For most individuals who watch the news, they just might have taken notice of how different groups stage protests at the National Assembly. It would have been, what I consider a commendable break from the norm, if members of the House of Representatives elected on the platform of the opposition, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had carried out their planned protest to display their displeasure on the implementation levels of the 2016 and 2017 budget. Members of the PDP caucus had planned to carry placards with inscriptions such as ‘our mumu don do’, ‘change the change’, ‘no 2018 budget without full implementation of 2017 budget’, to show exactly how they felt when President Muhammadu Buhari presented the 2018 budget to a joint session of the National Assembly. What is a democracy without dissent expressed within the boundaries of the law? It would have been moment to cherish to see lawmakers draw attention to the routinely unsatisfactory implementation level of the national budget. But after an executive session in the green chamber, PDP members jettisoned the plan to speak truth to power. Not taking anything from Speaker Yakubu Dogara, who deftly wet the ground for the President and saved him the blushes, lawmakers from the main opposition probably didn’t realise, that their protest would have made an impression among millions of Nigerian who live with the overwhelming difficulties, that arise from their using dilapidated infrastructure and having to make do with the low quality of public services, owing to corruption -fuelled years of poor budget implementation. The president went ahead to present the 2018 budget, which he tagged the budget of consolidation. Of the N8.612 trillion proposed for 2018, 30.8 percent (or 2.652 trillion Naira) of aggregate expenditure (inclusive of capital in Statutory Transfers) was allocated to the capital budget.
Buhari told the National Assembly of plans to finance the deficit partly by new borrowings estimated at N1.699 trillion while 50 per cent of the borrowing would be sourced externally, adding that the balance would be sourced locally. A look at the 2018 budget shows that it is based on a crude oil benchmark price of US $45 per barrel, with an output of oil production estimate of 2.3 million barrels per day, including condensates, as against that of 2017 which was of $42.50 per barrel, and output was put at 2.2 million barrels per day. The President said the Exchange rate of N305/US$ was set for 2018.
Economists, development experts and the media have already started dissecting the budget, scrutinising its key parameters and planned expenditure. I will still do same, as work on the 2018 Appropriation Bill gathers momentum. But today, I will be dwelling on the importance of the House charting a new course by showing much more efficiency that would lead to a timely passage of the budget. Members must bear in mind the fact that they can no longer give the excuse that they are newcomers to the budget consideration process as this is the third time they would be working on the national budget. Nigerians will only applaud a timely passage of the budget. Though Speaker Dogara bluntly alluded to the executive not consulting with the National Assembly before it came up with the document presented by the president, warning that it may slow down budget consideration, on this count, Nigerians will likely not be understanding. Dogara in his vote of thanks during the budget presentation ceremony gave a warning, saying, “Let me place it on record that the 2018 Budget preparations suffer from inadequate consultations between the MDAS and various over- sighting committees of the National Assembly. Consequently, one can only hope and pray that it does not lead to delay in consideration and passage of the budget”. The Speaker may have a point, but the mood across the country points to Nigerians wanting the legislature and the executive to simply get along and trudge on with carrying out vital tasks, like having the budget passed on time. Observers expect the leadership of the House to galvanise heads of the relevant committees and chairpersons of standing committee to work. Nigerians won’t be asking for too much by saying big steps be taken before members go on Christmas break.
Dogara on the day also warned of the dangers of the executive not going as far as possible with the implementation of the 2017 budget. He said: “Mr. President as legislators, what agitates us is the prospects of totally abandoning the 2017 Budget and the dire consequences of doing so. The questions that must be answered include whether we have effectively enforced 2017 fiscal targets and whether managers have complied with the budget as authorised by the legislature. Our experience with the implementation of the 2016 Budget amply demonstrates that obeying our Appropriation laws maximises the release of our potentials, while violating the Appropriation laws caps the release of our national potentials. This means that we have to redouble our efforts in implementing the 2017 Budget, if we must retire it in January or at the very least roll over most of the projects in 2017 budget to 2018. No need to remind us that fiscal indiscipline is as grievous a problem as corruption which this government is busy eliminating”. Even as Dogara raises this fundamental issue, on behalf of his colleagues, then comes the question of how members rate themselves with regard to their oversight function? Each time, journalists ask why the green chamber is perpetually scanty; the first excuse is that many members are out of the National Assembly on oversight visits. The observation made by the Speaker also brings to the fore, the need for lawmakers to avoid unnecessary tinkering with the budget as the cry from the executive is that the Appropriation bill sent to lawmakers is sent back, looking very much different, thereby making implementation difficult. May the National Assembly never be a rubber stamp for the executive’s leisurely application, but lawmakers also have to make inputs with easy implementation being at the back of their minds.
If journalists complained about being shut out by committees for the 2016 budget, the situation got worse with 2017 budget as the Chairman, House Committee on Appropriation, Mustapha Dawaki, didn’t speak with the press all through the budget presentation sessionon. The first step to transparency and accountability for the national budget has to do with full media participation.
If the Speaker acted as a party man by commending the president on the country coming out the recession, it was encouraging that the Speaker also told him, that there was still a whole lot of work to do to prevent a slip back into recession and that many of the country’s citizens are still feeding from hand to mouth.
“Although recession has technically ended, most Nigerian families are still struggling. As a government, we must do all within our powers to hasten their long night of panic and fear into a glorious morning. We must never allow this nation to slide into recession, not now, not ever again”, Dogara said. Just like the Speaker didn’t mince words when he spoke on the little respite latest economic indices has brought everyday people, he also needs to rein-in members, many of whom now spend more time in their constituencies, jostling for 2019 election, in order for the House to walk the talk by showing much more commitment to passing 2018 budget in record time.