By Josef Omorotionmwan
ADMITTEDLY, there is some historical truth in the claim that since our return to democratic experiment in 1999, the 2018 Appropriation Bill, which President Muhammadu Buhari presented to the National Assembly, NASS, on November 7, 2017, has come slightly earlier than others. Does this portend progress? Yes and No.
Yes, if nothing else, the administration is serious and alive to its responsibilities; and it would be willing to do the right thing if properly directed. On the debit side, though, this early submission, so-called, amounts to nothing in a real budget cycle. This budget does not still qualify for an early one. In this regard, the NASS is guilty as charged.
There is no short-circuiting the budgetary process. We have maintained, perhaps with monotonous regularity, that the only cure for all these malfeasance is for the NASS to give us an ideal Budget Cycle, which will, by superior legislation, compel certain steps to be taken on the budget by specific dates instead of leaving everyone to define his own convenience.
We have missed it again this time around. If we work hard, the earliest we can get it right will be in the 2019 financial year.
Since President Buhari presented the 2018 Appropriation Bill to the NASS, we have seen obvious attempts in the popular press, to stampede the NASS into passing the Bill before the end of the year. Of course, that has always been the normal approach. The pertinent question remains: If it took the Executive close to eleven long months to produce that draft budget, why would anyone expect the NASS to gallop through its passage in one short month, when the bulk of the work is in the NASS?
The President’s presentation must be subjected to rigorous open general debates that expose it to the 469 members of the NASS from across the country.
Inescapably, every line in that Draft Estimate is subjected to serious scrutiny at the Committee stage. This is where all the supplementary questions are asked and answers sought: if this is a new project, how much legislative authorisation has it got? What of the test of geography as a way of ensuring that all viable projects are not clustered in one area to the exclusion of others? How much comparative advantage does it enjoy?
When it is an old project, the legislators are interested in knowing how much was allocated to it in previous years, particularly the immediate-past one? How much of the allocation has been released? What was responsible for the short-release? How far has implementation on the project gone and how much work is left? After all the interrogation in the Committee Room, the members would move to site to match the explanations with what is truly on ground.
There is no royal road to geometry. These things take time and if properly done, they go a long way in reducing massive stealing to the barest minimum.
We have argued elsewhere that under a good system, it would be unjust, at the end of tenure, for the Chief Executive to head for prison while the legislators who gave him his annual appropriations walk our streets in unfettered freedom. After all, the approval of this year’s budget depends on what the legislators saw of how diligently the last appropriations were applied. The whole essence of the legislative oversight of the administration comes to naught if it cannot check executive rascality.
The Committee stage is also where legislators discover hidden agenda in the budgets. For a long time to come, we shall continue to be reminded of former President Shehu Shagari’s Presidential Liaison Officers, PLOs, in the States. This was quickly seen as a way of planting super Governors particularly in States where the Opposition UPN held sway. The idea was repugnant to the NASS members. But Shagari insisted on his right to employ whoever he needed to help him carry out his enormous responsibilities.
The NASS laid ambush for him in the 1980 appropriations. As soon as Shagari presented his Appropriation Bill, the House Appropriation Committee of which this writer was Secretary, searched through the document but the provision for the PLOs was stoically missing. We resorted to what today would pass for an abduction. We invited Mr. ‘A’, the Director of Budget of the presidency and locked him up in Committee Room 4 with instruction that the ransome for his release was simple – if he showed us where the provision was hidden, we would release him. He did and we did. The item had been cleverly tucked away under Maintenance of Secretariats in the States. We deducted N812,000 supposedly representing the salaries of the 19 PLOs and passed the budget.
In spite of it all, Shagari still retained the PLOs and found a way of paying them, thus lending credence to the fact that the Legislature could have its say while the Executive invariably has its way.
Budgeting is an all-year-round affair. Budgets are not made into water-tight compartments. Unforeseen situations are, in the course of the year, accommodated by means of supplementary appropriations as provided for in Section 81(4) of the 1999 Constitution.
Using the 2019 Financial Year as a baseline, the NASS must quickly produce an Act for a Budget Cycle for Nigeria. We shall attempt to provide a sketch on which they can improve:
March 1 (2018): The Budget Ministry shall issue call letters to all Ministries, Agencies and Departments, including the Judiciary and NASS.
April 30 (2018): All Requests are received and collated for onward transmission to the NASS.
July 31 (2018): The President presents the Appropriation Bill to NASS.
August 31 (2018): End of debates on general principles of the budget, and referral to relevant Committees of both Chambers.
October 15 (2018): Committees report out the Appropriation Bill.
November 15 (2018): Appropriation Bill passed in both Houses; and differences are referred to the Conference Committee.
November 30 (2018): Harmonised Budget is passed by both Chambers and forwarded to the President for his assent.
December 15 (2018): President assents to the Bill.