Budget 2014 Series: A hostage of an overheated polity

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*And a plea for sanity

By DELE SOBOWALE

“A budget presentation is among the cardinal services the President…performs
for Congressmen (NASS) and bureaucrats and lobbyists alike. Without it they would be hard put to do their jobs.” Richard Neustadt in POWER AND PRESIDENTS.

Even if the political tsunami, the defection of five PDP governors to APC, had not occurred, getting  2014  Budget passed, without protracted rancour, and before March next year, would have been close to a mission impossible. But, with the latest political developments, next year’s budget had suddenly become one of the possible hostages or victims of the overheated polity.

In the preview to the 2014 Budget, published last week, the point had been made that the 2014 Budget is being presented to the most hostile National Assembly ever faced by a President since 1999. Permit me to recall part of that article. “On the 2014 Budget, Jonathan is not assured of many followers in the NASS. The coalition of forces which brought President Jonathan into office in 2011 has been melting, slowly but surely, like butter left out in the scourging sun. The President no longer enjoys the support of all the PDP lawmakers in both houses of the National Assembly; meanwhile, the opposition, hitherto, working independently, has fused into a solid block.” Even the most incurable pessimist about the fate of Nigeria and the 2014 Budget could not have predicted how quickly the President’s support in the NASS would crumble. The article reached the Sunday Editor just a day before five PDP governors jumped ship to the APC – and most are poised to take their states’ legislators with them. Or, at least a substantial number of them. All the political calculations point to the possibility that the opposition will constitute a clear majority in the House of Representatives; and, perhaps, in the Senate as well. If they succeed in “capturing” the NASS, the current leaders – Senate President and Speaker as well as other leaders of parliament – will have only two options available to them – go down out of loyalty to Jonathan, or, decamp and join the rebels. It is the devil’s choice for them. The closest thing in our history to this political mess shaping up occurred in the old Western Region, in 1963, precisely 50 years ago,when Premier Akintola defied his party leader and refused to step down as ordered. After briefly closing down the Western House of Assembly, Akintola reached an accord with the leader of opposition, Chief Fani-Kayode — father of the current political gadfly bearing the same name. With renegade Action Group members, most of them induced by promise of appointment to high office, Akintola seized power from Awolowo in the West and inadvertently set in motion the series of political upheavals which culminated in the first military coup of 1966.

Why am I writing this? The reasons should be obvious to most readers. But, there is still a need to spell it all out. Uncle Sam, the Publisher of VANGUARD, had admonished me many times by saying that, “What you think we should know, but which we don’t know will fill a book.” So, I will not assume the reader knows. Furthermore, whereas the violent political upheaval was limited to the West in the 1960s, this one, if it occurs, will reach every corner of Nigeria. The potential for damage is far greater than in 1963-66 – when the first coup occurred.

Among the first casualties of the political turmoil of the 1960s were the annual budgets and the First National Development Plan. Bad and violent politics always drives out good economics anytime and anywhere. Unfortunately, violence has always been the chief weapon of desperate politicians. That is the verdict of history. At the moment Nigeria parades some of the most desperate politicians on this planet. Nationwide mayhem might soon follow.

Shift of power

With a potential shift of power in the NASS, which could imperil the President’s political future, Nigeria runs the risk of having the budget set aside for a long time while the power struggle in the NASS continues. It needs to be stated that it matters a great deal who is Senate President and Speaker when the 2014 Budget is presented for consideration. Incidentally, I have read articles and statements by individuals splitting ears about whether or not it is mandatory for the President to go to the NASS chambers to lay the budget before them. With relationships degenerating from minor disagreement to absolute hatred between those for and against the President, it will matter very little if Jonathan goes to the NASS chambers to present the budget or throws it over the fence.

File photo: PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN LAYING THE 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL BEFORE THE JOINT SESSION OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY IN ABUJA ON WEDNESDAY (10/10/12).  STATE HOUSE PHOTO

File photo: PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN LAYING THE 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL BEFORE THE JOINT SESSION OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY IN ABUJA ON WEDNESDAY (10/10/12). STATE HOUSE PHOTO

The battle ground will be the NASS itself, especially, if chairmanship of key committees change hands from “loyalists” to “rebels” – for lack of better terms. Here again, it is pertinent to remember that the final battle in the old West occurred in the Western House of Assembly, when a member threw a chair in anger and the WILD WILD WEST got underway. My fear is that the opposing political forces are driving us closer to that brink again and the budget might be the first sacrifice made to the god of hostile politics. Yet, this is perhaps the most important budget we have ever had to consider in several decades because it might be the last budget in which crude oil would be regarded as a blessing and not a curse.

Looking down the road to three years from now, if not sooner, Nigeria will earn less from oil and gas than ever before. Next year should be the year we should get ready for that future which is breathing down our necks. Bad politics, in fact, hostile politics will prevent us from undertaking the sober examination of our future prospects which, in the near term, would not have been very bright but which would be made worse by the failure to pass the 2014 budget on time. With the political re-alignment going on, and with hostility building up on both sides, timely passage of the 2014 budget is becoming a remote possibility.

Options available
That brings us to the options available to the President – who one must admit – had been the most beleaguered Head of government since 1960 when Nigeria became independent. Basically, he can fight or he can surrender or try compromise. The third and, perhaps, best option would mean sacrificing the hawks among his present supporters – Tukur, Anenih, Clarke etc. Unfortunately, that would strip Jonathan of the most loyal supporters he can rely on and leave him without a strong political base.

Surrender, especially at this point, would throw what ever is left of the PDP, loyal to the President, into disarray. And, he is not guaranteed a soft landing by his opponents. His political adversaries would demand that he gives up his constitutional rights to seek re-election. He might as well go home now if he succumbs. Certainly, the 2014 budget will no longer be under his control.

That leaves only one option left – fight. In this regard, Jonathan is not as helpless as he would appear. He is still the President and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces. He still wields enormous powers – which he has not deployed. More to the point, he can rally other segments of society to support his demand for the 2014 budget to be passed on time. In that respect he has one advantage over his political opponents. He is a leader in his own right. At the moment the opposition has many leaders, but no single leader. And the influx of so many political incompatibles might have weakened, rather than strengthened APC.

One segment the President needs to court is the media. For reasons difficult to imagine, the President and his advisers, including former media practitioners, had shielded him from the Fourth Estate of the Realm. One can even argue that he had grown to detest the media. That was a safe position to take as long as the majority of the Second Estate – the legislature – is in support. But, now with the NASS becoming hostile territory, President Jonathan and his Ministers and advisers will be well advised to mend their fences with the media. Rapprochement with the media will allow him to appeal more strongly to the people when the NASS petulantly decides to bottle up the budget instead of passing it on time.

Then, the President needs to get closer to the people who elected him. The gang-up against him is now casting him in a more sympathetic light. And the closer APC gets to becoming the mainstream party the greater scrutiny it receives and not everybody id comfortable that this is the change they desire. When the Second Estate becomes hostile, other Presidents have appealed to the people to put pressure on parliament.

However, courting the people and the media will entail some sacrifices. There is nothing like a “free lunch” in even in the struggle for power. The most common sacrifices include – people (key officials generally in disfavour with the people), and “stooping to conquer”. Having distanced himself, deliberately or inadvertently, from the people and media, he would need a special effort to turn around the relationship. Fortunately, he is still the President. If he reaches out, he will be pleasantly surprised by the results. At any rate, he needs them more than they need him. That is a fact which if understood might assist Jonathan in carrying out one of the cardinal functions of a President – getting the budget passed. Without the 2014 Budget, he might as well forget 2015.

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