BY HENRY UMORU, ASSISTANT POLITICAL EDITOR
It was a serious lamentation and expression of displeasure by President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday before signing the approved N9.1 trillion Appropriation Bill into law.
The President criticised the National Assembly for unilaterally increasing the estimates and the delay for about seven months before the passage of the bill.
President Buhari had on November 7th, 2017, presented the draft copy of the N8.612 trillion 2018 budget estimates to a joint session of the National Assembly. But six months after the presentation of the budget estimates to the National Assembly, the lawmakers on Wednesday May 16th, 2018, passed the 2018 Appropriation Bill of N9,120,334,988,225 for the 2018 fiscal year, representing an increase of N508 billion from the N8.612 trillion proposal earlier presented. The National Assembly however explained that the 6% increase of the budget estimates was done in consultation with the executive arm of government.
The six months the 2018 budget estimates spent in the National Assembly became the longest period for consideration of an appropriation bill so far since the year 2000 when a full fledged yearly budget was first presented to it.
Expeditious consideration for the 2018 budget estimates by both chambers of the National Assembly ran into troubled waters in December last year when the federal lawmakers observed that details of implementation of the capital components of the 2017 budget were not made available by the executive.
It will also be recalled that the Senate at resumption of legislative proceedings, had lampooned President Buhari for presenting before the National Assembly, the 2018 Appropriation bill, which was fully padded, full of inaccuracies, errors, inconsistencies and what it described as “boju boju and abracadabra”.
Describing the Executive team and the government of not being serious, the Senators painted a gloomy picture of the budget, describing the implementation of 2017 budget as total failure, adding that the budget proposal was “garnished with deception.”
The delay in quick consideration of the budget had then shifted to non appearance of heads of the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) before the relevant committees of both chambers in January. The Senate on the 14th of February this year had to read a riot act to heads of the agencies who had not appeared then.
But after the compliance of the MDAs in February, appropriation committees of both chambers spent March and April to tidy up the whole process.
The 2018 Appropriation Bill, the largest in the nation’s history, was premised on key revenue assumptions of oil price benchmark of $51; crude oil production of 2.3 million barrels per day and exchange rate of N305/$1USD.
President Buhari’s proposal had projected an oil price benchmark at $45, crude oil production at 2.3mbpd and based on an exchange rate of =N=305 to $1, while the Senate confirmed that seven issues which were considered critical to the nation’s development were responsible for the increase of the budget figure.
President Buhari who reluctantly signed the budget into law last Wednesday to avoid another friction with the lawmakers said that he was not happy with the upward review, stressing that the template would have been the upward swing in oil price and its attendant extra cash to the national treasury ought to be used to reduce the budget deficit rather than increase expenditure since the shortfall was going to be financed by borrowing any way. The president also signed the bill into law in order to avoid further slow down of the already sluggish economic recovery, but with a caveat.
The President lampooned the National Assembly for unilaterally increasing its own budget from N125 billion to over N139 billion, while cutting off N347 billion from the executive’s votes for critical 4,700 projects from the original proposal and introduced fresh 6,403 projects at the cost of N578 billion into the budget, adding that with this scenario the executive would find it very difficult to implement it.
According to him, such budget cuts and fresh introductions would hamper the government’s plan to deploy the 2018 budget for the consolidation of the achievements of previous budgets and simultaneously deliver on Nigeria’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2017-2020.
Regretting that the fresh projects introduced by the National Assembly into the budget neither had any cost placed on them nor were they conceptualised and designed hitherto, Buhari said the new projects were added to the budgets of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) without bearing in mind their capacity to implement them. He stressed that a lot of the new projects were supposed to be executed by both the state and local governments, explaining that they had added to federal government’s burden.
