From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
With President Muhammadu Buhari presenting the 2018 Appropriation Bill, all eyes are on the National Assembly to return the bill to the president in time. Observers have expressed the wish that the National Assembly back the president in ensuring that the country returns to the January to December fiscal year. This is as many are demanding a budget consideration season, free of scandals and allegations of “padding”.
In this interview, Chairman House of Representatives Committee on Media, Abdulrazak Namdas answers questions on issues around the 2018 Budget.
The House has commenced work on the 2018 budget, what measures have you put in place to prevent budget padding and other scandalous happenings like allegations of the budget disappearing?
We have passed the stage of budget controversy, allegations of padding and stories of the budget getting missing. Some of these were symptoms of the 2016 budget season. We didn’t have such problems with the 2017 budget. You should know that the leadership of the House has put checks in place, like the rule that, no Standing Committee chairman can submit his report to the Appropriation Committee without the signatures of two-third of the members of the committee. This is part of the checks and balances to ensure that it’s not case of person just sitting down and making decisions on behalf of a committee. Beyond this, my hope is people also begin to pressurise the executive to implement the budget. It’s actually implementation of the budget that affects us more as a people.
Nobody wants the National Assembly to be a rubber stamp, but we’ve heard the executive saying lawmakers have so tinkered with the budget that it makes implementation much more difficult. How can the National Assembly get around this?
Anybody who thinks the budget presented to the National Assembly will get back to the executive the way it’s brought should remove that thought from their heads. The work done by the National Assembly is really not about over re-touching the budget; it is about ensuring federal character. It’s about us spreading projects across the country for all Nigerians to have a sense of belonging. If I head a committee to which MDAs have submitted their budgets, I should be patriotic enough to look at the documents with the view to making budget impactful to people in different parts of the country. We just have to tinker with the 2018 because the way we interact with Nigerians is different from the way executive does.
Still talking the low percentage of budget implementation, how true is it that PDP lawmakers were talked out of protesting on the day President Buhari presented the budget and what is your assessment of how 2016/17 budget were implemented?
All I know is that there wasn’t going to be a protest like you have presented it. What we have are lawmakers, who feel that the 2017 budget should be well implemented. But the leadership of the House quickly reminded members that the constitution empowers the president to present the budget to a joint session of the National Assembly.
There is no fixed date for this, so we have no reasons not to allow the president present the Appropriation Bill to us. It’s now left us to decide when to start work on the bill and of course you are aware of the time table on budget and the consideration of MTEF/FSP.
Hopefully, there will be a meeting of chairpersons of committees on the Appropriation Bill and we will still conduct a public hearing as was done last year. All of these are part of the moves to ensure transparency.
Some say members actually wanted to take out their frustrations on the level of implementation of constituency projects on the president. How true is this?
To be fair to lawmakers, we were more interested in overall budget performance, than talking about zonal intervention projects even when this is something we hold dear. But that wasn’t the basis of our anger; we really wanted to know the level of implementation of the 2017 budget, because the 2016 budget was better implemented. And we are worried because the budget is a law and the law must be upheld.
Why did lawmakers have to wait until the president visited to demand for improved budget implementation, especially when you insist that embarking on oversight visits was responsible for why plenary is sometimes scanty?
What I have said is that, I am not aware of plans to protest during the budget presentation. I also have said my colleagues aren’t satisfied with the implementation level of the 2017 budget and we educated them that we cannot stop the president from performing his constitutional duty. On the issue of scanty attendance during plenary, I have continually explained that members go out on oversight visits, some of them who are members of as many as six committees, attend meetings and public hearing conducted by these committees. There are also public hearings by adhoc committees. Sometimes, members travel for workshops.
The president like some experts is pushing for a return to the January to December fiscal year. So should there be hope that the National Assembly will send the 2018 Appropriation Bill back to the executive by January?
When the president presented his speech on the budget presentation day, he expressed the wish that the budget is approved by January 1st.
We are saying that we will work faster, since the 2018 Appropriation Bill was brought a little bit earlier. But I cannot be specific about a date, since we are few weeks to the end of December. So, if I sit here in the comfort of my office to assure Nigerians that the budget will be passed by 1st of January, you and even them, will know it’s not feasible. For the budget process, you should be looking at a minimum of three months. First, we deliberate on the basic principles of the budget, it will be committed to committees to work on it, meet with MDAs and they now send their report to the Appropriation Committee. All of these processes take time. I think people should be more concerned about the National Assembly and the executive coming up with an implementable budget, rather than focusing on a January date.
We will get to the January to December fiscal year by continually making adjustments to the process. There is hope beyond the 2018 budget, because if we return the document on time , then the executive can implement it and this makes it more likely for them to present the 2019 budget before November and then, we work on it. This is when we can start talking about getting back to the January -December calendar.
We have talked much about making the National Assembly more efficient, in order for the budget to be passed timely. The National Assembly Budget and Research Office (NABRO) is supposed to play an integral role in making the legislature better positioned to act on the budget and in record time. Why is the enabling bill on NABRO taking this long to come to fruition?
That the bill hasn’t been signed into law doesn’t mean that NABRO isn’t working. If you look at this compendium, entitled: “Mapping of Capital Projects in 2016 FGN Budget”, it was published by NABRO; this is a compilation of projects in the 2016 budget, zone by zone. It’s now left for you to pick the zone where you want to cross-check anything. So you can’t say The National Assembly Budget and Research Office isn’t working.
Speaker Dogara warned that the 2018 Budget preparations suffered from inadequate consultations between the MDAS and various over- sighting Committees of the National Assembly. He said it could lead to a delay in the consideration and passage of the budget. Nigerians are worried about this, saying both arms just have to find means to work together to deliver the budget on time. What do you think?
It is expected that for a budget to be presented to the National Assembly, there should be some kind of synergy between the executive and the legislature. Yes, we had the MTEF before the 2018 budget was presented, but the document doesn’t show you the big picture. So, the Standing Committees ought to be interacting with the MDAs they supervise to reach a consensus on the budget. Another advantage on arriving at a consensus on key projects is that we spend less time on the entire process. The problem has been that the executive treat the budget as its property. As lawmakers, we have to go to the ministry to lobby for critical interventions in our constituencies. We wouldn’t have to resort to this if we have over the years learnt how to interact on the budget. Besides, what the Speaker said was true and he said in front of Mr. President, he wasn’t talking about the president behind his back. Speaker said it for the president to instruct those in charge to improve on this aspect.
Is there a gag order on the Chairman of the Appropriation Committee, Mustapha Dawaki? I ask because he doesn’t pick calls from journalists, neither does he interact with House correspondents during theconsideration process?
There is no gag order. It is more about each individual having his/her own style. Dawaki has his own style of doing things. But rest assured that the House is keen on transparency, when it comes to the budget consideration process.
How can the lawmakers address the problem of duplication of projects?
We will scrutinise the 2018 budget, the first step being the public hearing during which it wouldn’t be out of place for you even as a journalist to come and say, these or that are the duplications I have noticed in the budget.
How can the House contribute to reducing the cost of governance using the budget as a tool?
Yes, we are interested in reducing the cost of governance. We know what effect this can have overall. But to be fair to the current administration, the culture is changing. Under the current administration, the cost of governance is going down. These days, you don’t see government officials flying business class.
Also how is the House going to monitor the use of loans it approved for the presidency?
We can’t stop borrowing yet. What we can do is to closely monitor the projects for which the borrowing was made and I once said that the main reason why the National Assembly has approved loans for executive is the character of head of the current administration. This president fights corruption. Besides, we insisted that the executive attach the list of projects the loans will be used to execute.