enforcement agencies will have to be brought in.
“But the NASS cannot be asking of appropriations of donations that are made by citizens towards responding to National emergency.
“I can’t decide to donate a particular amount of money to the Federal Government to fight COVID 19, in terms of providing food for the people, and you will say you want to appropriate over it and say they should go and use it to build hospital. No.”
Regardless, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, told Daily Sun that the demand of the National Assembly is in sync with Section 80(1-4) of the 1999 Constitution ( as amended).
“The speaker is in order because his position is in line with the constitutional provisions above” Kalu stated. The House spokesman added: “It does not have to be a lengthy document, a one line appropriation document is sufficient to enable the executives make use of such monies and be constitutionally protected . What we are trying to do is to shield them from litigation hungry citizens . It will be good for such expenses to be backed by law. It is the right thing to do”.
Nevertheless, the spokesman of the Coalition of United Political Parties ( CUPP), Ikenga Ugochinyere said the major preoccupation of the National Assembly at this time should be oversight of public funds, which they have made appropriations for earlier and not donations by individuals.
“What they are doing is diversionary. The parliament should hold the executive accountable. The priority should not be on donations. We are talking about a situation where almost N100billion is being claimed to have been pumped into palliatives. We can see the anger that is rising in various parts of the country, especially in Lagos and Ogun. What has the parliament done.
“You have made appropriations for the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs in the past, what has the parliament done in terms of oversight.
“Even if you make appropriations for the few billions of Naira that the private sector has donated, what next in terms of accountability? It is not even about making the laws, it is not even about making approvals. It is about actually tracking the fund. Has the parliament been able to exercise its constitutional function over the executive arm of government?” Ugochinyere told Daily Sun.
The HEDA boss agrees. He noted that the insistence of the National Assembly to legislate over the donations shows lack of seriousness and proper understanding of the role of the legislature.
His words: “You can’t ask for appropriations. You can ask for oversight function in the utilisation of the funds. The money that the National Assembly will have appropriation for would be money that is generated by the government. And also loans that are also procured by government. If anybody or organisations decide to give money to any state or Federal Government, it is the contributors that will decide what they want the government to do with the fund.”
Regardless, Ologbondiyan added that the demand of the National Assembly that all the COVID-19 donations should be pulled into a single purse, aligns with the position of the major opposition party.
He explains that essentially, the interest of the PDP is that there should be transparency and accountability in the management of all the donations made towards the fight against COVID-19 in the county.
“The National Assembly has rightly demanded that all the accruing funds should be put together in one purse to make for the accountability. We believe that such funding should be in one purse where it can be over-sighted. There should be transparency. It should be open for the purpose of accountability,” the PDP spokesman stated.