Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
By Chuks Okocha, Onwuka Nzeshi, Senator Iroegbu and Dele Ogbodo
For three hours Thursday, the Senate Committee on Appropriation grilled the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, over the implementation of the 2012 budget that has pitted the National Assembly against the presidency.
Okonjo-Iweala, who led a delegation that included the Minister of State for Finance, Dr. Yerima Ngama, told the senators that the executive arm of government had not violated any law regarding the release of funds to ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) in the implementation of the budget.
Others on the delegation were Director General, Budget Office, Dr. Bright Okogu, the Accountant General of the Federation, Mr. Jonah Ogunniyi Otunla, and the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Joy Emodi.
However, Senate President David Mark Thursday dismissed reports of a frosty relationship between the executive and the legislature over the implementation of the budget, describing them as “over exaggerated”.
Okonjo-Iweala, who was summoned by the committee to brief it on the implementation of the budget, said: “We have violated no law. We have implemented the budget, releasing monies as and when due. At no time has the Ministry of Finance or the minister violated the Appropriation Act.”
Her defence on the piecemeal release of appropriated funds to MDAs that has irked the legislature was made just as she condemned the practice of allowing the budget to spill over into a new fiscal year.
She said the extension of the annual budget into the succeeding year was not good budgetary practice and pledged that the executive would endeavour to present the 2013 Appropriation Bill in September.
This, she added, would give the National Assembly ample time to consider its passage so that the implementation can run its traditional course of January to December.
In her presentation, Okonjo-Iweala said of the N1.3 trillion earmarked for capital projects in the budget, a total sum of N404 billion had been released.
Of the released sum, N324 billion of the amount was cash-backed, while N184 billion of the cash-backed sum, representing 56 per cent, had been utilised by the MDAs as at July ending.
The remaining 44 per cent, she said, was yet to be utilised but she assured the senators that the MDAs were making efforts to utilise these funds through various procurements preparatory to the execution of projects.
The minister, however, drew a distinction between the utilisation of funds released and the real budget execution which, she said, stood at some 41.3 per cent.
She explained that so far, the budget had not fared badly because going by the quantum of funds budgeted for capital projects this year, the Federal Ministry of Finance was expected to release, on average, N113 billion per month.
According to her, the budget has been implemented for only four months since the budget cycle effectively began in April.
She said it was premature for anyone to describe the budget as a failure and advised the lawmakers to wait until the end of the budget year to be able to undertake a fair assessment of her performance in implementing the budget.
She also dispelled rumours that Nigeria was broke and unable to fund the budget; hence, the delay in releasing funds to MDAs.
“The country is absolutely not broke. We may have cash flow problems from time to time, which are normal in any economy, but we are certainly not broke.
“This economy is dependent on oil and we could have cash
flow challenges because the price of the product we sell fluctuates from time to time,” she said.
The economy, she said, had done well in terms of revenue generation but the issue, according to her, should not be solely limited to the amount of money released but the real impact of the budget on the country.
She dispelled insinuations that the ministry had withheld funds due to the MDAs, adding that funds are being released while all the cash released are in the accounts of the MDAs domiciled with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
On what had happened to revenues generated before the 2012 budget was passed and signed into law, Okonjo-Iweala gave a breakdown of the items to which the funds were deployed.
These included statutory transfers – N85 billion; domestic debt servicing – N95 billion; personnel cost – N449billion; and overheads – N96 billion.
Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriation, Senator Ahmed Maccido, said the invitation of the minister became necessary following concerns raised by the MDAs, legislators and the public on the implementation of the budget.
Maccido said the session was not just part of the oversight responsibilities of the Senate but a platform for the executive to answer numerous questions raised on the budget.
Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, who led principal officers of the Senate to the session, expressed displeasure at the failure of Okonjo-Iweala to honour earlier invitations from the Senate on the issue.
He said the performance of the budget was of importance to the lawmakers because it is through the budget that the dividends of democracy could be delivered to the electorate.
He reiterated the concern of the legislature over the alleged discriminatory implementation of the budget, particularly the perception that the executive was deliberately sidelining constituency projects in the budget.
Ndoma-Egba said that if the constituency projects had become impediments to the budget, the Senate was prepared to take responsibility for its inputs in the budget but was not prepared to take responsibility for the actions or inactions of the executive on the budget.
Nonetheless, the senate president, at another event in Abuja yesterday, said reports of the face-off between the executive and the legislature over the implementation of the 2012 budget was being exaggerated.
Mark, who spoke at the launch of the mobile version of NTA Startimes Digital Television, said disagreements between the two arms of government on any issue were a normal phenomenon in democratic settings.
"A lot is being said about the percentage implementation of the budget. But whether it is 20 per cent, 39 per cent or 56 per cent means nothing to the common man at the end of the day for as long as the basic necessities of life are provided for him,” he added.
Meanwhile, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has said that the party will find a way to amicably resolve the dispute over the budget between the two arms of government.
The party’s Deputy National Chairman, Dr. Sam Sam Jaja, said yesterday in Abuja that since the PDP has the majority in the legislature and produced the president, it would use this advantage to intervene in the crisis.
“I can assure you that the PDP, as a political party, will play its fatherly role by ensuring that the advantage of the party at the National Assembly is by no means seen as a disadvantage.
“The fatherly role of the party would be used to smoothen any rough edges in the relationship between the members of the party at the National Assembly and the presidency,” he said.
Jaja, who corrected the media’s misrepresentation of his statement on the budget fracas last week, said: “My statement was interpreted out of context. What I said and meant was that the difference between the National Assembly and the executive over the implementation of the 2012 budget should not be celebrated.
“I went further to say that people are over-bloating this issue. I couldn’t have said that Mr. President had committed an impeachable offence when you and I know that he has not committed any.”