By Josef Omorotionmwan
IN ancient Benin mythology, the tortoise claimed that since news had reached him that his wife was in the market fighting over salt and pepper, he was assured that there would be dinner that evening. This is instructive to all, except our legislators who have since lost the real essence of representative democracy.
The South-East Senators have just addressed a press conference where they feigned total ignorance of when a good part of the allocation for the Second Niger Bridge was yanked-off the 2018 appropriation. This is not new.
Unlike the tortoise’s wife, we have never heard them fighting to save the provisions of the Executive from the sharp knives of their colleagues. Yet, as soon as the presidency raises its objection, the Senators are quick to jump into the band-wagon of those blaming their fellow legislators for the deep cuts.
But where were they when the provisions for projects in their domain were being removed? Could they have been sleeping on duty? In 2016, the provision for the Coastal Railway Project from Lagos to Calabar as contained in the original Estimates submitted by the Executive was removed by the National Assembly, NASS. When the bubble eventually burst, the Southern Senators raised the loudest voice, asking the President to withhold assent on the Appropriation Bill.
Understandably, our legislators are team-players, particularly on issues affecting their personal interests. In the guise of esprit-de-corps, they would rather be caught on the side of their colleagues than play the tortoise’s wife.
Those budget blues of the Executive have now become annual rituals. Hear President Muhommadu Buhari: “The National Assembly made cuts in 4,700 projects submitted to it and introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to N578 Billion. Many of the projects cut are critical and may be difficult, if not impossible, to implement with the reduced allocation”.
In real terms, cuts were made in allocations to key projects like the Mambilla Power Project, Enugu Airport, Second Niger Bridge, East-West Road, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and Itakpe-Ajaokuta Railway Project – all at the heart of the Administration’s development agenda. They know where it hurts the Executive most and that is where they touch!
In June last year, the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, grumbled aloud about the cuts made in those critical areas before reluctantly signing the Appropriation Bill into law, adding that he would immediately forward supplementary appropriations to the NASS to atone for the deep cuts. That’s exactly the same scenario we have just gone through on the 2018 appropriations.
The NASS simply takes advantage of the tardy budgetary process. Their grand design is to bite into the critical nerve centre of the Executive; and in that late hour, an Executive that is unwilling to shut down government operations would be left with no alternative but to reluctantly sign the Appropriation Bill and invariably forward supplementary appropriations to make up for the short-fall. Call it appropriation by intimidation, if you wish.
The NASS leaves in its trail, a lot of distortions. For instance, it is difficult to determine the exact size of the Federal Budget. There is the mistaken impression that the budget is still N9.12Trillion. Add to this, the supplementary appropriation of some N578 Billion that is lurking around the corner; and you will find that the NASS has since blown up the budget to N9.698 Trillion. Funnily enough, the astronomical increase is without the economic indicators and calculations that entered into the original Estimates from the Executive. As far as the legislators are concerned, the budget can jump into the Atlantic if it wishes!
We must be prepared to see the Budget for what it is – a chain of five Ps: Planning, Preparation, Presentation, Passage and Performance. This budget chain, like every other chain, can only be as strong as its weakest link. Each of the five Ps has a specific time frame, all within the year preceding the Financial Year for which the budget is intended. As they say in budgeting, failing to plan is planning to fail.
All these years, we have been fixated at the level of passage where we continue to put all the blame on the NASS for failing to pass the Appropriation Bill in time, even where the Appropriation Bills have always arrived late to the NASS’s Desk. All the Ps of the budget chain are equally important.
We have spoken, perhaps with monotonous regularity, of the imperative of a Budget Cycle for the Nation. The President has spoken copiously of the intention to give us a budget that would be implemented from January 1 to December 31. But we are yet to know what magic wand he has for this laudable initiative. For all we know, except the 2019 Appropriation Bill is presented to the NASS in the next one month it is already late. The only prescription for an early budget is early presentation. It can’t be done otherwise.
Does the Federal Government know where its assets are? In whichever direction we look, we see a Federal Government that is wrong-footed into a serious dereliction of duty by the NASS members with their so-called Constituency Projects. Those borehole projects, industrial sewing machines, cassava and rice mills, utility vehicles, access roads, agricultural and farming equipment, classrooms in primary and secondary schools, VIP Toilets, etc., scattered in their hundreds of thousands across Nigeria, provided from the Federal Government Budgets, in the name of Constituency Projects, are all Federal Government Assets.
It gets nauseating to see the projects named after the legislators who probably influenced their entry into the budget. This is stealing by trick in utter contravention of the provisions of Section 41(9) of the Nation’s Criminal Code. Stealing by whatever name is still stealing – even when our dear and loved one is the perpetrator!
The Federal Government must have a full inventory of those assets. They can’t be treated like disposable cups. If only as a follow-up, we must know which of those projects are still alive and which of them did not survive beyond the day of commissioning.