Budget of Many Controversies

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For more than three months, the presidency and the National Assembly have engaged each other in a battle of wits over the 2016 budget. The matter, however, climaxed last week when the Senate warned the presidency to desist from its campaign of calumny. Omololu Ogunmade gives an update in a matter already mired in politics

The war of attrition between the Presidency and the National Assembly gives no sign of abating. Both institutions have in recent times resorted to name-calling and issuance of threats against each other. The bone of contention has been the 2016 budget, which has generated suspicion between the two arms of government.

Whereas Nigerians have continued to endure a range of hardships with the hope that the passage of the 2016 budget would alleviate their plights, every sigh of relief heaved by the people after a measure of controversies is always ephemeral as such a relief quickly gives way to a fresh wave of controversies.

Thus, the budget impasse has been a procession from the allegation of missing budget to swapping of the document; budget padding to budget of errors and duplication of figures as well as disowning their budgets by ministers. The claim of passage by National Assembly while legislation was still ongoing on the document was also parts of the controversies that have made the document a subject of international embarrassment.

That the entire world is aware of the embarrassment accompanying the budget presentation arose on Thursday, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in faraway United States advised the executive and the legislature to end the budget row in the interest of their country.

The most recent controversy began with the rejection of highlights of the 2016 budget transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari after its passage on March 23, by the National Assembly. Buhari had rejected the Appropriation Bill, which contained only highlights of the budget and demanded details of the budget before he could give his assent. The rejection exposed that the National Assembly was yet to conclude work on the budget despite claims that it had passed it.

However, after about two weeks, the National Assembly eventually concluded legislation on the budget and transmitted it. For many Nigerians, who had journeyed through the controversies trailing the budget from inception, its transmission was victory at last and light at the end of the tunnel.

But the euphoria of that perceived victory was short-lived as 48 hours later the presidency came up with an allegation that the N60billion Calabar-Lagos Rail Project in the budget had been removed by lawmakers. The presidency also alleged the diversion of some allocations to some projects in the North as well as the removal of N18 billion Kaduna-Idu Rail Project.

This allegation put the National Assembly on the spot and portrayed it as an army of unpatriotic citizens, who discarded important projects which could add value to the lives of hapless Nigerians. This provoked anger in the Senate and prompted it to warn the Presidency to henceforth put paid to its alleged hide and seek game on the 2016 budget.

A statement by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, also warned the Presidency to stop engaging in what it described as surreptitious campaigns of calumny against the National Assembly in order to cover up its shortcomings.

It said the executive lacked the effrontery to sustain its persistent attacks against the National Assembly in view of alleged flaws, which characterised the 2016 budget, alleging that the National Assembly had to bend backwards to produce a meaningful document out of the excessively flawed and chaotic versions of the budget proposal submitted to it by Buhari.

The Senate further accused the presidency of gross incompetence in the preparation of the budget, adding that the document was highly embarrassing and characterised with mess which it claimed to help it to clean. The parliament took exception to what it described as an unwarranted attitude of the presidency to set the public against the National Assembly, emphasising that the power of appropriation rested with it.
The Senate took a swipe at the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, whom it accused of orchestrating the allegation. It described the minister’s “antics” of evolving the allegation as reckless, uncalled for and dangerously divisive. Consequently, it asked him to tender an unreserved apology for the allegation or resign.

Notwithstanding the insistence of the presidency that the projects should be included in the budget, the Senate resumed from its Easter break and ruled out the possibility of reconsidering the inclusion of the N60 billion Lagos-Calabar Rail Project in the 2016 budget.

Instead, the parliament promised to consider it only if a supplementary budget is sent to it by the executive. According to Abdullahi, the Senate stood by its position on Monday that enough of the blackmail from the executive over the budget.

Abdullahi insisted that having passed the Appropriation Bill, it was impossible for the National Assembly to revisit the 2016 budget, explaining that the only option left is for Buhari to sign the budget and thereafter send a supplementary budget on the rail projects as provided for in the constitution. He argued that the Senate had resolved to be guided by provisions of the constitution in handling the crisis emanating from the passage of the budget.

“Now, one thing that is obvious is that, yes, we have passed the budget. Nigerians are asking what next for us. What is important now is for the budget to be signed. The constitution has taken note of this kind of scenario, where you may have omissions or shortfalls of allocations and Section 81 of the constitution is very clear on what you need to do which is to sign the budget and then submit a supplementary appropriation.

“I want to assure you that the Senate is not unmindful of the cries of Nigerians. That we said, for example, that the Lagos-Calabar rail project was not in the budget does not in any way undermine the fact. It is a very, very important project for this nation to embark on and so the National Assembly, the Senate is open if the executive brings a supplementary appropriation with respect to this issue and any other issue that they feel very strongly about.

“We are ready and willing to consider such but the most important point to note is that we want to remain guided by the provisions of the constitution. I think if we do that, all these raging controversies will be up our back and we can all concentrate and put our energies to begin the process of implementing the 2016 budget so that those dividends of democracy, the youth unemployment issue, the empowerment of women, the social intervention programme, the infrastructural programmes, the agricultural programmes can be addressed. The rains are already here and all other projects that we know will kick-start,” he said.

But indications that it will take a long time for the budget impasse to be resolved manifested on Wednesday, when the House of Representatives rose from its three-hour executive session with a resolution to re-examine the budget. This position was in contrast with that of the Senate which had ruled out the possibility of re-visiting it.

This, therefore, implies that both chambers of the National Assembly are working at cross-purposes, which will only prolong crisis on the budget. This is more so that no bill can be passed into law by the National Assembly unless both the Senate and House of Representatives work in unanimity on such a bill.

But the current discordant tunes in the National Assembly only shows that even if the president vetoes the Appropriation Bill within the 30 days that it constitutionally has to either assent to it or veto it, the National Assembly will lack the required common grounds to override the president’s veto. The adverse effect of this dangerous trend therefore is that government business will shut down as the federal government will be unable to draw money from the federation account after six months into the fiscal year.

However, the House of Representatives has found an ally in the Southern senators, who last week met at various caucuses of their regions and resolved that the Calabar-rail line project must be included in the project.

The Southern senators ended their various caucuses’ meeting with the conclusion that the project considered to be vital for the region was deliberately removed from the budget by Appropriation Committees of the National Assembly headed by Northern lawmakers. They therefore threw their weight behind the decision by Buhari to withhold his assent from the bill until the project is restored.

This decision by Southern senators shows that not only the National Assembly is divided by the budget, it has also polarised the Senate and House of Representatives into North-South divide. The current scenario on the budget therefore shows that Nigerians awaiting the take-off of the budget may have to wait for a long while.

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This decision by Southern senators shows that not only the National Assembly is divided by the budget, it has also polarised the Senate and House of Representatives into North-South divide. The current scenario on the budget therefore shows that Nigerians awaiting the take-off of the budget may have to wait for a long while