BUDGET IMPASSE: It is not good for the President to withhold assent to bills – Senator Adokwe
Senator Suleiman Adokwe, playwright, artistic director, administrator, politician, was born in February, 1954 at Agwatashi in Obi Local Government Area of Nasarawa State.
Adokwe, elected on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and represents Nasarawa Senatorial District, is the Chairman, Committee on Senate Services. He was first elected into the Senate in April 2007 and sworn-in in June 2007.
In this interview with Henry Umoru, , the lawmaker bares his mind on the 2013 budget, among other issues.
Budget defence in the National Assembly has become a ritual. When the MDAs appear before committees to defend their budgets, it appears even the committees don’t know what the MDAs do. Is that not an indictment on the part of the National Assembly’s power of oversight?
By asking the MDAs to defend the budget before you, there is a presumption that you also know what they will be talking about. All the standing committees are expected to go on oversight even before the MDAs come for budget defence. If there is any show of lack of knowledge, I would think the committees are lazy on their own part because I know that when I served in the Navy Committee, there was no naval formation we did not visit in this country such that by the time the Chief of the Naval Staff was talking about what he needed, we knew precisely whether he needed it or not.
So, if any committee is not showing knowledge of what is happening in the MDAs, it cannot adequately provide the budgetary needs of such MDAs. Budget defence is about making the MDAs justify what they are asking for! If they cannot justify it, you cut it down. It is unfortunate that most of the time, we give them exactly what they want or even assist them in getting more; that I believe is why they do not appreciate our role here in the National Assembly. If truly you can trim the excess fat in some demands and take them to areas where you think they are needed, you will actually be doing the job of appropriating.
It is alleged that MDAs repeat budgetary proposals for same items every year and get it passed as well. Is that not an indictment on the National Assembly?
I don’t think it would be correct to say what was there in the 2011 Appropriation Act is what was there in the 2012 Appropriation Act. There are differences. Sometimes, it is a continuation of a project, and most projects have a lifespan of about four to five years. If the same item is recurring, it simply means that you are continuing the project. So, a distinction has to be made between a project in continuation and the one actually completed and is resurfacing. If one is resurfacing year in year out, that is fraud outright. In the 2013 budget, almost 90 percent of the capital projects are meant to be continued from 2012. In fact, the Executive didn’t want to submit any new budget. When we had the NDDC budget coming in November, the Senate President descended on the NDDC that we won’t take that any more. It doesn’t make sense that a budget you ought to complete in November, you are bringing your appropriation in November.
What has the Senate discovered about the way the MDAs draft their budgets to suit their purposes?
The only time we can get down to the bottom of the truth is when the National Assembly itself has a well-equipped and efficient budget office. Right now, most of our skills and knowledge are dependent upon what the Budget Office of the Executive does for us. Until we have our own Budget Office, with skilled manpower to assist, because the legislators can come from any field, we won’t be able to do the necessary analysis of the budget.
Now, we are hoping that with the establishment of the National Institute for Legislative Studies, we should be assisted in making very good analysis of whatever budgetary requests come from the Executive. Anytime we convene public hearings, we rely on independent consultants who help us out (and) that is the moment you will be able to detect any hidden fraud and so on. If it is a matter of law and the committee is fortunate to have lawyers, they would help to detect legal loopholes; if it is on the economy and you have economists in the committee, they can help but the bottom-line is that the National Assembly needs its own budget office that can actually help it in detecting whatever hidden frauds are there in the budgets of the MDAs.
How about National Assembly bills not assented to by the Presidency?
We need to understand that our democracy is still being nurtured and is growing. There is a culture of ‘Executive’ in Nigeria and the Constitution itself has not helped matters. It is one of the most Executive Constitutions I have ever gone through in this world where the President seems to have all the powers. Even the ordinary Nigerian believes that it is the statement uttered by a local government or a state governor that must be taken serious, but I believe that with time, people, including lawmakers, will come to know that the Legislature has some powers to exercise. There is a provision in the Constitution for when the President does not sign any bill, the National Assembly can pass it and it becomes law. We have not really exercised that provision in this Assembly. It only now requires that one day, the National Assembly will take the courage to do that for one or two bills and the President would have no choice but to implement such law. We believe the President has a duty also to help the Constitution to grow and if he has any quarrel with any law, he should always make his observations known for the Legislature to take notice and make necessary amendments so that we can have a consensus.
It is happening everywhere in the world. The American President and the House Speaker once sat together in order to avoid crisis of budgeting. But here, you find a minister saying the Legislature’s resolution is of no importance! It doesn’t bring goodwill that a minister or an aide of the President would speak like that. We have never heard the President say that, but we have never heard him caution his lieutenants either! So, the presumption is that he takes precarious liability for their actions. I believe that it is not good for the President not to be assenting to our bills. If he has any grouse with a bill, he should contribute to the growth of democracy by making suggestions as to how the offensive clauses that are preventing him from assenting to the bill are amended to reflect a new consensus.
If he doesn’t do so, then the legislators should also test their powers once by enacting the law by the passage with two-thirds majority. We will come to that one of these days.
With your position, are you also not worried that the National Assembly does not have a well equipped Library?
I am worried, we started with the establishment of the National Institute for Legislative Institute which is going to be a world-class institute that will fill all these gaps. I participated in the recruitment of staff there and we employed professors of economics, law and social policy analysis from all over the world, Nigerians that have excelled from Harvard and other world-class universities. So, you can see from the last seminar they had, the cream of Nigerians that attended is a testimony to the fact that if that institute becomes well established, it should fill the gaps. We hope to have a very standard library there, the best economists there that would assist us in making analysis, not just for Nigerian Legislatures, but also for Legislatures across the West African sub-region and indeed the continent; that is the vision we have for the institute.
Certainly, as we grow, this is the longest the Legislature has stayed in Nigeria from 1999 to 2012; so, I believe that, with time, we should be able to have a library like the American Congress, it is a gradual process. I always tell people when they say the Nigerian Legislature is like this and that, the Legislature is a Nigerian institution like every other institution.
Even the Nigerian universities whose major factory should be the library don’t have libraries. We don’t have a culture of reading in this country and this reflects in virtually all the institutions that we have including the national assembly. Even we, the legislators, are Nigerians and it is not many of us that have the reading culture.
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