National Assembly complex
It was the week after the 2013 budget was presented to the National Assembly. The debate on the budget estimates was expected to commence in full swing in line with the consensus across the nation for an early passage. But it was also a week in which there was an observed apathy on the part of the lawmakers to consider the budget. Instead, the debate took an unfortunate dimension where some lawmakers preferred to dwell in the past rather than confront the present. The issues of non-implementation of the 2012 budget and the proposed crude oil benchmark for the new budget dominated the discourse. It is right to review the past to enable us chart a better course but it is also better to prevent another failed budget than crying over spilled milk.
Indeed, there was also a subtle attempt to shelve the consideration of the new budget until the old was fully implemented. The worst signs of apathy emerged on Wednesday, the second allotted day for the debate on the general principles of the N4.92 trillion budget. As soon as the budget was mentioned, lawmakers began to leave the chamber one after the other. By the time House Leader, Hon Mulikat Akande-Adeola, concluded her opening remarks on the budget there were only 20 legislators left in the hallowed chambers.
On the third and last day allotted for debate on the budget 50 lawmakers were scheduled to contribute to the discourse but nearly one-third of them did not show up at plenary. Another curious development was that for the first time since the Fiscal Responsibility Act came into being, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) were elevated to the status of laws by some lawmakers. It was a strange contraption and a misleading argument to equate the adoption of the MTEF document by the House with the passage of a law.
Chairman, House Committee on Finance, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin, should be told that the MTEF and its sister document, FSP, are proposals meant to guide the executive in the preparation of the budget. They are not laws for which cabinet ministers would have to be sacked for not reproducing all their contents in the budget.
The debate over the oil benchmark is a welcome development but like some experts have warned, benchmarks should be taken for what they are, benchmarks. A benchmark is a projection that should be as realistic as possible knowing the vagaries of our mono-product economy.
Proponents of the $80 per barrel benchmark have made a good case but advocates of a lower benchmark price have equally shown good reasons why caution should be the key word in managing an economy that is solely dependent on a highly inflammable commodity like oil. There is need for more transparency in the management of our resources but the argument that since the revenue collecting agencies such as Nigeria Customs Service and Federal Inland Revenue Service have surpassed their targets for the year all the resources should be ploughed into the annual budget using higher oil benchmark smacks of prodigal economics.
The debate on the general principles of the N4.924 trillion 2013 Appropriation Bill has been concluded and the money bill has been referred to the House Committees on Finance and Appropriation for further legislative work. The real task ahead of the parliament is to scrutinise the 2013 budget proposal in such a way that all expenditure that could lead to wastages and corruption are thrown out during the budget defence sessions. Empirical evidence has shown that one of the factors responsible for non-implementation of the budget is its usually unwieldy provisions, duplicity of sub-heads and ghost projects. The lawmakers would be living up to their mandate if they could beam their searchlight on the budget of the various MDAs and spot out the potential leakage points before passing the 2013 budget. The legislators will also be doing the nation a good thing if henceforth they could draw a sharp line between excursion and their oversight responsibilities as envisaged by the 1999 Constitution.
On the part of the executive, it is time to change the format of the budget to reflect the realities of the times. The era of dusting up the old budget and affixing higher figures on existing sub-heads should be over. The practice of budgeting for computers, photocopiers, printers and other office furniture every year is a ploy to steal public funds and enrich the pockets of a few individuals. The budget should cease to be an annual ritual where our commonwealth is diverted to personal estates.