Making the Budgetary Process More Purposeful and Rancour-free

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For the greater part since the return of civil rule in 1999, annual budgeting has become synonymous with bickering between the executive and legislative arms of government. Poor planning and execution have also turned out the bane of the nation’s budgeting experience. These pitfalls have strongly recommended a paradigm shift with stakeholders calling for reforms in the budgetary process, reports Ndubuisi Francis

Apart from what has come to be the almost perennial friction between the executive and legislative arms of government over who has what right on the contents of the nation’s annual budgets, since the return of democratic rule in 1999, there has been increasing clamour for reforms in the budgetary process not only to eliminate those controversies but to ensure an effective budget delivery system.

Annual budgets are not only awash with bickering over figures, but mundane arguments over who is superior on issues of appropriation between the executive and legislature.

In the 2000 fiscal year, a former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, withheld his assent to that year’s budget, arguing that the National Assembly had increased its own vote by about N2 billion. It took weeks of altercations before the national caucus of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) could broker a truce for the then president to assent to the budget.

Obasanjo’s successor, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also disagreed with the National Assembly’s tinkering with the 2008 Budget and the huge addition the lawmakers introduced. The wheels of governance were almost grounded until April that year when Yar’Adua was persuaded to sign the Appropriation Bill into law.

Immediate-past President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan also had a taste of the executive-legislature feud in 2011 when the lawmakers increased their vote from N120 billion to N232.74 billion. After a series of peace moves, the parliament settled for N150 billion.

That seems to have become the benchmark for the lawmakers since then. The only exception was in the 2015 budget when the figure came down marginally to N115 billion following a significant drop in the price of oil in the global market.

Perhaps, the 2016 budget appeared the most controversial in recent history. President Muhammadu Buhari had to withhold his assent to the Appropriation Bill following discoveries that the budget had been heavily padded. The document was returned to the parliament for an amendment. This delayed presidential assent until May 6, 2016 with the attendant toll on the nation’s socio-economic landscape.

The N6.06 trillion budget also threw the House of Representatives into a major internal wrangling with some of its principal officers baying for blood from each other over what has been described as unprecedented in the history of ‘budget padding’, in the country.

Besides the yearly friction between the National Assembly and the executive over whether or not the former is imbued with the power to add or subtract from budget proposals submitted by the latter, many stakeholders had, over the years, called for reforms in the budgetary process, not only to eliminate the perennial face-off between the two arms of government, but to enthrone a budgetary process that extirpates those things which slow down budget performance with a view to making the fiscal document result-oriented.

It was in pursuance of that clamour to make the budgetary process seamless and development-oriented that critical stakeholders converged on Abuja recently.

Among them were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara; his immediate predecessor and Sokoto State Governor, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal; Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu. Acting Chairman of the Fiscal Responsibility Commission (FRC), Mr. Victor Murako; Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, and the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Eze Onyekpere, among others.

The event was a colloquium on ‘Reforming the Budgetary Process’,organised by OrderPaper.ng.

The forum was chaired by Tambuwal, who in his presentation, said it was clear that with the uncalled-for altercations over the years on annual budgets between both arms of government, there was the need “to reform the federal budgetary process to make it more lucid, inclusive and implementable.”|

Tambuwal stated that “part of the reasons why we have had problems with the budget over the years is the paucity of knowledge about the whole budget process, stressing that “this type of conversation is therefore critical to the effort we must make to make the budgetary process accessible to all and encourage more participation in this crucial national issue.

“It is our firm belief that if more stakeholders, especially the major players in the process, can gain greater insight into the whole system of budgeting, and if the National Assembly, as an arm of government can attain the dexterity demanded to examine the budgetary estimates submitted annually by the president, there will be less attrition and mistrust between the two arms of government,” he said.

In a keynote address, captioned ‘Budget as a Critical Tool for Effective Executive-Legislative Relations’, the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma sought for a departure from the debate as to who has what power between both arms, but to develop a practice and convention that works for the country.

Udoma added that, what was, in his view, best for the nation was for all parties to work together in the national interest to ensure that Nigerians get the best possible budget.

Udoma, who was represented by the Director, Economic Growth,in his ministry, Kayode Obasa, said he served in the Senate for two terms, from 1999-2007 in various positions, including being chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee at one time, and then chairman of the National Planning, Revenue Mobilisation and Poverty Alleviation Committee of the Senate at another time.

He argued that there were two main reasons why the budget process stands out in the executive-legislative relationship, pointing out that it involved the use of public funds, which has far-reaching impact on the lives of citizens.

The second reason, he added, was because it is the most frequent exercise that brings the two arms of government to a decision table.

“It is therefore not surprising that right from the inception of this republic in 1999 the processes of producing the annual budgets have been extremely contentious.

“I am sure they were also contentious in our previous democratic experience but I will restrict myself, for the purpose of this conversation, to the period from 1999. Every year, since 1999, the budget process has witnessed tensions between the executive and the legislature, and even within the legislature itself, as recent experience has shown.