To address these issues, Buhari has however promised to send a supplementary proposal to the legislature to rectify identified problem areas in the estimates. The president said, “it is my intention to seek to remedy some of the most critical of these issues through a supplementary and/or amendment budget which I hope the National Assembly will be able to expeditiously consider. I am concerned about some of the changes that the National Assembly has made to the budget proposals that I presented. Notwithstanding the above stated observations, I have decided to sign the 2018 budget in order not to further slow down the pace of recovery of our economy, which has doubtlessly been affected by the delay in passing the budget.”
The President has the right to complain about the actions of the lawmakers, but in any case, it is within the constitutional powers of the National Assembly to reorder the budget and ensure the interest of all the constituents in the country were fully represented.
The National Assembly is not a rubber stamp of the executive and one will be quick to say that the action of the President was not good for national unity, there is need for collaboration between various arms of Government
Nigeria is one, the All Progressives Congress, APC is the ruling party, it has the majority in both chambers of the National Assembly, its members occupy very juicy Committees and they have Principal officers.
The question now is if the President has any objection to the budget which was approved and sent to him by the National Assembly, did he call the leadership of the legislature to make these observations known and give them the opportunity to explain the rationale for their actions and probably reflect the President’s wish?
One may be quick to conclude that President Buhari’s decision to go public with these allegations may be to incite the public against the National Assembly; and to set up the National Assembly as the culprit for the obvious failure and lack of good faith in the government to faithfully and fully implement the budget as we have witnessed since 2016.
Is the president’s action another phase of contempt and hatred for the legislature against the backdrop that many times, the presidency had exploited all opportunities to denigrate and ridicule the legislature?
It is no gain saying that this attitude definitely will not augur well for good relationship, complimentary efforts, peaceful checks and balances and smooth engagement between both arms of government, just as the President may have by the statement further heightened tension in the political environment.
The increment he was talking about in the figure of the budget came as a result of the increase in the dollar mandate and price of oil in the international market and the increment was done after several meetings and agreement between the National Assembly and all Ministers and top officials in the executive involved in budget preparation.
It will be recalled that the Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator Danjuma Goje, APC, Gombe Central while presenting the report, had explained that 6% increase of the budget estimates from N 8.612 trillion to N9.120 trillion was done in consultation with the executive arm of government.
The question now is does it mean that before President made the statement his top officials never briefed him on what they discussed and agreed with the legislature? On the other hand, could it be that the President disagreed with his top officials and therefore was not in the know of what those officials do?
In fact, one of the benefits that came from the increase was the one percent of the National Consolidated Revenue Fund provided for the Primary Health Care Programme as stipulated in an existing law. The Federal Government has refused to implement this law which obviously will benefit the masses and make access to healthcare readily available to the ordinary people. The National Assembly has included the implementation of the healthcare fund in the current budget and this is something all Nigerians should be proud of.
Though the President accused the lawmakers of increasing their budget, but the increment in the budget was also made for the judiciary as well as the executive.
It was gathered that there were written correspondences by MDAs to the National Assembly on how they want the increment utilized in their respective budget.
A lawmaker said, “The National Assembly is not a rubber stamp and is free to reduce or increase funds allocated to projects. Before 2015, the legislature had been cutting money allotted to budgets to the tune of 40% or 30%. However, we agreed this year that no reduction of funds on any project must be more than 15percent. In fact, the N467bn reduction in total funds for capital projects as raised by Buhari represents only 18 percent of the funds allocated to capital projects.
“Buhari likes grandstanding as if he is the only one who loves Nigeria. He is not. The constituency projects that this so-called grassroots man is complaining about are the only projects that get executed and become useful to the ordinary people who do not directly feel the impact of the big projects.
“For example, why will NASS want the Delta Maritime University to fail when the law establishing it was sponsored by a member of the legislature. It was not created through any executive bill. The need to spread development, get projects from across the country going and achieve geo-political balance usually lead to redistribution of funds for projects.”
Responding to the complaints by President Muhammadu Buhari, the House of Representatives came out point blank, insisting that the parliament was not a rubber-stamp not to have exercised its constitutional powers to properly vet the budget proposal as presented to it by the executive.
