Since President Muhammadu Buhari submitted the 2017 Appropriations proposal to the joint sitting of the two branches of the National Assembly last December, many Nigerians have been on the watch to know what difference will attend the process of passing it compared to that of last year.
The 2016 process was bedevilled with so many problems. First, while members of the National Assembly proceeded on End of year recess after receiving the document so late from the President, during the holiday, there were speculations that the document submitted in the full glare of the public had developed wings. Though the National Assembly insisted the information was untrue, later facts revealed that what happened was an attempt by some officials from the executive arm to replace what the President submitted with a new document.
President Buhari eventually wrote the federal legislature formally replacing the budget proposal. This was followed by series of denials of the proposed estimates contained in the budget by some Ministries, Departments and Agencies. These rebuttals and rejection of the proposed estimates by MDAs became what is now famously referred to as ‘Budget Padding’. This is because it is believed that some bureaucrats in the Budget Office inflated and imported strange figures into the Appropriation Bill without the knowledge of the heads of MDAs to which they are attributed.
The budget padding syndrome led to the sanctioning of some officials in the Budget Office. To strengthen the operation of the office, a new head, Dr. Ben Akabueze was appointed. Remember the 2016 budget was the first full budget to be prepared and implemented by the Buhari administration. Thus, apart from the shake-up in the Budget Office, it is obvious that both the executive and the legislature needed to buckle up to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment that attended the last year’s budget.
In preparation for this year’s budget, the Senate set up a committee comprising Senators and members from the Ministry of Budget and the National Institute of Legislative Studies (NILS) to review the process and make recommendations for improvements. The committee headed by then majority leader, Sen. Ali Ndume suggested several methods and measures which if eventually adopted will ease the process, make it more thorough and transparent.
One of the recommendations is a time table which will see the President submitting the budget well on time while the passage and assent to the Appropriation bill will take place before the end of the year.
More importantly, the National Assembly under its Chairman and Senate President, Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki canvassed and emphasised improved consultations between the Presidency and the legislature so that majority of the grey and dark areas of the budget would have been cleared between both sides before the process commences.
From the legislative point, the lawmakers on their own had several in-house discussions where all members were made to understand what to do and have their time-line on the process of passage of the budget. The Senate and House of Representatives officially commenced the process on January 24 with a three-day plenary debate of the general principles of the 2017 budget. On January 26, Saraki held a meeting with Committee chairmen to brief them on the need to be diligent, transparent and be fast about the budget. During the briefing, Saraki distributed a document prepared by a Civil Society Organisation, BudgIt, which already identified 601 areas of the budget proposal which it termed “Frivolous and Suspicious Items”. The BudgIt document is expected to serve as a guide for the legislators.
Last Monday, the National Assembly unfolded another innovation into the budget process with the commencement of a three-day unprecedented public hearing. This enables members of the public, Civil society groups, socio-cultural groups and others to have a say in what the budget will eventually look like. Through the public hearing, the National Assembly is broadening and democratising participation in the budget process.
The defence before the legislative committees by MDAs which was concluded last Friday has been devoid of any allegation or scandal. The committees are keeping to the time table agreed with their leadership. It is also expected that harmonisation at committee level has been concluded. By tomorrow, submission of committee reports to the Appropriation Committee based on an earlier announced schedule will begin and end on Friday, February 24.
On Tuesday February 21, plenary will resume. All that will now be left will be compilation of committee reports, engagement of the leadership by the appropriation committee as well as interface with some committees, laying reports at plenary and consideration/passage of the budget.
It is expected that before the end of March, the budget should be ready for assent by President Buhari. This will be clear ten weeks gained considering that the 2016 budget in operation was passed in May. The early passage of the budget will give ample time for the National Assembly to roll out the plan contained in the reports of the Committee on Budget reform to create a system-driven, process-oriented auto-Pilot budget process before the next exercise.
The success of the budget process as planned by the National Assembly will affect its implementation and relevance in uplifting the standard of living of the people. That is the objective of the first ever public hearing on the passage of the Appropriation Act introduced by National Assembly.
––Olaniyonu is Special Adviser to Senate President on Media and Publicity.