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Budget 2018: In defence of National Assembly

The signing of the much delayed 2018 budget by President Muhammadu Buhari last Wednesday obviously ushered in wide spread relief among Nigerians. To many it signaled a break in the stagnation which the economy has been subjected to for the whole of the first six months of the year 2018. The President had rightly observed in his speech at the occasion that the budget of the Federal government remains less than 10% of the aggregate yearly expenditures in the economy, but occupies a commanding position with respect to defining the tone and course of economic activities in the country. This observation underscores the overriding import of the federal government and thereby accentuates the scope of damage associated with the delayed full advent of any budget, including the 2018 package. 

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 However not a few observers are also worried that whatever relief that is associated with the signing of the 2018 budget remains, conditional courtesy of the reservations of the President over the implementation of the package. At the signing ceremony, Buhari had expressed his reservation over the legislative ‘rites’ of passage imposed on the budget, which rendered it a ‘distorted’ version of the initial proposals  he had  earlier presented to the joint session of the National Assembly on November 7, 2017. His specific displeasure was on cut backs by the legislature on his priority areas totaling N347 billion and inclusion of N578 billion  worth of additional projects that are apparently ‘strange’ to him but of ‘political value’ to the legislators and their constituents. Incidentally some of the cut back areas are politically sensitive projects like the East West Road traversing the volatile Niger Delta region, the Bonny- Bodo Road to link the country’s economically strategic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminal, Second Niger Bridge at Onitsha and Itakpe Ajaokuta Rail Project.

In response to Buhari’s queries the National Assembly through the spokesman of the House of Representatives Abdulrazak Saad Namdas has justified its adjustments to the 2018 budget. Notable in Namdas’ submission is his recourse to the constitutional cover that is provided the National Assembly in Sections 81, 85, 88 and 89 to exercise powers of due diligence over the executive, and specifically the entire gamut of the life and operation of the budget. This scenario therefore puts in perspective the reservations of the President and some other observers who have hastily, and in poor judgment, referred to the 2018 budget as one that was ‘padded’ by the legislature. It is significant that the only plank for the ‘padding’ accusation against the National Assembly is that ‘Buhari said so’.

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 It is easily recalled that this column had in its article of ‘Sunday Trust’ of January 14  2018, titled “Power Shy Legislature Cripples Nigeria’s Democracy”,  queried the Nigerian legislature and by extension the National Assembly, over its power shyness and the implications of such a dispensation on the country’s democracy. The circumstances of 2018 budget are accentuating the utility of that query. It is a trite statutory position that the relationship between the various arms of government remains constitutionally complementary, with only the legislature empowered to make laws that drive the other arms. Yet that is not to say that the legislature is authorised to wield its powers beyond the boundaries provided it by law.

 With reference to the 2018 budget, the President queried the National Assembly for delaying its passage and alteration without any mention of the complement of attenuating circumstances which are the direct consequences of the sins of his constituency -the executive arm which initiates the budget’s  foundation estimates. Easily forgotten are key failure factors as the late submission of the budget estimates on November 7 2017 instead of the first week of September, the reluctance of MDA chiefs to respond to budget screening invitations by the National Assembly, and the failure of the executive to comply with some provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

 It is understandable that the President spoke out of his confidence in the executive arm to provide workable budgets that would not require any second look by the legislature, hence his query over the latter’s intervention. Yet this is an executive arm that comprises hundreds of thousands of essentially appointed personnel comprising career civil servants, political appointees and other sundry actors – all with a wide gamut of antecedents, political persuasions and  credibility ratings. 

Several questions arise from the foregoing conversation. Firstly it needs to be ascertained who is more credible to reflect and capture the aspirations and expectations of the citizenry between the appointees of the executive arm and the elected legislators? Secondly is whether the President is fair to the National Assembly members as elected representatives of Nigerians, to be denied any say in the budget that will define the welfare status of their constituents? What would they tell their constituents who elected them, over why the former may be bypassed in the scheme of development dividends? In any case, the foregoing two questions are not confined to the Nigerian political space, but remain the premise on which thrives the thrust of confrontation between the various arms of government, in country after country.

 Fortunately for the Presidency the circumstances of 2018 budget offer at least two windows of remediation of the government’s budget management regime. In the first place is the President’s intention to explore the option of presenting a supplementary budget to address the areas of his concern in the assented package. Not only should this be speedily done but such should not encumber the expected accelerated pace of implementation of the new budget. The entire country from Sokoto to Port Harcourt and Lagos to Maiduguri has been starved and stagnated to a breaking point. The various homilies by several observers urging the government to rise to the challenges associated with its poor handling of the economy are instructive. More so is the specific warning by the Daily Trust Board of Economists that without immediate, massive capital expenditure, the country may slip back into recession. Clearly the government may need to avoid going into an election year with economic recession hanging like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ over its head. 

 In the same vein it needs not be pushed to commence spirited preparations for the 2019 edition which due to the forthcoming general polls next year, cannot be delayed under any circumstances. In the spirit of returning the country’s budget cycle to the January – December template, the estimates in respect of the 2019 budget are expected to arrive the National Assembly precincts latest by first week of September which is barely two months from now. Welcome as this expectation is, the impact which its implementation will have on the executive bureaucracy is like that of suddenly fast-tracking a rusty, old-aged railway engine and its wagons. 

That is why the National Assembly should prepare to act with more assertiveness and decisiveness with respect to the forthcoming 2019 budget, in the context of the envisaged Organic Budget Law. All that it needs is the political will to say “we can”. and act accordingly.

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