As National Assembly Awaits 2019 Appropriation Bill…

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Saraki, Dogara and Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu during a joint sitting of the National Assembly

On Wednesday, the National Assembly will play host to President Muhammadu Buhari, who is billed to lay the 2019 budget proposal before the lawmakers, report Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

The much awaited presentation of the 2019 Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly by the Executive has been scheduled to take place on Wednesday, December 18. President Buhari chose the date in a letter he wrote both to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara and read on the floor of the House on Thursday, December 13.

This is in line with Section 81(1) of the 1999 constitution, which states that, “The President shall cause to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly at any time in each financial year estimates of the revenue and expenditure of the federation for the next following financial year.”

The executive has always complied with this practice since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999. Therefore, the Wednesday event is more or less an annual ritual but much of the work lies with the federal legislators, who will have to take their time to scrutinise the budget proposals.

Curiously, the Appropriation Bill is being presented a day before the National Assembly proceeds on Christmas break. That brings to the fore the issue of how soon the budget proposal would scale through at the Assembly. For sure, nothing much can be achieved this month with the legislators going on break from Thursday.

Hopefully, when the lawmakers return from their break in January, the relevant committees will swing into action to look at the proposals as well as invite Ministers and heads of parastatals to defend the budget estimates of their respective ministries and departments. Both the Executive and the Legislature should be on the same page over the Appropriation Bill and work towards ensuring that the Bill is passed early in 2019.

While the budget proposal was being awaited, the two chambers of the National Assembly continued with their legislative duties including committee work and oversight functions.

At the Senate, the week began with a public hearing on how to curb the issue of vote-buying ahead of the 2019 general election.

At the occasion, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmud Yakubu, accused politicians of inducing voters with money tucked in slices of bread on election days.

Yakubu said the electoral body had identified politicians as vote-buyers and sellers through various forms, including inducement of prospective voters with naira notes sandwiched between bread slices.

His words: “When I talk about sandwich, we are not talking of bread but ways politicians induce voters by sandwiching naira notes in two slices of bread. I am talking of sandwich not as food but as tool used by politicians for voting exercise.”

He identified other items used by politicians to further induce voters on election days to include branded food items, kitchen utensils, automobiles, clothing, toiletries, etc.

Also speaking at the occasion, Saraki advised INEC, security agencies and all election stakeholders to ensure that next year’s elections are free, fair, credible and transparent. This, he said, has become imperative as the country is in a delicate situation, where Africa and the entire world are looking forward to what happens in the coming elections.

Saraki noted that having set an enviable record in the 2015 general election, the country cannot afford to lower the standard in 2019, saying “We must up the ante, because whatever we do will have impact on the continent and serve as a representation of Africa on the global stage.”

The non-adherence to federal character by President Muhammadu Buhari in his appointments to federal boards and parastatals also caught the attention of the Senate. It had to keep in view the confirmation of 13 appointees nominated by President Buhari as Chairman and members of the Governing Boards of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

This is sequel to an observation raised by Senator Victor Umeh (Anambra Central) that the nominees for the Board appointments were tilted towards some particular sections of the country while the South-east and South-south zones were left out.

The Senate had to dissolve into an Executive session to deliberate on the observation raised by Umeh to the report of the Eight-man Committee on Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes on the need for Senate to confirm the nominees for EFCC Board presented by the Chairman, Senator Chukwuka Utazi.

At the end of the close-door session, which lasted for about 20 minutes, Saraki said the Senate had to step down the four board nominees for EFCC and the Chairman and eight other nominees for ICPC Board.

He stated that the upper chamber took that decision to allow the Senate to liaise with the Executive to address the lopsidedness of the appointments with a view to having equitable representation across the six geo-political zones.

At the House of Representatives, it was glaring that the members were divided along party lines – the pro-President Muhammadu Buhari legislators, who were mainly members of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and those who were against his administration and his policies and were principally members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Though these two groups had laid claims to superiority in terms of the number needed to effect meaningful changes in the House, but there has not been enough gut on the part of either side to put that to test. The decision of President Buhari to withhold assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018, passed by the National Assembly stoked both factions. Amidst that, some Nigerians, who felt Buhari’s refusal to append his signature to the Bill was deliberately targeted at manipulating the electoral process, urged the lawmakers to override his veto. But that, no doubt, is indeed a tall order.

The expectation was that on Tuesday, December 11, the lawmakers would attempt to override the president but nothing close to that happened.

The Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila (Lagos, APC) smartly stood against an attempt to debate the letter sent to the House of Representatives by President Buhari, where he explained why he did not assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2018 for the fourth time.

That Tuesday morning, during plenary, Dogara, had read the letter and Hon. Aliyu Madaki (Kano), picked up the debate. He started making his observations about the president’s action.