The main issue of contention, he said, had been the respective powers of the executive and the legislature in producing the budget. By virtue of Section 81 of the Constitution the President has the prerogative of formulating the budget and drafting the Appropriation Bill and presenting the estimates.

However, Udoma noted that there had been contentions as to how far the National Assembly can go in considering these estimates, adding that, “some learned writers and professors, such as Prof. Ben Nwabueze, argue that the National Assembly, in reviewing the estimates presented by the executive can reduce, or indeed, completely remove heads of expenditure but that the National Assembly cannot increase or introduce completely new projects.”

“Some other commentators have rejected that view and have contended that, as is the practice in the United States of America, there are no limits whatsoever to what the National Assembly can do in processing the budget and that the National Assembly can increase, or reduce and can even introduce completely new projects not envisaged by the President,” Udoma stated.

According to him, success in producing a good 2017 Budget would require strong collaboration between the executive and the National Assembly, adding that in order to achieve this, there must be mutual understanding and ownership of national objectives and priorities.

“For instance, we should all agree that at this time of recession, we need to ensure prudent allocation of resources to key capital projects that will help to lift the economy out of recession and onto the path of sustainable growth.

“All the key stakeholders must understand and appreciate the overall budgetary constraints as well as implications of some fiscal trade-offs.

“The executive and the legislature have different roles in the budget production process but these roles must be seen as complementary. The National Assembly must not see itself as in competition with the executive,” he said.

In his submission, Ekweremadu, disagreed with the earlier position of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Eta Enang, that the practice in the parliament had been to delegate powers to the Appropriation Committee to oversee the Appropriation Bills to the final stage.

While picking holes in Enang’s position, Ekweremadu noted that having spent 13 years in the National Assembly, such had never been the practice.

He argued that no responsible parliament would delegate such powers to a committee on an issue as critical as a national budget.

Speaker, the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara in his speech titled: ‘Legislative Perspectives on the Budget Process’, noted that issues concerning the budget and budget process in Nigeria had been in the front-burner of public discourse for some time now.

Controversy over Power of Appropriation

Dogara did not allow the opportunity offered by the forum to comment on the famed padding controversy slip by, particularly the issue of whether or not the National Assembly should introduce anything to budget proposals submitted by the executive.

He said it was not the design of the Nigerian Constitution to give the lawmakers powers to only reduce without commensurate powers to increase.

He argued that those from the school of thought that the parliament should only cut what is submitted without adding were trying to copy the British parliamentary system, which Nigeria is not practising.

On the legal framework for budgeting, Dogara pointed out that as clearly evident, the legislature is unquestionably at the heart of the budget process, not only in Nigeria but in all countries practising presidential democracy.

“The legal framework for budgetary process in Nigeria would be found in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) in Sections 4, 59, 80-82, and others. Some laws also have bearing on the matter, namely: Finance (Control and Management) Act, CAP F26, LFN 2004 and the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007.

“Administrative manuals and documents have also some bearing on budget matters. These include, the Annual Budget Call Circular and Federal Government Financial Regulations,” he said, adding that judicial pronouncements are also sources of budget information and authority.

Dogara emphasised the role of the budget in accelerated economic development, noting that the annual budget is thus, the vehicle provided by law for the acquisition, allocation and distribution of resources for socio-economic development of the nation. He, therefore, posited that a budget should reflect not just national priorities but also the priorities of the ruling party.

“As our democracy matures, elections would be based on contrasting visions of development which is submitted to the electorate to decide. Therefore, when a political party comes to power, it would be ready to govern from day one, based on the programmes and vision placed before the electorate.

“Of course, the new government must conduct a proper audit of the situation of things in various sectors to understand the system and recalibrate its policies, where necessary.

The budget is one of the major means of achieving these objectives.

On the role of the legislature in the budgeting process, the Speaker said recent events had brought to the fore the extent of the powers of the National Assembly with respect to the budgeting process.

“Indeed, many commentators, including lawyers, have contended that the power of the National Assembly (NASS) is restricted to examining the budget and making corrections where necessary. Some contend that the Appropriation power enables the National Assembly to reduce but not to increase expenditure and that it lacks power to introduce new items into the budget.

“Those who contend that the National Assembly cannot increase the budget but can only reduce it are trying to import the British parliamentary law into a presidential system of government.

“In the British parliamentary system, the Crown has prerogative over money supply and the legislature is specifically prohibited from increasing the budget. It should be noted that the critical difference is that Parliament under a parliamentary system includes all the ministers unlike the presidential system where the ministers are not part of the National Assembly.

“It is therefore the decision of the executive that carries the day in parliament as the ministers are also leaders of parliament. This position is therefore justified on the basis of separation of powers, which is inherent in a presidential democracy as practised in Nigeria. In addition, if the Constitution intended that the National Assembly should not have power to increase a budget item, it should have said so,” Dogara argued.

Nigeria’s budgeting system, he said, is closer to the model practised in the United States of America, where Congress has authority to alter, increase, reduce or introduce new budget items.