LESS than one month after Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, signed the 2017 Appropriation Bill into law, describing it as a “milestone devoid of acrimony unlike in the past”, it is disheartening that the budget has become enmeshed in controversy that could threaten the effective implementation of some critical capital projects.
The controversy revolves around the accusation by the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, that the National Assembly inserted projects into the budget that are outside the purview of his ministry; slashed allocations voted for some key projects and transferred the amounts thus saved to projects that were not in the original estimates sent to it for approval by the presidency. Fashola argued that the inclusion of such projects after public hearings on the budget and the defence of the fiscal estimates was wrong and outside the powers of the National Assembly.
The key projects which Fashola said had their allocations slashed include the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which had its vote reduced from N31bn to N10bn, and the second Niger Bridge, from N12bn to N7bn. Other projects which had their votes reduced are the Okene-Lokoja-Abuja road, the Mambila Power Plant and the Bodo Bridge that connects the multi-million dollar Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas station. The minister, apparently disappointed with the decision of the National Assembly, said such insertions and cuts were unfair to the country and the people. In the budget sent to NASS for approval, the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing had a vote of N529bn. However, the lawmakers increased their own budget by N10bn.
Expectedly, the National Assembly has hit back at Fashola, accusing him of peddling “inaccuracies, misleading and calculated mischief” about the 2017 budget. In their defence, the lawmakers maintained that the National Assembly has the power to insert and even initiate new projects in the budget. They cited a Federal High Court judgment delivered last year by Justice Gabriel Kolawole, in which the court affirmed the power of the parliament to insert and increase budgetary estimates submitted to it by the President.
Lawyers are divided on the powers of the National Assembly to input its own projects into the budget. While some lawyers have argued that the National Assembly was right to add its own projects to the budget estimates submitted to it by the executive since the legislature is not a mere “rubber stamp” of the executive, many others contend that the legislature lacks the power to insert new items, including constituency projects, into the budget estimates contained in any Appropriation Bill or Supplementary Bill prepared or submitted to it by the President. In view of this seeming confusion, the Supreme Court should be approached to give a definitive interpretation of the relevant provisions of the law on the matter.
The concerns expressed by Fashola should, however, not be ignored. We are, indeed, surprised at the argument of the lawmakers that the vote for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway amounts to unduly favouring the South-West geo-political zone over other zones in the country. That expressway is an arterial one that links the nation’s foremost commercial centre, Lagos, and the ports, to the rest of the country. It is the road through which Nigerians from all parts of the country living in cosmopolitan Lagos link their various zones. It is also the road through which petroleum products and all goods imported into the country through the Apapa ports are evacuated to other parts of the country. It is nothing but a tragedy of some Nigerians’ narrow thinking that anyone would consider that road as belonging to any particular geo-political zone, and try to undermine its completion by cutting the amount budgeted for it. The idea of Public/Private Partnership arrangement for the completion of that road has been tried to no avail for many years now and one would ordinarily expect a National Assembly that cares for the ordinary Nigerians who ply it daily to be ready to do whatever they can to ensure its completion.
The Second Niger Bridge is another project that is so dear to the hearts of Nigerians as it also links the critical South-East/South South zones to the South West and the North-Central zone. The matter of its construction has been politicized over the years and the expectation is that the President Muhammadu Buhari regime will deliver the project before the expiration of its mandate. The Okene-Lokoja-Abuja Road and the Mambila Power Plant are other important projects that need to be speedily executed. Even if the National Assembly has the power to review the budget estimates submitted to it, many Nigerians would have expected its members to take an impassioned view of these critical projects and do everything within their power to ensure their delivery. This is the only way to break the jinx of non-delivery of promised projects in the country. By all standards, these projects are of strategic economic importance to the country and only the highest sense of patriotism by our leaders can ensure their delivery.
The second Niger Bridge, conceived as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project with federal government financing, was awarded to Julius Berger PLC, at the cost of N117bn in 2014. Apart from the initial N10bn paid to the construction company in 2015 for its take off, the bridge that is designed to provide an alternative to the existing ageing Niger Bridge, has been unduly politicised. We urge the National Assembly and the Federal Ministry of Works to put aside their differences and cooperate in the effort to ensure its construction.
They should clear the grey areas of these projects and work towards a supplementary budget to fund their execution.