In a statement by the Spokesman for the House, Hon. Abdulrazaq Namdas, he said:”We have to remind President Muhammadu Buhari that we are representatives of our people and wish to state that even the common man deserves a mention in the budget by including projects that will directly affect his life positively.
“Some of the projects designed by the executive, as high-sounding as their names suggest, do not meet the needs of the common man. The budget is usually a proposal by the Executive to the National Assembly, which the latter is given the constitutional power of appropriation to alter, make additions, costs or reduce as it may deem necessary. The Legislature is not expected to be a rubber-stamp by simply approving the Executive proposals and returning the budget to Mr. President. Therefore, the additions Mr. President complained of in his speech are justifiable.
“We are on the same page with the president in his desire to return our budget cycle to January-December. By the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007, the budget estimates should be with the National Assembly around September of the year. In the case of the 2018 budget, the estimates came behind schedule in November 2017, even though this attempt was seen as one of the earliest in recent years. Going forward, we urge the Executive to speed up the reporting time to the National Assembly by complying fully with the FRA.
“Besides, there were delays that should be blamed on the heads of MDAs. Mr. President will recall that he had to direct ministers and heads of agencies to go to the National Assembly to defend their proposals. This came after the National Assembly had persistently raised the alarm over the non-cooperative attitude of these government officials. On these grounds, the delay in passing the budget cannot be blamed on the legislature.”
Justifying the National Assembly budget in the current year, the spokesman said, “Before 2015, the budget of the National Assembly was N150 billion for several years. It was cut down to N120 billion in 2015 and further down to N115 billion in 2016. In 2017, the budget was N125 billion and N139.5 billion in 2018. This means that the budget of the National Assembly is still far below the N150 billion in the years before 2015.
“While we commend Mr. President for a good working relationship, we also wish to state that we have a job to do, which requires adequate funding as well. The additional costs and projects to the budget were done in good faith for the sole purpose of improving the lives of Nigerians.
“Finally, we welcome the proposal by Mr. President to forward a supplementary budget to the National Assembly to address other areas of pressing demands and commend the President and the entire executive arm for a cordial working relationship.”
Also responding to complaints by the President, Chairman, Senate Committee on the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Senator Dino Melaye, APC, Kogi West, took a swipe at President Muhammadu Buhari, saying that he should stop playing to the gallery.
Melaye in his reaction to President Buhari’ s lamentation and outright displeasure on the 2018 Appropriation bill before he finally signed it into law, said that the President should halt what he described as his chicanery and smear campaign of the National Assembly.
In a statement which he made available to Journalists, Senator Melaye who noted that the National Assembly was not a department of the Presidency, said, “I notice that President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) is trying to whip up sentiments against the National Assembly again by alleging that the 2018 budget was padded.
“What the President is authorised to do constitutionally is to present the National Assembly with a bill. A bill is a work in progress and not the finished work. The reason the Constitution directs the Bill to be submitted to the National Assembly is that it expects the National Assembly to vet it and make inputs into such a Bill before passing it as the Appropriation Act.
“The National Assembly is not just expected to rubber stamp whatever Bill the President presents. If this was the norm then there would have been no need for the Constitution to direct that the Bill be submitted to the National Assembly in the first place.
“Mr. President should therefore refrain from playing to the gallery and milking the naivety of the masses on the issue. In any event, he reserves the prerogative of refusing to append his signature to the Bill passed if it meets with his displeasure. He is also free to return the Bill to the National Assembly unsigned with a note indicating his areas of disaffection.
“Therefore Mr. President should halt his chicanery and smear campaign of the National Assembly.
“I also ask, in the last three years of this administration: What has been the percentage of implementation of capital budget?
“The powers and authority of the National Assembly can not be eroded by the presidency. The National Assembly is not a department of the Presidency.”
With the signing of the budget into law amidst lamentations and outright displeasure, it is hoped that the President would implement those projects which the government considers very critical for the interest of the people. We wait as events unfold.