Published On: Sun, Jun 24th, 2018

Executive, NASS fight endanger 2018 budget

.It is NASS power to appropriate funds – Lawyers

 By UCHE CHRIS

 Again the 2018 budget has been embroiled in the politics and supremacy struggle between the executive and the legislature. All the three budgets of this administration have suffered this fate. If it is not allegations of padding against one arm, it is alterations by the other.

President Buhari: signing the mutilated budget

But in an election year this politics has assumed higher stakes and relevance for the second term bid of President Muhammadu Buhari. President Buhari while signing the budget on Wednesday, June 21, 2018, accused the National Assembly of distorting the budget which makes it difficult, if not impossible to implement by the changes they introduced into the budget.

President Buhari in his speech accused the NASS of tampering with the 2018 budget sent to them by cutting essential projects and inserting non-essential ones. Up to 6, 403 projects initiated by the lawmakers were smuggled into the budget, Mr Buhari noted in his speech.

First, he alleged that they removed some priority projects of the federal government, replacing them with theirs. Secondly, he accused them of sabotaging the executive’s effort of regularising the country’s budget on a January-December financial year.

“It is in this regard that I am concerned about some of the changes that the National Assembly has made to the budget proposals that I presented. The logic behind the constitutional direction that budgets should be proposed by the Executive is that, it is the Executive that knows and defines its policies and projects.

“Unfortunately, that has not been given much regard in what has been sent to me. The National Assembly made cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to N578 billion,” Mr Buhari said. An N8.6 trillion budget proposal submitted to the National Assembly on November 7, 2017 was increased to N9.1 trillion when it was finally passed in May.

The president’s speech was political and intended to score cheap political gains against the NASS. And it worked because since then the entire nation has descended on the NASS, some calling them criminals and coup plotters against the President. Suddenly, Buhari has become a fighter for the people in whose interest he signed the ‘murdered’ budget in spite of his misgivings.

This is further from the evidence and reality presented by the record of the administration since inception. The fact is that this government has performed woefully in both budget preparation and implementation. The 2017 budget only achieved 19 percent implementation.

National Assembly 

It is not about whether the NASS effected some major expenditure cuts in the budget but does the government have sufficient capacity and political will to see those projects through. For instance, most of the appropriations for capital projects in the 2017 budget were not released until December 17 2017, and formed part of the 2018 capital expenditure.

In the usual Nigerian fashion, the substance of the matter has been abandoned for the shadows; most people have been carried away by the politics without consideration of the real issue involved in this matter, which is the constitutional question of who has the power of appropriation in a democracy, especially in a system where there is clear separation of powers.

Why has the executive, which, it seems, is the victim or aggrieved party reluctant to seek adjudication of the matter? This problem has existed in the past 16 years but it is only in this government that it has been politicised because of the running battle between the two arms of government.

In a presidential system that enshrines the principle of separation of powers to ensure checks and balances, the great tool to check the executive is the power of appropriation. Remove it and NASS ceases to have any authority over the executive. It is therefore shortsighted and undemocratic to deny it such powers regardless of the popularity and good intentions of the president.

A similar principle applies to the power of confirmation of appointees of the president. He has the power to nominate; but until approved by the NASS, which has power to confirm, it remains mere nomination, as the case of Mr. Ibrahim Magu, EFCC chairman illustrates. The president cannot appropriate and reprobate simultaneously.

File photo

Nigerians must be careful how we treat the NASS, because it is the main institution that defines a democratic government. You can’t have a democracy without the legislature but we have had a military president. NASS is the only institution that is directly affected when there is an undemocratic intervention; and is therefore the youngest institution of state.

Recently there has been a barrage of attacks against the NASS by the executives and its institutions, such as the EFCC and the Presidential Committee on corruption as well as former president Obasanjo and former INEC boss, Prof. Jega, on the so-called corruption in the legislature.

This may be indeed true, but does it make the other arms better? Who spends the budget? Is it not the executive? Corruption is a national malaise and not exclusive to any particular person or institution; even this government with all its anticorruption pretensions cannot pass close scrutiny on this count.

As a people we must be careful with what we desire because we might jolly well have it. If we want a NASS that is a toothless bull-dog, then we must seek constitutional amendment to do so; but the framers of the constitution saw the danger of giving an unfettered power to an institution or person. If president Buhari means well, does it follow that other president will so do.

Politicising the budget diverts attention from the incompetence and confusion engendered by this government in implementing its budgets. None of the key projects, such as the Lagos-Ibadan road, Second Niger Bridge, Mambilla Power plant etc this government inherited has been completed in three years despite yearly appropriations for them; it is not enough to accused the NASS that estimates were cut; the ones appropriated, were they released and spent? Otherwise, we won’t have 19 percent budget performance in 2017.

