By Dele Sobowale
History was made on Thursday, December 19, 2013 in Abuja. But, it was not the sort of history which any President would like to want recorded or remembered. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, the President of Nigeria had always gone to present the budget to the joint session of the National Assembly, NASS. Though the presence of the Head of State is not categorically required by the constitution of Nigeria, the presence of the President was a symbolic gesture indicating that the annual budget is a joint responsibility of the Executive and legislative branches.
Most governments even take the opportunity of presenting the Appropriation Bill to lay out before the lawmakers new social and political initiatives which will start during the coming year(s).
President Jonathan had faithfully followed this time honored pattern in 2010, 2011, 2012 and early this year. Suddenly, the President delegated this important function to the Federal Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for reasons which are not too difficult to understand. Even a fool knows that no President abandons a forum which many national leaders had exploited to bolster their popularity among the masses by announcing wide-ranging measures designed to appeal to the majority of the populace. Sometimes this is accomplished (or at least an attempt is made) despite the strong opposition of the legislature. The President uses what one American President called the “Bully pulpit” to force a recalcitrant NASS to bow to his will. But, then the President must have a core of support in the Assembly.
But today Nigerian politicians, the President included, are leading desperate lives. To many, any false step in the near future will mean the end of their political, if not their actual, lives. The 2014 budget is no longer as important as staying alive politically and actually.
Until early this year, Jonathan, like all the Heads of Government we have had, since 1960, enjoyed broad support in the NASS. Then something happened early this year to change the relationship between the Executive branch and the legislature. Although, this is no occasion to recollect all the bewildering political changes which occurred between January and December, they have collectively culminated in the opposition parties, formerly in the minority, almost gaining absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Similarly, several, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Senators have crossed to the opposition and even those still remaining in the ruling party cannot all be counted on to support the President. For the first time inNigerian history, a sitting President would have entered the hallowed chambers of the NASS to deliver the budget to a hostile crowd of listeners. Even polite applause was not guaranteed and there was every chance that he might be booed by those who recently changed political parties. Discretion being the better part of valour, Jonathan wisely stayed away. It was nevertheless the first time a President would surrender the podium to someone else to deliver the annual budget to the NASS. It also portends grave dangers to the budget itself. One thing is certain. The budget which will emerge from the NASS in 2014 will be different from what the President presented in many ways.
President Jonathan has lost control of the Appropriation Bill 2014.
BUDGET 2014 SUMMARISED
“This budget is the budget for job creation and inclusive growth, meaning, it is a budget which will continue the President’s transformation agenda for several sectors of the economy.” Given reduced recurrent and capital expenditure and increased debt payment, it is difficult to understand how the Federal Minister of Finance can make that claim with a straight face. It is at best political and at worst deceptive. Every knowledgeable individual, economic group or institution in the world had pointed out that Nigeria’s claimed 6.8 per cent annual growth had resulted in enriching the top ten per cent while impoverishing the vast majority. New job creation had lagged behind the number of job seekers released to the economy annually. So claiming that the 2014 budget will “continue the President’s transformation agenda” means nothing more than that unemployment will deepen; that the poor will continue to get poorer and the privileged will continue to enjoy duty waivers which don’t translate into jobs.
To be quite candid, the 2014 is a lazy man’s document. It presents nothing new that we did not know before; it lacks essential details about how the jobs will be created and how the inclusiveness will be achieved. Perhaps, that explains part of the reason why the President avoided the NASS. Increasingly, Dr Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank, as institution bursting at the seems with world class economists, and who was only a player, now finds herself in the Federal Ministry of Finance with team mates who nobody in his right senses will describe as world class. It is like Messi or Ronaldo finding himself playing for Wuruwuru United of Nigeria.
Whatever talents the Minister possesses had long been diluted by the mediocres she must work with as Minister and the results are showing.
Forced to present the budget separately to the Senate and the House instead of the combined NASS, she eventually lost her composure –forgetting that she was on the lawmakers’ turf and that this is a democracy. Certainly, no Secretary (Minister) in the US, where she studied would have told Senators they were rude. Her appearance in separate sessions is certainly a sign that the lawmakers had also returned the “insult” from the Presidency by downgrading the exercise to the level of appearances before the two houses. This has ominous consequences for the future.
Furthermore, she demonstrated all the signs of stress. Instead of being in command of the presentation what Nigerians observed was a Minister who had failed to do her homework properly and instead relied on bullying the lawmakers into submission.
FIFTY QUESTIONS AND FORCE ADJOURNMENT
At the House of Representatives, where she met with the House Committee on Finance, she entered “smiling and waving to lawmakers” according to reports. She left with fifty questions to answer when she returns to the House Committee–whose composition will certainly change if the current of party alliances stands. If she finds the Committee hostile now, she will need a crash course in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” when she returns to the hot seat next year. The APC, which is poised to take control of the House and the Committee will be on combat footing.
Her reception at the Senate was more polite, but, even that might change any time soon. David Mark as Senate President will protect her.
But, if the position changes hands, she will find that chamber as hot as the House.
Perhaps the House Committee is more diligent than the Senate presided by David Mark because this is budget which calls for more than fifty questions to be asked. Unlike the past when Presidents outline the budget thrusts and objectives, this one lacks any guidelines. What for instance are we to expect from education, aviation, agriculture etc.
The blank statement that “The budget is going to support the push in agriculture; it will kick-start the housing sector, where we can create more jobs; it is designed for our policies that will support manufacturing because jobs will be created there” sounds more like a badly written politician’s promise than a well-articulated economic programme. There is nothing original or practical here – just a salad bowl of Ministerial illusions.