Appropriation Debate: Can N’Assembly Make Laws?

0

The recent bickering between the Executive and the Legislature over the power of appropriation has yet again raised the question on whether or not the National Assembly can make laws, writes Olawale Olaleye

Aday after assenting to the budget, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo sent a thank you missile to the legislature by criticising the legislature for altering the budget, which he claimed the legislature was not constitutionally empowered to do. Osinbajo, reports had it, said the power of appropriation was vested in the executive and not the legislature, adding that the alteration of the budget by the National Assembly had distorted the plans of the executive in implementing the 2017 budget.

Quickly, the National Assembly, which reckoned the acting president might have been quoted out of context, reminded Osinbajo that the constitution was clear on its powers to legislate and alter the budget, since it was not a rubber stamp legislature. The legislature particularly reminded Osinbajo that the power to interpret the constitution with respect to its powers on Appropriation was with the judiciary and not the executive.

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, appeared to be more irked about this development, when he said the National Assembly had powers to alter national budget according to the desire of the citizens. He stated this during plenary after Representative Abubakar Lawal (APC, Adamawa) drew the attention of the lower chamber to Osinbajo’s remarks.

“This issue is left to the judiciary to interpret to us as to what arm of government has power to do what. For me, this is not an issue we should dwell so much on,” he said, adding that “I don’t want to believe that the Acting President made that statement, because when it comes to the budget, the power of the purse rests with the parliament.

“The executive is just one man; every other person in the executive arm is answerable to the president alone. The relationship is that of master and servant, but for the parliament, it is that of equals. Even, when the president hasn’t said anything, everyone is trying to read what the body language is; the basis of democracy is collaboration.

“In the case of the budget, if the parliament disagrees with the executive, the worst that would happen is that they will refuse to sign the budget. In that case, we can override the veto of the President and pass it into law. The worse the Executive can say is that they will not implement. The question then will be, is that the law of the land? Anyone with honour, who is in the seat, should know the right thing to be done,” he said.

But it didn’t end there as many of the lawmakers, THISDAY gathered, were still uncomfortable with Osinbajo’s comments. Some of the lawmakers, who appeared furious, were said to have insisted that Osinbajo had made his remark in bad faith, in order to pit Nigerians against the legislature.

Unfortunately, the agreement brokered between the two arms of government and which was meant to pave the way for a virement request as a pre-condition for the assent of the 2017 budget seems to be in jeopardy as the lawmakers had threatened not to entertain the proposed request for the virement of funds, or even a supplementary budget proposal from the presidency.

Osinbajo had during the budget’s assent disclosed that the executive arm of government and legislature had agreed to a virement request to reinstate several budgetary proposals altered in the Appropriation Bill by the National Assembly.

Some of the key projects affected by the National Assembly’s alterations included allocations to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the Mambilla power project, railway projects, and the Second Niger Bridge, among others.
Sources in the presidency had also told THISDAY that the legislature allegedly shaved off an estimated N500 billion from critical infrastructure projects and inserted 4,000 new projects that were not proposed by the executive in the 2017 budget.

This, the sources said, had raised concerns among the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) during the budget review, after its passage by the National Assembly, and was blamed for the delay in the presidential assent until a deal was struck between both arms of government for a virement request to reinstate the alterations.

Even more annoying to the lawmakers now is that they were said to have been monitoring developments on the budget and had gathered that Osinbajo was seeking legal opinions from practically all the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) in the President Muhammau Buhari cabinet.

The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, had recently come out with an opinion on the matter, when he said the legislature went beyond its powers in certain parts of the budget. Fashola considered the development as a healthy debate in national interest and craved a one-off judicial interpretation to resolve the matter.

Professor Itse Sagay, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, too expressed similar opinion on the development and was naturally unkind to the legislature in his criticism. But the Senate had quickly come out to dismiss Fashola’s claims as half-truths and not consistent with the reality on the ground.

The latest, however, is that all the lawyers in the cabinet had been allegedly directed to produce their opinions as a memo to the acting president through his Chief of Staff, Mr. Ade Ipaye, who is also a lawyer, in addition to allegedly contacting some other constitutional law experts.

The fact that these moves are known to the National Assembly and reports that a suit on the issue to be filed at the Supreme Court is in the offing gives an entirely new twist to this avoidable debate. And because the National Assembly does not want to be caught unawares or ambushed by the executive, it is said to be monitoring events and the leadership had decided that to respond appropriately to any of the moves by the executive.
Interestingly, the legislature, like Fashola too is said to believe that such a move would help to strengthen the presidential system of governance, the separation of powers as well as the rule of law, thinking also that the Supreme Court verdict would also settle the lingering issue once and for all.

However, taking this route as far as this very matter is concerned is preparing the grounds for disharmony between the two arms of government, which could hamper the 2018 budget, due to be submitted later in the year. It would have been expected that the executive, after the delay experienced in the signing of the budget long after it was passed by the National Assembly would be keen more about implementation since time is no longer on its side.

This particular 2017 budget is so crucial that both arms should have known better than to engage in needless debate over who commands the power of appropriation. Importantly is the fact that the nation’s possible exit from the hard biting recession had been hinged on this particular budget. Yet, knowing this crystal clearly and still encouraging a needless and avoidable spat is to say the least, worrisome.

Although there is no doubting the fact that the matter would ultimately end at the Supreme Court for apt interpretation and with a view to putting paid on it, as it is now, it is sheer distraction that could breed preventable disharmony between the two arms of government. This is certainly not a good development in national interest. The two arms must review this untoward stand, considering the plight of the citizenry and work as a team as far as the 2017 budget is concerned.

In the final analysis, however, if it is generally taken that the National Assembly has the powers to make laws, the appropriation bill as an act of law is conversely not beyond it. It is elementary knowledge that the legislature has this power and contesting it with it in this version can only aggravate the seemingly no-love-lost relationship between them and at the end of the day, the people will suffer the most.

In the same vein, if governance is about planning and execution of policies and electoral promises, that too, is essentially an executive business, which has nothing to do with the legislature. This is why wisdom and shared working understanding are all that are required at this point and in this very debate.