Since the return to democratic rule in Nigeria at the close of the Abdulsalami Abubakar transition programme in May 1999, one constitutional challenge that has continued to linger across the country is that of determining who between the Executive and the Legislature has the final word on the annual budget estimates process.
A challenge that has seemingly persisted without any real frontal attempt to address it, it specifically involves parliament adding fresh budget lines and figures to estimates that had been passed to them by the executive to vet and review. On account of this, there have been very uncomplimentary exchanges between both tiers of government with the executive most notably arguing that the adding of fresh figures to budget estimates was an illegal activity, but strangely also not taking the next logical step to invite the Supreme Court to pronounce on it and set things a-right.
In the years before now, this arguing over whether what parliament has done is right or not has led to long months of delay in arriving at a final budget document for very notably, the central government, together with the accompanying pains and costs of such delays for the citizenry and country.
While the situation has improved somewhat in more recent years, no thanks to a one party dominance at the National Assembly – which in itself has very manifest deficits of its own – there has also now been introduced a clumsy cycle of executive submission, legislative adjusting, executive protestations, assent, and amendment which very clearly was not the intent of the drafters of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) given that it eats away at the assumed finality and sanctity of the budget document.
In the current year for example, fresh from his controversial declining of assent to the Electoral Act 2021, many waited to see if President Muhammadu Buhari would similarly decline assent to the Appropriaton Act 2022 on the ground of new figures being added to it.
However, in what observers have since concluded was dictated by a clear act of political survival, the President finally assented to a budget size of N17.21trn which include provisions for debt service of 3.8trn, deficit financing of 6.9trn, crude oil benchmark of 62 dollars, 5.61trn for capital projects and with recurrent projects to gulp 6.9trn even as N869bn is earmarked as statutory transfers.
Another dimension to the whole issue has to do with the fact that the President has accused the National Assembly of inserting about 6,576new projects into the budget and also removing 10,733 projects from the executive proposals.
But the real challenge lies in the fact that section 13 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act provides for consultation and input in the preparation of the Medium Term Expenditure Frame work, and the annual budget is supposed to be derived from the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, which the National Assembly is statutorily mandated to work with the executive in developing.
Some of the core elements that that process involves include the kind of projects that should form the annual budget, as well as macro-economic indices, such as inflation rate, crude oil bench mark and exchange rate. These ought to have been determined and properly agreed upon before the submission of the executive proposal.
However given also that the nation has already presently waltzed its way into the elections season, the interests of the man on the street must not suffer on account of any implementation breaches arising from further political gerrymandering, now or in the future on account of elite tussles over who gets what.
Also noteworthy is the fact that in the midst of such pork and barrel disputations, some other more germane points of interest could also be glossed over.
For example, some have drawn attention to the fact that the President’s stated intention to borrow additional 12trn between 2022 and 2023 as contained in the 2021 finance bill may be very clearly against the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, given that the FRA provides that borrowing should be channeled exclusively to capital projects and must not exceed 3 percent of the GDP.
In our view, President Muhammadu Buhari has a chance to make history by promptly authorising the Attorney General of the Federation to proceed to the Supreme Court for a judicial determination of this challenge.
And given also that he has stated once more for the umpteenth time that he is not interested in a third term agenda, we do not see any reason why he should not resort to this most logical course of action.