Hon. John Owan Eno of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) represents Obubra/Etung Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. He is also the Chairman, Appropriation Committee of the House. It could be said that the duty of appropriating funds for the ministries,departments and agencies of government falls squarely on his shoulders. In this interview, he speaks about the lingering controversy concerning the 2013 budget and related issues.
BY OKEY NDIRIBE
What do you have to say concerning information reaching us that the 2013 budget which was passed by the National Assembly last December is on its way back to the National Assembly because President Goodluck Jonathan refused to sign it?
Any talk about the President returning the 2013 budget to the National Assembly is a mere speculation. This is a budget that was passed by the House before we embarked on Christmas recess; everybody had expected that it should have become a law by now. However, I can say for certain that the budget has not been returned yet. I do not think the budget is on its way back to the National Assembly. The President would not return a bill passed by the National Assembly through the back door. It has to be done formally to both arms of the National Assembly.
After a budgiet bill is passed, there is also need to work on the details that have to be forwarded to the Presidency along with the bill. It was only under the Presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo that the President assented to the budget without demanding to see the details. I don’t want to say whether that was a measure of his commitment to implementing what he signed.
The tradition since the late President Umar Yar’Adua assumed office has been for the details to accompany the bill when it is submitted to the Presidency. President Goodluck Jonathan has followed the same footsteps by insisting on receiving the details since he assumed office. The details have long been sent to the Presidency. Beyond the formal channels of communication, there presently exists some kind of an informal channel of communication between the National Assembly and the Presidency on matters concerning the 2013 budget. That is what we are going through now. It is normal for the Presidency or Federal Ministry or Finance to ask questions about the budget as it was passed by the National Assembly. This is what is going on now.
Right from when we were considering the budget until after it was passed, there have been several meetings between the leadership of the National Assembly and the Presidency to address the grey areas in the fiscal document. I hope that as soon as this is done, and I think it is going to be very soon, the President would assent to the budget.
But one of the clear conditions that the National Assembly insists must be met concerns the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) which was not given any allocation. Indeed, the National Assembly had earlier insisted that the Director-General of SEC, Ms Arunma Oteh, must be sacked before lawmakers could appropriate funds for the running of SEC in 2013. However, the President doesn’t seem to be thinking along that line. What do you have to say about this situation? The Presidency has also been unhappy over the $79 oil benchmark fixed by the National Assembly.
So far, I have refrained from commenting on specific issues. The National Assembly’s zero allocation for the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), the oil benchmark of $79 and the increment of the budget by N63 billion could be among the thorny issues being addressed by both arms of government.
However, the most important thing for now is that the budget bill is signed into law so that Nigerians can get dividends of democracy when it is implemented. The National Assembly is working to ensure that this is achieved. Both parties are working to ensure that this becomes a reality in no distant time.
But for how long will this dialogue between the National Assembly and the Presidency last because Nigerians are getting impatient?
We know Nigerians had hoped that implementation of the 2013 budget would begin on January 1 so that the issue of poor budget implementation is put behind us. I agree with you that whatever is going on now cannot go on indefinitely. However, without prejudice to what we are currently doing, the Constitution is very clear. If we want to adhere to the Constitution strictly, the National Assembly has its role to play in case the budget is not assented to by the President. However, due to the nature of our democracy, we are exploring other means that are not exactly constitutional but that are good enough for the good of our democracy. But let me say that even though we have missed the opportunity of commencing implementation of the budget from January 1, 2013, I believe implementation of the 2013 budget would begin earliest in the history of budgets in this country.
What can you say about the National Assembly’s addition of N63 billion to the expenditure profile of the budget which seems to be one of the areas of friction between the legislature and the executive?
The most important thing is how justifiable is the addition. The duty of the National Assembly is to consider expenditure estimates presented to it by Mr President. What that means is that the National Assembly would painstakingly consider such a proposal. The legislature has the power to adjust budget proposals as it deems fit based on interactions with the implementing agencies.
Don’t forget that it is only when the budget is presented before the National Assembly that it becomes a public document. There is nobody that has so much knowledge that can present a proposal that is infallible. So, when you talk about addition of extra expenditure, let us go down memory lane under the present democratic dispensation, you would notice that the addition made to the budget by seventh National Assembly remains the least when compared with the sixth, fifth and other earlier assemblies. I don’t think that should be an issue. Yes, it is true that the oil benchmark was increased above what the president submitted as was considered necessary by the National Assembly. At least about 75 percent of the projected revenue was ploughed back into the budget to reduce the budget deficit. The National Assembly was very responsible in terms of what it added to the budget.