Budget Row: The Devil Is in the Detail?

05 Nov 2012

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By Magnus Onyibe 

Most pundits aver that the frosty relationship that existed between former President Olusegun Obasanjo, and governors during his tenure was largely responsible for the failure of his alleged third term gambit. This assertion derives from the fact that senators who were then fiercely beholden to governors would not dance to the tune of Obasanjo’s third term symphony which required their accent to become law because governors whom Obasanjo did not want to invite to the tenure elongation orchestra were more or less responsible for their emergence as lawmakers.

Although governors do not wield such overwhelming influence on legislators anymore due to the opening up of democracy to more scrutiny, the cord binding states and Abuja politicians has remained unbroken.
This perhaps explains the presidency’s reported resort to governors to help disperse the political storm brewing over the disagreement between it and the legislative arm of government on crude oil bench mark price for 2013 budget.
So far, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-lweala’s explanation of the logic and economics behind the proposed $75 figure has failed to impress the legislators in the lower chamber so their choice of $80 round figure remains unchanged. But the senators, exercising more self restraint as members of the upper chamber have opted for the $78 figure which is between the executive's $75 and the lower chamber’s $80.
As they say, the devil is in the details so let us take a cursory look at both executive and legislative stance to determine their merits.

The executive is concerned that oil price bench mark of $80 which the legislature is clamouring for is too high and could create grave consequences for the economy if oil price suddenly drops below that level , a legitimate fear fuelled by the United States of America’s new policy of drastically reducing oil import to speed up economic recovery. Legislators in the lower chamber on the other hand are contending that low oil benchmark price of $75 is too low as the prevailing market price is hovering around $100, implying that about $25 may end up being warehoused for future use while government resorts to borrowing at exorbitant rates for running the economy from the local financial system with the risk of crowding out credit for private sector growth/development and the Senate has graciously weighed in with $78 which is in between.

With the two arms of government making very good cases and both arguments being in the best interest of Nigerians, l was anxiously waiting to see who or what would be the deal breaker or maker because of the soundness of both points of view which in my view is the sticky point.
If political brinksmanship is about getting disagreeable interests to agree, then President Goodluck Jonathan’s current tactics of asking governors to use their 'good offices' to persuade legislators to align with him is a departure from Obasanjo’s style and could deepen our nascent democracy if he succeeds and here are three reasons: Firstly, unlike in the past when the matter could have been resolved within the party framework and the public would then be informed that the family matter has been settled, the face-off  has enabled Nigerians know that certain metrics are applied to arrive at a given benchmark price of oil and has given us the comfort that income from our oil assets are being professionally managed. Secondly, the knowledge exhibited by our legislators reflected in their detailed questions about budget 2013 proposals has reassured us that the legislators are now performing their oversight functions rigorously and they are no longer mere rubber stamp as people tended to believe a few years back.

Thirdly, the publicity has also conferred on the budget process the toga of citizen participation which is indicative of the evolving political maturity.
The budget wrangling in Nigeria reminds me of the United States congress’ initial denial of approval for President Barack Obama’s request for new borrowing limits to fund the US economy which is now running a deficit in excess of $16 trillion. The delay in reaching an agreement led to the first time in history downgrading of US' AAA credit rating to BBB by rating agencies Moodys and Standard and Poors.

As the 2012 financial year draws to a close, another such schism is looming in the US as the borrowing limit mandate has to be renewed annually by Congress but they always cross the bridge when they get there. Hopefully, the situation in Nigeria would not be different because just like American politicians always put the interest of American people first, the growth and stability of Nigerian economy and by extension, the wellbeing of Nigerians seem to be taking centre stage at both the executive and legislative levels of government as evidenced by the fact that the present feud is not caused by selfish interests of both parties as was the case in the past but in the interest of the economy.
Yes, political tempers were raised and some president’s men got caught in the cross fire but such is the beauty of democracy.

Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okukpe’s reference to Senate President David Mark and Speaker Aminu Tambuwal’s comments after President Jonathan laid the budget before the joint session of the National Assembly as playing to the gallery could be regarded as accidental discharge or friendly fire for which he has apologised but Presidential Adviser on Politics, Ahmed Gulaks’ unsavoury comments against the lawmakers further fouled the air just as the Presidential Adviser on National Assembly, Joy Emordi’s attempt at distancing Jonathan from her colleagues’ comments was inelegant and made the presidency appear to be fractured.

In all democracies, including matured ones like US, executive/legislative arms of government row are common and there are always casualties? In 2009, Eric Holder, the current Attorney General of US, was held in contempt of congress by the House of Representatives for refusing to hand over documents concerning an investigation which they were undertaking and before him, Karl Rove, the ingenious Special Assistant to former President George W. Bush, was on the prompting of congress investigated for 'improper political influence over government decision..' when President Bush fired 11 prosecutors allegedly for prosecuting Republicans and not Democrats.
Once again, Nigerian governors have been called to duty as arbiters and it is a role they are willing, ready and able to play.

When it was deemed necessary to stop Obasanjo’s tenure elongation bid in 2007, governors wielded their influence on senators and stopped the macabre dance, when the nation’s political future was at a precipice following the untimely death of President Yar'Adua in office, governors in cohort with senators intervened with the introduction of the "doctrine of necessity". Whether the governor' s magic wand would do the trick this time remains to be seen.
In crisis management, objective principle is the criteria which negotiating parties must base their decision on to arrive at a satisfactory agreement. This is what the parties should bear in mind as they go into further negotiations in the coming days and weeks.

It would not only enable the decision in the best of Nigerians to carry the day but it would also let the country achieve for the first time the feat of passing her annual budget ahead of the preceding year.
•Onyibe, a development strategist and futurologist, sent this piece from Abuja

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