People2People…with Oke Epia
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The media has been buzzing with analysis, discussions and commentaries on the 2016 budget since it was signed by President Muhammadu Buhari penultimate Friday. The event of a presidential assent to annual budget should not have normally taken such life of its own beyond the memorabilia of photo-ops for the President and the small cluster of top government functionaries that usually surround him for the moment. But because expectations had been long-drawn over an anxious period of buck-passing between the Executive and the National Assembly, Buhari’s pen on paper had become a golden fillip needed to kick-start a stifled economy as it were.
The delay in passing and assenting to the budget had put tremendous pressure on both the presidency and legislature which had at various times traded in blame games to pass off the gale of negative public opinion to the opposing camp. Apparently what was the most disturbing aspect of the ding-dong affair was the fear that the delay would leave a huge constraint on the implementation of the budget with respect especially to time left for execution of capital projects. This fear rested on the premise (sustained by past precedents) that the budget circle began in January and ended in December of the year. But that is what it was: a mere premise built on a rather half-baked understanding of the Constitution of the country. But the 2016 budget as passed by the legislature and signed by the President has changed the budget circle of the country. The life span of this budget began May 6, 2016 and ends May 5, 2017. That is the new reality.
And this happened because of a masterstroke input by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, who had begun to interrogate, much before the 2016 budget was submitted to the National Assembly, the validity of the January-to-December budget circle in the light of delayed conclusion of work on the fiscal document year-in year-out. At a Roundtable on the Economy last November, Dogara had urged participants to “consider whether it is appropriate to continue to maintain January to December as the financial year,” hinting that the “National Assembly may prescribe the financial year to be 12months from the date of the signing of the Appropriation Bill. This is because the only way a Budget would have any realistic chance of full implementation is if it is operated for 12 calendar months as the spirit of Section 318 of the Constitution seems to suggest.”
It is not in contention whatsoever that the power of appropriation of public funds in Nigeria lies with the legislature as Section 81 of the Constitution clearly stipulates. However, there has been over the years, a contrived ambiguity with respect to the term ‘financial year’ as to suggest that the Appropriation Act is a definitive period of January to December. But Section 318 cited by the Speaker exposes the fault of that suggestion (or assumption) as it gives yet some power to the National Assembly to define the fiscal year within any twelve months of the year. Section 318 (Interpretation, Citation and Commencement) defined ‘financial year’ as “any period of twelve months beginning on the first day of January in any year or such other date as the National Assembly may prescribe.” (Emphasis mine).
It is this section of the grundnorm that Mr. Speaker sought to bring to life when in his remarks during the 2016 budget presentation ceremony by Mr. President on December 22, 2015 at the Chamber of the House of Representatives, he had said: “The National Assembly, going forward, may need therefore, to prescribe another date as the financial year in line with provisions of Section 318 of the Constitution, whenever the budget is not passed before January 1 in any given year. The letter and spirit of the Constitution requires that the financial year shall not be less than 12 months. The date of commencement of the financial year may change but not the 12 months period, it seems.”
Dogara had apparently made that intervention in view of the fact that the budget had come late to the legislature and the possibility (which eventually became an inevitability) of a prolonged passage and eventual assent by Buhari. But the Speaker was more than anything else concerned about the implementation of the budget as he had stated thus: “I wish to reiterate that a well-crafted budget is not an end in itself, the real meat of a budget is in it’s implementation. While the National Assembly will endeavor to diligently scrutinize and pass the budget in good time to facilitate early commencement of it’s implementation. In this regard, and in order to aid Mr. President to execute and implement the budget, it may be necessary to take a second look at the constitutional definition of financial year. Section 318 of the Constitution defines a ‘Financial Year’ to mean ‘any period of twelve months beginning on the first day of January in any year or such other date as the National Assembly may prescribe’.
“Consequently, if this proposal is accepted, it may become imperative that the 2016 budget may commence 12 months from the date it is signed into Law by Mr. President. A budget may have a realistic chance of implementation when the Executive has 12 uninterrupted months to execute it. Mr. President’s Change Agenda can only be realized for the benefit of the Nigerian people when his policies and programmes are faithfully executed. This proposal would need to be effected in full consultation with the Executive branch.”
In following through with the proposal therefore, the House adopted the recommendation of its Appropriation Committee which stated that “in line with the provisions of Section 318 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, this Bill will run for a course of 12 months starting from the date it is assented into law.” As it has turned out, this resolution eventually got reflected in the document signed by the President on May 6, thereby laying to rest fears that the budget would not be fully implemented in a space of six months or so.
What this means is that the APC-led Buhari administration has no excuse not to fulfill its promises embedded in the 2016 budget: at least not on any excuse of time constraint as there is now adequate window for implementation by Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government. The year-long excuse that the government has not been able to meet some of its campaign promises because it was yet to have a budget of its own is now consigned to the past. There is now valid ground to fully assess the administration and in about a year from now, a verdict would be out. Dogara and the legislature generally, have played their part in building a firm foundation for a fair verdict. The onus is now on Mr. President and his horde of officials across board to deliver on their part of the bargain. Nigerians demand nothing more but the dividends of the ‘change mantra’ chanted by the APC.
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