For more than three months, the Presidency and the National Assembly have engaged in a running battle over the 2016 budget. Will there be an end to the face-off soon? Ask Omololu Ogunmade and Damilola Oyedele

The face-off between the Presidency and the National Assembly gives no sign of abating. 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 2016 budget would alleviate their plights, the budget has been mired in controversy and every sigh of relief heaved by the people after a semblance of resolution has always been ephemeral as such a relief quickly gives way to a fresh wave of controversies.

Thus, the budget impasse has seen a progression 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 of allocation by ministers. The passage by the National Assembly while work was still ongoing on the document was also parts of the controversies which have made the document a subject of embarrassment.

That the entire world is aware of the controversy surrounding the budget became obvious on Thursday when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in far away United States advised the executive and the legislature to end the budget row in the interest of the country.

The most recent controversy began with the rejection of highlights of 2016 budget transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari after its passage on March 23 by the National Assembly. Buhari had insisted that he would not endorse the Appropriation Bill which contained only highlights of the budget and demanded for 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 claim 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 followed 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 N60 billion Calabar-Lagos rail project in the budget had been removed by lawmakers and part of the funds diverted to Lagos-Kano Rail project. 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.

Media reports immediately put the blame at the doorstep of Chairmen of the Appropriation Committees in the Senate and the House, Senator Danjuma Goje (Gombe) and Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumim (Kano), respectively, both of whom are from the North.

Abdulmumim in a series of tweets had explained that the N39.7 billion alloted to the Lagos-Kano rail project was from a N54billion which was discovered to be floating in the budget of the Ministry of Transport.

Abdulmumim himself is however under fire for allegedly unilaterally allocating unplanned constituency projects worth N4 billion to his constituency, a move which has reportedly led many of his colleagues to demand for his removal.

Attempts to also justify the exclusion was the Lagos-Calabar rail project on the ground that it was not in the budget submitted by the President was faulted by Chairman of the Senate Committee on Transport, Senator Gbenga Ashafa. Ashafa (Lagos West) in a statement said the project was brought before the Committee by the Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, and was defended.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Namdas Abdulrazak agreed that was the case, but noted that there was no way the Committee would have included a document brought before it by a minister into the budget, without the authority of the President.

“We know some Presidents send Ministers to present the budget, but this President brought it himself, so we cannot accept any other document through the backdoor.”

“If we allow it (Calabar-Lagos rail project) be smuggled in at the Committee level, next year others too will wait for their budget to be at the Committee level, and smuggle in all kinds of things. Then the N’Assembly will be accused of padding,” he added.

But this allegation of budget distortion 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 Nigerians.

This provoked anger in the Senate and prompted it to warn the Presidency to henceforth stop its alleged hide and seek game on 2016 budget. A statement issued by 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 also 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 also accused the presidency of gross incompetence in the preparation of the budget adding that the document was highly embarrassing and characterised by a mess which it said the National Assembly helped 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 and also 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.

But 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 N60 billion Lagos-Calabar rail project in the 2016 budget.

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

Abdullahi insisted that having passed the Appropriation Bill, it was impossible for the National Assembly to revisit 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 passage of the 2016 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 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 implementating 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 arose penultimate 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., unless by way of supplementary budget. This therefore implies that both chambers of the National Assembly are working at cross-purposes which will only prolong the budget crisis. This is moreso that no bill can be passed into law by the National Assembly unless both the Senate and House of Representatives work on such a bill and pass it.

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 he 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 penultimate 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 also shows that not only is the National Assembly divided by the budget, it has also polarised the Senate and House of Representatives into North-South divide.

Interestingly, whereas the Senate insisted that it was done with the 2016 budget and would only work on a supplementary budget, the House in a surprise move said it was ready to re-examine the budget which was passed by both chambers on March 23, to resolve knotty issues with the Executive.

Speaker Yakubu Dogara said the re-examination would be done in the interest of Nigerians to ensure a budget that is implementable, but did not clarify if the bill that had already been passed would be recalled, or what form the re-examination would take.

The budget is a bill that needs concurrence of both chambers, and changes would need harmonization with the Senate which announced that it had already finished work as far as the 2016 budget was concerned.

Namdas took a safe approach in explaining the new development.

“If we look at it, and we are convinced 60 percent is okay, we would urge the President to sign it and let’s start implementing the 60 percent. Then let’s accommodate others in supplementary budget,” he said.

Three options may be available to the President as the current impasse continues, according to a legislative source conversant with budget matters.

“He has a time frame of 30 days, if he does not sign it, and the National Assembly is in a confrontational mood, they would override him. But he also has the option of signing and sending a supplementary budget, or signing it into law, and quickly seek an amendment,” the source said.

“Overriding his veto would however begin another round of crises which may set the tone of what to expect between the legislature and parliament for the rest of President Buhari‘s tenure,” the source added.

Several lawmakers have however harped on the need to resolve the impasse as soon as possible in the interest of the country.

Conscious of the implication of a protracted crisis over the budget, the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives were scheduled to hold a meeting with the President last Friday night, although feelers from the Senate indicate that the upper chamber prefer a supplementary bill to be sent to the legislature.

Leaders of both chambers met last Wednesday night to discuss the matter, because of the need for concurrence of the Senate to the decision of the House to re-examine the budget.

The House, last week, confirmed that it had identified the ‘grey areas’ in the 2016 budget which set the National Assembly against the Executive resulting in President Buhari delaying his assent to the budget.

The House spokesperson, Hon. Namdas, briefing newsmen last Thursday disclosed that a letter from the presidency listing the areas of contention had been received.

Namdas however declined to reveal the grey areas listed by the President, as he parried questions on whether the Calabar-Lagos rail line project was included in the letter.

He also refused to explain why the letter was not read on the floor of the House at plenary, as is normal tradition with formal communication between the President and both chambers.

“The Speaker met with the President as mandated by the House…I can confirm that we are in possession of the grey areas,” he said, and also declined to disclosed when the letter was received by the House.

Even though Speaker Dogara met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and there were reports that Budget Minister Udoma met with the leadership of the Senate penultimate week, the lingering controversy means succour may not be close for an economy that urgently requires stimulation through the release of appropriated funds.