From Fred Itua, Abuja
Budgeting process is an annual ritual in Nigeria. Every year, the President presents a budget before a joint session of the National Assembly. And the lawmakers in turn, invite Heads of departments, parastatals, agencies and ministers to defence.
As the lawmakers gear up to commence the budget defence exercise, for this year, there are fears in certain quarters that the usual razzmatazz and unending accusations between the Senate and the Executive, may still come up. Already, there is an air of suspicious among ministers and heads of agencies that the Senate is out to frustrate them. But on the part of the Senate, they think differently.
The first pointer to what is to be expected came up in the last week of January, when Senators took their turns, during a debate on the general principles of the budget. From the poorest to the finest speakers, the message was the same. Lawmakers want a paradigm shift from the regular unrealistic projections made in annual budgets, to one which is realistic and practicable.
Senator Albert Bassey Akpan fired the first salvo, when he said: “the deficit in the budget is the same amount with the money budgeted for capital projects. There will be a challenge in getting the money to fund most of the capital projects in the 2017 budget.
“The administration of our foreign exchange policy will affect the 2017 budget. There should be a correlation between the fiscal and monetary policies. We should also look at the issue of fuel importation in the country. The landing cost is about N165. That means that NNPC is operating at a loss.”
Senator Dino Melaye, chairman of the Senate committee on FCT, described Buhari’s government as visionless. He compared President Buhari’s government with previous governments and declared that it was yet to set a clear agenda.
Melaye had noted: “the borrowings they intend to make will be spent on recurrent expenditures. No government anywhere in the world borrows to spend on payment of salaries. But this government intends to do that. Where there is no vision, the people perish. If we do not plan, we will fail.
“It is time for this government to develop an agenda. The government of Shehu Shagari built estates in all the states of the federation. Sani Abacha developed the Vision 2010. Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan all had their agenda. What is the agenda of this current government? We need to define one.”
Senator John Enoh who heads the Senate committee on Finance, urged President Buhari to sustain the ongoing peace efforts in the Niger Delta region if enough funds must be generated from oil to fund the budget.
“In the MTEF passed by the Senate, we projected 2.2 million barrel per day. For us to achieve this, the Federal Government needs to sustain the peace initiatives they have stated in the Niger Delta region. As of today, the indebtedness of the Federal Government to contractors is over N2 trillion. For a country in recession, freeing these monies to contractors will help the system,” he added.
Deputy Minority Whip of the Senate who hails from Ekiti State, Biodun Olujimi, said the budget failed to address how the country would be taken out of its current economic recession.
She had observed: “This government does not show that it wants to put money in the hands of Nigerians. There has to be women and youth development in order to get the country out of recession. But this government that rode on the wings of change has not shown anything to prove that they are changing anything.
“The N5, 000 they are giving does not get to the poor. The money is meant for a select few. One person sometimes even collects for 20 people. That is what Nigerians need. They need real change.”
Senator Solomon Adeola from Lagos state on his part queried the non-disclosure of excess money realized from the sale of crude oil. He said since the 2016 budget was predicted on an oil benchmark of $38, the Federal Government ought to tell Nigerians how much it has realized from the excess money.
The lawmaker had said: “we started with a budget of change and now we have a budget of recovery. I do not know how we went from change to this level. Our oil benchmark for 2016 was $38 per barrel. We need to ask the Federal Government about the savings they have made from the excesses? I have gone through the budget and the savings made from the excesses were not reflected.”
President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, in his remarks at the end of the debate, also noted that some projections made in the budget were unrealistic. He also urged the relevant committees to redistribute projects across the six geopolitical zones of the federation.
Hear him: “I commit this Appropriation Bill to the Appropriations Committee and the sub-committees; we should objectively review the planned expenditures and review the revenues in line with the main objectives of the budget we have discussed.
“This budget needs to pull us out of economic recession, by investing in our people, laying foundation for a diversified sustainable inclusive growth and pushing our agenda for made in Nigeria products.
“The committees should please be very vigilant on areas to block leakages. The other area is the issue of independent revenue. We need to ensure that more money comes into the government coffers.
“While we are doing this exercise, we must take note of the issue of equitable distribution of projects. I will like all our respective committees to take care of that. I hope that we would ensure that we do our best in ensuring that this exercise is better than the one of last year. I hereby refer the bill to the committee on Appropriations to report back in three weeks,” Saraki, had said.
One other issue, which may likely come up in the course of the ongoing budget defence exercise, is the issue of padding. It was a dominant factor during the consideration of the 2016 budget.
Daily Sun recalls that in 2016, the leadership of the House of Representatives was accused by the then chairman of Appropriations committee, Hon. Abdulmumunin Jibrin, of padding the budget.
The controversy eventually led to a delay in the passage of the 2016 budget. President Muhammadu Buhari, who first raised the alarm, rejected the first draft copy of the approved budget and sent it back to the National Assembly. The budget was eventually passed in late March of 2016.
To avoid a repeat of the 2016 scandal, Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Na’Allah, has since issued a stern warning to heads of MDAs last Tuesday when officials from the Nigerian Aviation College of Technology, Zaria came for their budget defence.
He warned: “We will not add anything that was not added in the original budget. If you want to increase the budgetary allocation, you have to send a supplementary budget. If we do that, you will accuse us of budget padding. We will not allow it.
“We want to ensure that public money is spent judiciously. We want to be sure that whatever we are approving for anything is what will buy the same thing. We have looked at your budget. We will do everything possible to give you what you want. We will also take out some money which we think you do not need.”
Besides the padding issue, the Senate is also expected to contend with the challenge to make National Assembly’s budget public. Despite the fact that the National Assembly has the constitutional power of oversight, Nigerians are beginning to question the secrecy associated with its the budget. Like MDAs, Nigerians are urging the National Assembly to open their books and make their budget public.
Saraki, who doubles as the chairman of the National Assembly, had in 2015, shortly after he was elected President of the Senate, promised to make details of the National Assembly’s budget public. In several other fora, he re-echoed the same promise.
But up till the end of last year, Senator Saraki did not fulfill his promise. Not even the pressure from the civil society organizations and other interest groups who have often argued that the National Assembly budget was shrouded in secrecy could make Saraki redeemed his pledge.
However, 2016 Appropriation Bill is expected to run till March, 2017. But, already, immediate-past Senate Leader, Senator Ali Ndume, had raised the issue again last week on the floor of the Senate. He called on Saraki to fulfill his earlier promise by making details of the National Assembly budget public.
“We are here to pass the budget without seeing the details. This is a government of change and this must change. The details of the budget report should be considered holistically. Last year, we had several issues with the budget. In fact to some extent, it was very embarrassing.
“Some of us do not know what was in the budget because the details of the budget have never been provided and this should be done this year. The budget of the Senate is not known to Senators. It should be known this year and this is very important because we cannot be taking blames or take credit for what we do not know,” he insisted.