BY OKEY NDIRIBE
Hon. John Owan Eno of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) represents Obubra/Etung Federal Constituency of Cross River State in the House of Representatives. As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, it could be said that the duty of making budgetary allocation to various government ministries, departments and agencies falls squarely on his shoulders. In this interview, he spoke on the lingering controversies surrounding the 2013 budget and related issues. Excerpts:
What your reaction to reports that the 2013 budget, which was passed 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 budget 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 implement what he signed.
The tradition ever since the late President Umaru Musa 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 of Finance to ask questions about the budget as it was passed by the National Assembly. 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.
The Presidency has also been unhappy over the $79 oil benchmark fixed by the National Assembly. Another condition that the National Assembly insists must be met concerns the Securities and 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 it 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?
So far, I have refrained from commenting on specific issues. The National Assembly’s zero allocation to the 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.
For how long will this dialogue between the National Assembly and the Presidency last?
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 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 will 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 the Seventh National Assembly remains the least when compared with the Sixth, Fifth and legislatures. I don’t think that should be an issue.