By Obi Nwakanma
Somewhere in the past of Nigeria’s history, during the era of Military rule, the current President Muhammadu Buhari sat through executive council discussions on budgets, either as Military Governor, or as Military Head of state. So, it is quite fair to say that budgets are not strange animals to him. These are processes that he must be familiar with, right? Well, yes. But his models have been thoroughly determined by the circumstances in which he had played his role. Currently as president, elected under a democratic system, this president sometimes must feel like fish out of water.
Democracy is a little too messy for him, because it involves negotiations, dialogues, alternative views that do not always follow the party-line because human interest is diverse, and the diversity of these interests do not conduce to a single worldview or action. If we wanted the single view, Nigerians would not have fought for the democratic alternative to tyranny, which is wat military rule is. By his training and orientation, and from his experience in power, President Buhari is not a democrat. He is one who has been forced by the situation of history to conform as best he could to the prevailing demands of democracy, which is, to govern by the constitution.
People are elected by popular suffrage to form the government of the people. The government of the people is no longer a single source of authority imposed by the force of arms. Buhari’s model of governance is military, and somewhere in his psyche, there is that primeval lust for power, the kind that had long defined his worldview and his relationship and interaction with people.
Nigerians now talk quite a bit about “body language.” It is very obvious to any routine observer that President Buhari’s body language is at odds with the “messy” and slow ways of democracy. He is nostalgic for that moment when he, and just a very few others would sit in a room, and decide the fate of people, and place a decree in the name of the Armed Forces to that effect. And it was always with “immediate effect.” His impatience is manifested in his relationship with the Legislature, that rowdy and imponderable market of ideas, as well as of chicanery, and hubris, where you have, like the Roman Senate, the soul as well as the hamartia of the Republic. Which is how it should be. There are two kinds of parliament – the rubber stamp parliament or the active parliament, which understands the enormity of its own powers.
The current Assembly – the 8th convention – is the only Assembly since the return of democracy in 1998 in Nigeria which has shown some cojones unlike the past Assemblies, which after Obasanjo’s manipulation of its members to remove Chuba Okadigbo, became something of a dog-in-a manger parliament. Largely ineffective. I have said before, the Legislature is the most powerful institution of the republic, not the executive, and not even the judges often installed in cold, deliberate silence in the Palace of Justice.
The power of the legislature is in the purse. It has the yam and it has the knife. No president can spend money unless authorized to do so by the Legislature. The power to spend is also not absolute, because it can be reviewed by legislative process. The spending plan of every elected government is in its budget proposals. The process is quite complicated. It begins from data generated from the Federal Office of Statistics which collates strategic national behavioral data – economic, and social – through its systems, and with a Federal audit process generates Economic and demographic data for the government, with which to develop a plan for the programs of government that would deepen the economic and social life of the country. Intelligence gathered by that process of audits helps to determine where needs are to be most met, based on the numbers projected, using public health records, census records, Labour and skills prevalence data, market activity analysis, price shifts, consumer patterns, area housing demands, transportation conurbations, migration patterns, farm production analysis, etc.
How often people use roads will determine attrition, and such frequency helps to determine road access and rehabilitation priority. These data, some classified, are passed through Civil Service channels, and various duty officers analyze, collate, and domesticate the data in relation to their various areas of the service and establishment. These then are put to concrete detail to aid the political leadership in developing a vision of action for the year, or for framing the four year cycle, and that vision is consolidated, with other routine functions of administration into a budget proposal. After the Executive Council meets and agrees with the president on the detail of the budget proposal, the president would then, under more normal situations, invite his party’s leadership to conference on the proposal, and firm it all up as the vision both of the party and the president as the leader of his party.
In other words, the party’s parliamentary leadership then takes on the duty of pushing these proposals through the Legislative Budget sessions, which is actually where the tyre meets the road. In other words, the president’s budget plan is merely a proposal when it arrives the Legislative Houses for discussion. It only becomes an operational budget after it has been discussed and approbated by the legislature – the National Assembly in the case of Nigeria. To become actionable the legislative members of the two Houses must agree on line items, on the appropriate spending rationale, and the law of the republic permits them to tinker with the budget proposal sent to them by the Executive. It becomes the task of the president’s party to whip the proposal through the legislative process. If the President’s party has a weak majority, it is compelled to negotiate with certain interests within the opposition party to agree to pass the budget within a given timeline. It is a deliberate, and sometimes rancorous process, and it is mostly done at the committee levels. It is therefore not unimaginable that the President’s budget proposals returns to him to sign into law with things he neither added nor agrees with, because to pass a budget necessitates concessions, and that is what democracy is all about.
To concede and compromise on small issues in order to win major issues. So, let us say the President proposes under his own budget plans a N100 billion Herdsmen resettlement program, and it is a key agenda of the president’s for that year, and for his presidency. He needs the votes of key members of the National Assembly to see that line item passed in the budget, and authorized under the bill to spend, because if the legislators shoot down that program, or if they find no reason to fund it, the program dies at the Ways and Means Committee level. But to muster the votes, the Chief Whip of the President’s party meets with the Whips of the other parties in the Assembly, and they add – Nigerians call it “padding” and Americans call it “Pork” – line budget items that would satisfy the constituency interests of sometimes opposition members or even party members who need these constituency projects to reflect their own interests. Say, an agreement to fund through a Federal grant, the Aba Metropolitan Sewer Rehabilitation program, which becomes the condition for which the Representative from Aba would agree to vote for the president’s key legislative proposals. All these are normal in a democracy, and in the legislative process. It is not an evil undertaking to tinker with the president’s budget proposal. It is not corrupt. And the President, unless he has the votes, cannot expect to get his budget proposals returned to him in its pristine form, before he signs the appropriation bill into law.
If he does not sign, the Legislature, if they too can muster the appropriate votes, can override him. The point of this is to remind President Buhari that he may still not understand the workings of the legislative process under democratic rule, given his past, when all budgets emanate from a Supreme Center, and rubber stamped by the Supreme Military Council. But there is a method to what he might consider the madness of legislative authority over the presidency. It is important that the president learns to work with the National Assembly, not harass, or even, as it is now being alleged with the latest arrest of Senator Enyinna Abaribe, hound opposition members of the National Assembly using the Department of State Services, Nigeria’s Secret Service, whose mission must as a matter of urgency be redefined by a new National Security Act, if it is not to be constantly misused by the executive as a means of squelching Legislative independence.