As 2016 Budget Heads for Resolution…

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With the declaration of an end to the budget standoff between the Presidency and National Assembly, both parties must now adopt a more flexible and imaginative approach to the document to ensure its quick and successful implementation. Vincent Obia writes

The saying, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” is remarkably appropriate to Nigeria today, at least with regard to the bickering between the Presidency and National Assembly over the contents of this year’s national budget. The bickering had raged beyond the constitutionally prescribed period for an amicable settlement, raising fears about a more severe degeneration of the relationship between the two arms of government.

But on Tuesday officials of the National Assembly and the Presidency said all disagreements regarding the budget had been resolved and the document would be ready for the president’s assent in a few days. That was after a meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and the leadership of the legislature.

The agreement reached between the executive and the legislature on the passage and subsequent assent to the budget is commendable. But it would, certainly, not be a cure-all for the challenges that have dogged the budget and others that may potentially arise in the course of its implementation. That is why the executive and the National Assembly must consciously avoid anything that could further impede the budget, whose long delay has extensively held up socio-economic activities in the country.
The Buhari government must hit the ground running, when the budget is eventually signed into law, on the execution of the key policies of the administration. The government has consistently claimed that its core policies have been delayed by the budget stalemate.

Prior to the resolution of the disagreements, the executive had sought to withdraw the budget and rewrite it to accommodate certain projects it believed were removed from the appropriation bill it submitted to the National Assembly. The budget of N6.08 trillion, which was passed by the National Assembly on March 23 with some adjustments and later transmitted to the president for his assent, was rejected and returned to the legislature by the president following the latter’s observation of alleged omissions and insertions by the former.

The Presidency had first argued that the appropriation bill passed by the National Assembly and sent to him consisted of mere highlights and lacked details. Then it contended that some core projects in the administration’s socio-economic agenda, which were in the budget proposal, had been removed or unduly altered by the Senate and House appropriation committees headed by Senator Danjuma Goje and Hon.

Abdulmmumin Jibrin, respectively. Some of the affected projects are the N60 billion Lagos-Calabar rail project, which was allegedly removed by the National Assembly; Lagos-Ibadan Expressway budget, which was allegedly reduced by N24 billion; Second Niger Bridge, which was devalued by N3.9 billion; Benin-Sagamu Road, whose proposed cost was cut by N800 million; and Kano-Maiduguri-Ngala rail project that was reduced by N260 million.

But in the National Assembly’s view, it was constitutionally wrong for the president to rewrite a budget that had been passed. It, therefore, argued that the president should sign the budget transmitted to him and later propose an amendment to the appropriation law to accommodate the said omissions.

The arguments raged until April 22, the expiration of the constitutional 30 days interval within which the president must give his assent to the appropriation bill or have his veto on it overruled and the bill passed into law by two-thirds majority votes of the two chambers of the National Assembly.
Nigerians feared that the National Assembly and the Presidency were headed for more collision through the application of strict legality. But both parties decided to change course on the issues. How they steered a course between their seemingly incompatible interests during the meeting Tuesday night, which was said to have lasted only about 10 minutes, is difficult to determine.

But both parties could well have resolved the issues much earlier and saved the citizens from the current harsh economic conditions. The budget standoff has brought economic activities to a complete standstill, as everyone tends to wait and hope that the issues would pan out well. One of the most affected has been the construction subsector, where government debts of over N600 billion to contractors have resulted in the stoppage of activity at the sites. President of the Federation of Construction Industry, Mr. Solomon Ogunbusola, said recently that his members were yet to receive anything from the N350 billion the federal government had in March promised it would inject into the economy through settlement of contractors debts to try to stimulate economic activities.

In addition, acute nationwide petrol scarcity has shot up living expenses to levels not seen in recent history. Generally, the standard of living has fallen to terrible new lows, and the response of the All Progressives Congress federal government to many of its campaign promises has become a source of bad jokes.

But the Buhari government says the future is bright, and it pins its hopes on the budget.
As Nigerians continue to absorb the harsh realities of the budget impasse, it is necessary to examine some of the issues in the imbroglio. This is so that, perhaps, the executive and legislature can take a lesson or two on political harmony, which is indispensable in the successful implementation of the budget by the executive.

Even though the legislature has powers under the constitution to approve projects in the budget, it does not have the right to initiate projects. Projects are initiated through the budget by the executive after the due processes of costing, evaluation, and other feasibility studies by experts. Legislators can recommend projects to the executive, but they cannot stay in the National Assembly and initiate projects for the executive. It is never done, as such projects would necessarily be lacking in due costing and evaluation.

The National Assembly should remove the illegal injections in the budget done by its committees and return the document to the president for assent. After assenting, the executive can then, in the spirit of give and take, present a supplementary budget to take care of the legislators’ constituency projects and their other interests within the limits of the law.

To achieve the harmonious relationship between the executive and the legislature, which is needed for a smooth implementation of the budget, each arm must be willing to accept some of what the other wants and give up some of what it wants.

As Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Emeka Ngige, put it, “Insistence on strict legalism might not achieve the solution that the country needs. What the situation calls for is give and take on the part of the two arms of government in the interest of the masses and to move the country forward.”