Mr Buhari also expressed concern over the National Assembly budget which has risen by N14.5 billion from N125 billion to N139.5 billion.

The National Assembly was quick to react. In a statement by the House of Representatives spokesperson, Abdulrazak Namdas, the lawmakers said the budget of the National Assembly “is still far below the N150 billion in the years before 2015’’.

“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.”

In similar statement, the Senate spokesperson said the National Assembly has “directed chairmen of committees on appropriations to provide item by item, detail explanations on all points raised by the President for the benefit of members of the public.”

In 2017 when Mr. Buhari was away in London for medical treatment, the issue of insertion of projects by the National Assembly came up prompting a meeting between the leadership of the two arms of government.

The meeting resolved that Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, who was then acting president, should sign the budget on the basis that a virement proposal be submitted to the NASS to address the difference. The lawmakers promised to favourably and urgently consider the request. On July 18, 2017, Mr Osinbajo wrote to NASS requesting that those projects be dropped.

Reactions against NASS have swift and furious. The Muslim Rights Concern, MURIC, alleged that the National Assembly made changes as another way of opposing President Buhari.

In a statement signed by Director, Professor Ishaq Akintola, MURIC said that with the reduction of budgetary allocations on infrastructures by the lawmakers, it would be difficult for Buhari to embark on projects that would convince Nigerians to vote him back into office in 2019.

“Examples of increase are the budget of the National Assembly itself which was increased from N125 billion to N139.5 billion. This shows an increase of N14.5 billion. The provisions for statutory transfers were also increased by an aggregate of N73.96 billion.

Most of the increases in statutory transfers are for recurrent. This is not in the best interest of Nigeria since the present government is trying to keep down the cost of governance.

The group noted that slashes made include pensions N5 billion, housing N8.7 bn, security in Unity Schools N3 bn, allocation to health N7.45 bn, UN building security from N4 bn to N100m, allocations to 2nd Niger Bridge, Manbila Power project, East-West Road, Lagos-Ibadan Express Road, Bonny-Boddo Road in Rivers State and Itakpe-Ajaokuta Rail project by a whopping N11.5 billion.

Similarly, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability project, SERAP, accused the NASS of violating the fundamental rights of Nigerians by cutting proposed allocations for essential public services including health, education, housing and security to the tune of N19 bn.

The group expressed dismay that the federal lawmakers “padded” the 2018 budget to the tune of N578bn by inserting 6,403 projects of their own, barely a month after the Federal High Court in Lagos ordered that the principal officers of the National Assembly that allegedly padded the 2016 budget to the tune of N481bn should be prosecuted.

SERAP said, “The deliberate and systematic acts of alleged budget padding and cutting of funding by the lawmakers coupled with the widespread negative consequences of such acts for millions of Nigerians across the country point to not only allegations of corruption but also crimes against humanity, that is, deliberately withholding access of Nigerians to essential and life-saving public services, which is triable at the International Criminal Court.

“Apart from pursuing a possible crime against humanity prosecution before the ICC, President Buhari should also move swiftly to enforce the judgment delivered last month by Justice Mohammed Idris in Suit No: FHC/L/CS/1821/2017, ordering the President to ask anti-corruption agencies to forward to him reports of their investigations into allegations of padding and stealing of some N481 billion from the 2016 budget, and to ensure prosecution of suspects.

However, a human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Richard Akinnola, told BusinessHallmark that President Buhari is only demonizing the NASS because of the disagreement they have as he could not expect them to be a rubber stamp.

“The constitution gives them power to appropriate funds and the power is inherent and discretionary; where the executive disagrees it should seek judicial interpretation”, he said.

Also Chief Ziggy Azike, a renowned lawyer said that budget alteration is within their constitutional powers, but cautions that they should act in public interest.

“The power to appropriate is explicit in the constitution; the executive cannot challenge that. However, how the power is exercised is a different matter altogether” he told this Newspaper.

“Part of the powers of the Senate is to pass laws and the appropriation bill to become a law after the president signs. It is within the powers of the National Assembly to look at a bill brought before it and to ensure that it serves the purposes of the people; to make amendments one way or the other.

“In exercising that power however, they must have the public interest at heart. They must make sure that whatever they are doing is in the best interest of Nigerians.

“If you look at the things they removed money from in the review that is where the issue of responsibility comes in. The opposite of responsibility is dereliction; you are either vigilant and responsible or derelict.

“When you don’t do things that serve people’s interest, you are derelict and in this instance, when you look at such important projects like the Second Niger Bridge, the Enugu Airport where they removed money from, and they are allotting money for Keke Napep and motorcycles, it raises issues about their sense of responsibility, their sense of accountability and their sense of consciousness of their responsibility.”

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