TIME TO END THE 2016 BUDGET IMPASSE

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The earlier the dispute over the budget is resolved, the better for all

More than four months after President Muhammadu Buhari presented the 2016 Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly for approval, and almost midway into the second quarter of the year, the budget is still enmeshed in controversy. Even though there is no official word from the presidency, there are telltale signs that both the executive and the legislative arms of government are still squabbling over the details. Yet, muscle flexing at a time many Nigerians are in distress and with a serious cash crunch in the economy is counter-productive, especially since implementing the budget, with the release of capital votes for different projects, can change the current narrative.

The shameful controversy started in January when the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, told his colleagues that the hard and soft copies of the 2016 budget President Buhari handed over to the National Assembly on December 22, 2015, was missing. He stated further that deliberation on the budget could not begin until fresh copies of the documents were obtained from the presidency or the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. The Chairman, Senate Committee of Appropriation, Senator Danjuma Goje, was subsequently mandated to lead a search for the document.

No sooner had the presidency admitted that the budget was withdrawn and a revised version represented to the National Assembly, the Appropriation Bill stumbled into another bout of controversy when the heads of ministries, departments and agencies of government started distancing themselves from their budget subheads on the grounds of padding, inconsistencies and embarrassing errors that could not be explained.

Against the background that it was budget tinkering that instigated the current crisis in Brazil for which President Dilma Roussef stands the risk of losing her office, we wonder why the scandal surrounding the 2016 budget in our country is being treated as an administrative lapse. It is a serious crime which has reared its ugly head repeatedly over the years and must be dealt with once and for all. In 2005, a minister, a senate president and some of their colleagues who allegedly collected money to inflate the budget of the education ministry were charged to court for corrupt practices. The case was delayed for years but the Supreme Court has directed that the trial be continued. Accordingly, unless members of the so-called budget mafia are fished out and prosecuted, this problem will continue.

Now, the story is that President Buhari is withholding his assent because of areas of concern in the document for which he is demanding adjustments. Noteworthy is the Lagos-Calabar rail project considered as a critical infrastructure focus of the administration. The National Assembly reportedly removed it from the bill even though there were several claims and counter-claims on what exactly happened.

As things stand today, trading blame cannot be a solution to the problem at hand. Neither the executive nor the National Assembly can claim any moral high ground given the untidy manner in which the issue has been handled from the beginning. Besides, the entire country should not be made to suffer as a result of what is becoming a power struggle on an issue that has dragged on for far too long.

From all indications, we believe that the option left is for some form of compromise between the executive and the legislature so that Nigerians can put this unfortunate issue behind them. It is indeed a shame that the budget for 2016 is still being discussed when a third of the year is already gone, raising questions about its implementation. Yet what is obvious from the whole controversy is the clear division within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) that has the majority in both chambers of the National Assembly. Ordinarily, this is an issue that should have been sorted out through consultations.

We hope the leadership of both the executive and the legislature will sit down to quickly resolve whatever the differences are so that the implementation of the 2016 budget can begin apace.