Obviously piqued by the President’s position, Madaki said, “Mr. Speaker, you have just read a very important letter. What we want is free, fair and credible election. Mr. President refusing to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill shows clearly what he wants to do. The whole world is watching. Everybody is watching…”

But Gbajabiamila interjected and raised a Point of Order saying: “We have never, by precedence, by custom and tradition; we have never debated a letter, which is by way of information. If there is the need to debate the president’s letter, we will table on the order paper for debate.”

According to him, “Several letters have been written by several presidents before. It never happened. If you want to debate the letter, place it on the order paper. We are fully ready to debate it.”

The Speaker seemed to be on the same page with Gbajabiamila and said, “We have a provision in our rules that guides this kind of communication and I will advise that we follow the rules. So, I think this matter should be laid to rest.”

Attempt to override President Buhari on this matter is surely a Herculean task. First, going by the provisions of Section 50(2)(c), the two-thirds majority needed to carry out such action among the 109 members in the Senate is 73, while two-thirds of the 360 members House of Representatives is 240. That is the same figures needed to remove the president.

Apart from that, the APC caucus in the House is not backing down. They are actually talking tough. Their collective position is that the Electoral Act Amendment Bill sent to President Buhari was faulty. They said it was an “imperfect document” capable of disenfranchising millions of Nigerians in the 2019 general election.

Gbajabiamila, led the APC members to meet journalists after a closed-door meeting of the caucus, and their position was that President Buhari’s resolve to return the Bill was in the best interest of the Nigerian electorate.

On calls to lawmakers to veto the document, Gbajabiamila said there is need for Nigerians to get a better understanding of the issues at stake.

“Perhaps, a lot of people don’t understand the import and the implications of signing an imperfect document. If the document is imperfect and you can read it or interpret it anyhow, or if count was removed when it should have been there, then you can’t even override that imperfect document. You have to first of all amend that document and start the process all over again, and send it back to Mr. President.

“Mr. President has done well. If you study the constitution very well and if you look at Section 57, it does not oblige him (president) to give any reason for veto. All he has to do is return it and say ‘I am withholding my assent.’ He doesn’t have to give you any reason, but every time he has done that he has brought forward cogent and verifiable reasons why he is not signing it.

“On this particular one, I believe the thrust, spirit and the reason why Mr. President has refused to sign it, which we identify with, is that every vote must count in Nigeria. We have been mouthing this thing and singing this thing for ages. This bill that was sent to Mr. President, and we raised it on the floor at the time of consideration. The effect of it is that you can only accredit voters through the electronic system. It forecloses manual registration.

“When you do that, we were all witnesses to what happened in the last election even the sitting president could not be accredited. So, what Mr. President has done is to protect everybody in Nigeria

“Yes, do your electronic accreditation, but make room for the possibility and a very strong possibility too, where such will not work. It is something that happens every day – in the banks – jammers can even be brought in to jam it; millions will be disenfranchised and you and I don’t want that. That is a constitutional guarantee that everybody, who resides in Nigeria has a right to vote and be voted for. So, we cannot breach the constitution through amendment.

“Let’s talk about the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol that everybody has been talking. That is very germane here. The question we need to ask is: what is the real reason for that protocol? Why was that protocol put there?” Gbajabiamila asked.

He said the position of the APC caucus is that the National Assembly should perfect the document and send it back, adding: “Mr. President will sign it. There is no question about it. That is our position,” adding that, “Punctuation, a dot, or a line can change the meaning of a provision in a law. Just a single ‘coma’ can change the meaning and make it ambiguous. We don’t want that.”

Asked if members of the opposition PDP insisted on vetoing the document, he said: “Lawmaking is not about insisting, lawmaking is about numbers. If they are able to muster two-thirds and they want to push it through, there is nothing we can do. But as a party, we are not going to be part.”

But when asked if the APC has the number to prevent such move by the opposition, he boasted, “We have more than the numbers. We don’t just have the numbers; we have more than the numbers.”

Insisting that it was unwise to override an imperfect document because it would amount to “garbage in, garbage out,” Gbajabiamila said a well-equipped legal department should have worked on a final draft of the document to make it perfect.

“Go to the most advanced democracies, they have a legal department. That legal department is staffed with the best of the best – from Havard, Princeton and the rest of them – and about a hundred people are sitting in the department. It is not the lawmakers that do the final draft, it is the legal department.

“Go to our legal department here, perhaps you have personnel of one or two persons. So, the blame will fall on the legal department. Yes, it does not speak well of the National Assembly but we have done our work in terms of the principles of any law we have tried to pass. It is for them to do the final – dot the ‘Is’ and cross the ‘Ts’.

“Again, when the National Assembly asked for more money to staff and do things, we are met with a brick wall. It is a difficult scenario that we have found ourselves in. It is not the National Assembly’s fault but if I were to blame anybody, I will say it is our legal department,” he noted.