IF you want to catch sight of Nigeria’s pork barrel politics which has unfortunately become one of the hallmarks of our democracy, the Federal budget often offers a window to look at the adversarial relations between the Executive branch and the Legislative arm of government.
Every year,since 1999,each arm of the government tries valiantly to make the other the fall guy. But in the public reckoning, both stand accused of over-reaching themselves. A clash like this, especially close to a general election is bound to leave a bitter taste. And some of the damage may take time to mend.
It is therefore not a surprise to any keen observer of Nigerian politics and the budget making process,that like in previous years,the 2018 budget has raised some dust which is bound to muddy the effective implementation of the budget. President Buhari had already fired the first shot last Wednesday, June 20, when he signed the Appropriation Act into law which was passed by the National Assembly on May 16,2018. In his speech at the signing ceremony where the President of the Senate,Dr.Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives,Yakubu Dogara were conspicuous by their absence(they were away in Russian),President Buhari expressed his anger at the document he was about to sign. It was not for nothing. He accused the National Assembly of serious alterations in the original budget proposal he submitted to it in November, 2017.
These are his beef with the federal lawmakers. He said that he had hoped when he presented the budget proposal that the usual legislative review process would be quick, so as to move Nigeria toward a predictable, desirable January-December financial year cycle. The importance of this predictability, he explained, would have had a significant accelerator effect on the financial plans of not only the public sector, but also the private sector that operates on a January-December calendar. Consequently, he said the delay by the legislature, plus the alterations, will adversely affect government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan(ERGP).
That wasn’t all that made Buhari sad that blustering Wednesday afternoon. He listed some of the projects which he claimed the lawmakers made alterations by moving funds to areas he didn’t fancy. According to the President, capital projects where the NASS made significant cuts include the Mambilla Power Plant, the 2nd Niger bridge, the East West road, Bonny-Bodo road, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Itakpe-Ajaokuta road, among other projects. Altogether, he claimed that the reductions from these projects totaled N11.5bn. By the president’s arithmetic, the reductions made by the lawmakers in all the 4,700 projects he presented in the budget was N347bn. And here is one of the issues that riled him. He alleged that the legislators introduced an astonishing 6,403 projects of their own, totaling N578bn. Many of these projects, he argues, may be difficult, if not impossible to implement within the reduced allocations, stressing that the new projects “inserted” by the NASS “have not been properly conceptualized, designed and costed”, and therefore, will be difficult to execute,having been added to the budget of most Ministries, Departments and Agencies(MDAs).
This, he said, was with no consideration for institutional capacity to execute them or the incremental recurrent expenditure that may be required. From the President’s observations, you can read his lips: Don’t, blame me if the 2018 is stuck at the implementation stage,rather blame the lawmakers. In other words,the president has tarred the NASS with the brush of “public enemy number One” of Nigerians.
But the National Assembly is not a stranger to mud throwing. The lawmakers had walked on this road several times before. The members have little choice but to take up the fight. They know their public image stinks,and failure to defend their action may worsen an already terrible public perception. So,in a joint press conference addressed by spokesmen of the two chambers, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, and Hon.Abdulrazak Namdas, the legislature debunked all the claims made by Mr.President, describing them as inaccurate and misleading.
Admitting that it indeed altered the allocations proposed for the execution of some projects, the NASS insists some of the adjustments and reductions were made in order to address geopolitical imbalances, while the introduction of new projects was done to ensure the promotion of federal character as contained in Section 14 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria( as amended). For emphasis, this Section states that “the composition of the government of the federation or any of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria.
It also corrected the President’s claim that the total cuts made from the projects the president listed,stating that the amount was less than N3bn,not N11.5bn. The N3bn,represents 1.78 percent of the total N222.56bn, being cost of the projects, including the Mambilla power plant, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, East-west road,etc. Surprisingly, the National Assembly revealed that contrary to the President’s claims, “there is no existing contract on the 2nd Niger bridge in spite of frequent requests from it over the years. This will likely shock the people from the South East. The same applies to the Enugu airport contract. Here,the figures from the legislature showed that , an increase of N200m was made to the outstanding N300m owed contractors handling the Enugu airport upgrade .
The defence of the NASS wouldn’t have been complete without responding to the increments in its own budget,which in 19 years has witnessed a quantum leap. On that, its defence is that it is the drastic rise in inflation in recent years that necessitated it. Over all,the lawmakers deny they have over-reached their power, and insist that,on the contrary, everything the legislature has done is still within the context of sections 4,80 and 81 of the Constitution. No less.
Between the Presidency and the National Assembly, who do you believe its own account of the budget cobtroversy. Sadly, I am not on neither side. Reason: None of them has shown sincerity, responsibility, firm commitment in its affairs. Both has squandered public trust,and when it suites them, they resort to the blame game and make the other the whipping boy. The year 2018 is almost half gone. The budget is supposed to be up and running by now. When will the implementation start? Simply put, neither the presidency nor the National Assembly has been forthright with Nigerians.
Look at it this way: if either of them has come clean, why is Organic Law which is aimed to improve our budget process still pending in the National Assembly? Why is the NASS stonewalling about the amendment of section 81 of the Constitution which would give the President the power to propose “estimates” at anytime in the financial year? You see,it’s all hardball politics. After all,by the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act,2007,the budget estimates should be with the legislature around September of the year.
But,why did the president submit the 2018 budget two months late? Also, why five months after the budget proposal was submitted, the presidency was directing the Secretary to the Government of the Federation(SGF) to compel the heads of MDAs to appear before the relevant committees of the NASS to defend their budgets? What we have witnessed this past week regarding the 2018 budget is the stuff from Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”, of suspicion, exaggeration and conspiratorial fantasy that doesn’t let anyone involved off the hook.
Scapegoating is not the solution. We need good faith from both sides, not the present byzantine, widely debunked approach being used by the two arms to achieve their political goals whenever it suits them.But this blame game is undermining the credibility of the federal budget. All the same, there’s some hope in the horizon if the president is honest in his expressed desire to work with the lawmakers, and if the lawmakers will set aside their alleged greed and self-centredness that have alienated many of them from their constituents.