JOHN AMEH examines the delay in the passage of the 2018 national appropriation bill and how the marching order from President Muhammadu Buhari to the heads of federal ministries, departments and agencies is accelerating the process
The outcome of a late-night meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and the leadership of the National Assembly on some pressing national issues, particularly the 2018 budget, has thrown certain facts bare – our budget is in some kind of trouble; and the Executive arm of government, specifically ministers and heads of agencies, are to blame substantially for the delay in the passage of the money bill.
Arguably, there is no further proof of this than the President’s threat, issued barely 24 hours after the meeting, to sack about 50 heads of ministries, departments and agencies, reported to be delaying the budget, owing to their refusal to appear before committees of the National Assembly to defend their proposals. The leadership of the legislature reportedly took a report to the President, mentioning names and stating that only 10 of the MDAs had so far made successful appearances before the committees.
To underscore the importance of the meeting, the officials of the National Assembly, who met with Buhari, included the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki; Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara; his deputy, Mr. Lasun Yussuf; Senate Leader, Mr. Ahmad Lawan; House Leader, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila; Senate Chief Whip, Sola Adeyeye; House Chief Whip, Mr. Al-Hassan Dogowa, and Deputy House Whip, Mr. Pally Iriase; and others.
It is not that delaying the country’s budget is new. In fact, since 1999, Nigerians have become used to having a late budget than they can count the number of money bills which sail through in good time. The country’s budget, designed to run from January to December, has over the years, managed in the best of times, to leave the National Assembly in the first quarter and gets presidential assent either towards the tail end of the quarter or the second of the financial year it is supposed to fund!
Why are there concerns over the delay with the 2018 budget then? Simple: In the extant case, the government, particularly, the Executive arm, riding on the ‘change’ mantra, had promised in 2017 that the 2018 budget would be different. There were series of legislature-executive meetings and collaborations on this budget, aimed at meeting the target to deliver it in time and returning the budget cycle to January-December. For example, the President sent the 2018-2020 Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper to the National Assembly in October, 2017, a commendable time compared to some earlier years when the MTEF would come as late as November or December.
Although, October may still seem to be late considering the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007, which require that the MTEF should get to the legislature by September ending, the time of the arrival in October can be said to be praiseworthy.
The Act provides in Section 11(1)(b) that “not later than four months before commencement of the next financial year, cause to be prepared a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework for the next three financial years.”
Observers say by presenting the MTEF, a document upon which the budget itself would be based, in October, Buhari had started well on the path of keeping the promise. It was followed soon on November 7 when he presented the estimates of the N8.612trillion budget to the National Assembly in Abuja.
There was an appreciable gap for lawmakers to start work early, considering the fact that budget estimates for 2017 were presented late in December, 2016. The passage was delayed till May 2017 when it was passed by the National Assembly and eventually got the signature of then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo on June 2, 2017! Again, compared to that of 2016, which was passed in March 2016, there was the urgency to make a remarkable change for 2018.
However, what appeared to be gains so far recorded with the early preparations of the 2018 budget were soon lost to the sudden retracing of steps to the familiar legislature-executive buck-passing. The budget suddenly gathered dust at the parliament rather than getting it out to address the needs of Nigerians.
Insiders say owing to a series of factors, including the muscle-flexing between the Senate in particular and the Presidency over some political appointments and the prosecution of Saraki over alleged false declaration of assets, it was not until January 2018 that the National Assembly started any serious work on the budget. Yet, more noticeable was the conspicuous absence of ministers and heads of agencies at many defence meetings, leaving the budget more in a state of inaction.
In addition to this is the view of analysts that in a pre-election year, the budget actually means a lot to politicians on both sides of the divide than the ordinary eyes can see. There are squabbles over allocation of funds to projects dear to the hearts of ministers versus the zonal intervention projects of senators and Reps. Some ministers have other ambitions, to either contest to take over the seats of some serving senators in 2019 or vie for governorship positions. Obviously, it is not in the interest of such ministers to provide sufficient funding for the projects of their ‘opponents’, neither is it in the interest of the legislators to hurriedly pass proposals that will certainly empower those aiming to take over their seats, financially.
Days back, Osinbajo and the Director-General of the Budget Office of the Federation, Mr. Ben Akabueze, accused the National Assembly of delaying the budget because the executive submitted the document in record time. But does the mere submission of the budget documents answer all questions without the heads of the MDAs appearing before relevant committees of the National Assembly to defend the details?
The Vice-Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Sonny Ogbuoji, has this to say, “Since January, the Appropriations Committee’s doors have been opened to receiving reports from the sub-committees but most of the sub-committees have a huge challenge with the MDAs because majority of the MDAs are not coming forward to interface with them. Some of the ministers will tell you that they are going outside the country and because of that, the MDAs are not fully ready. So, we don’t have the reports yet.
“We believe that it is when the MDAs come forward that our colleagues will be able to finish with their work. Some of the committees are unable to do their work. When they (committees) screen what they (MDAs) have brought, they will ask them to go back and work on the budgets and come back.
“But they don’t come back, and that is delaying the work on majority of the MDAs’ proposals. That is why up till today, we don’t have completed report. We believe that it is when the MDAs come forward that our colleagues will be able to finish with their work.”
Speaking in the same vein, the Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Abdulrazak Namdas, admitted that there was indeed the understanding between both sides to fast-track the budget passage, with the expectation that ministers would respond timely to committee invitations for budget defence.
He explained that whatever was agreed with the President did not suggest that ministers or heads of MDAs should not defend their proposals.
Namdas added, “There was a budget in 2017 for example. Are the ministers telling Nigerians that the National Assembly should just pass the 2018 budget without first assessing the implementation of the 2017 budget? Is that possible? If we do that, then, why are we here as legislature?
“A new budget is passed by reviewing the performance of the last one to guide you on where more funds should go to and so on. That is what the ministers are asked to come and defend, but they prefer to keep making excuses and shunning defence meetings.”
The Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, Dr. Clement Nwankwo, described the current budget delay drama as a “huge disappointment to the country.”
Nwankwo stated, “By the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the budget ought to have been passed in December. That means that it is already late. There is a budgeting process, which requires that the executive will prepare the proposals and the legislature will scrutinise them and pass.
“It is disappointing for the country that we are going into April and the budget for 2018 has not been passed. For a government that says it wants to carry out development for the country, this is a huge disappointment that almost four months into the year, it hasn’t been able to push through its budget.
“My advice is that the legislature must insist on being detailed and the ministers must simply go and defend their proposals as quickly as possible. It is for the good of all of us.”
A lawyer, Mr. John Kalipa, also shared these views, saying it would be inappropriate to expect the legislature to pass a budget that its figures had not been properly defended.
He said, “The real sense of preparing the budget is not merely to dump the budget on the National Assembly. Each of the MDAs has to go to the parliament to defend their proposals.”
The news, however, is that the National Assembly has announced April 24 as the day it will pass the budget. Whether this is an indication that the two sides have agreed to close the relationship gap between them ahead of the date remains to be seen in another one month.
Much as this cannot be said to be an encouraging news, four months into the year, at least a date has been announced on when to have the budget for presidential assent.
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