2019 Budget: Committee Work Takes Centre Stage

0
Saraki-and-Dogara

In the two Chambers of the National Assembly, committee work has commenced in earnest on the 2019 Appropriation Bill, report Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

How soon will the federal legislators pass the 2019 Appropriation Bill? That is the question on the lips of many Nigerians as it took the National Assembly about three months to commence debate on the bill that was presented by President Muhammadu Buhari to a joint sitting of the federal parliament on December 19, 2018.

Although the House of Representatives commenced debate on the general principles of the 2019 budget estimate in January, the Senate did not touch the bill until the middle of this month.

A breakdown of the 2019 N8.83 Trillion budget estimate which is N300 billion lower than N9.1Trillion budget being implemented for the 2018 fiscal year includes N4.04 trillion or 50.31 per cent for recurrent expenditure and N2.03 trillion representing 22.98 per cent for capital projects. Other estimates include N492.36 billion for statutory transfers, N2.14 trillion for debt servicing and provision of N120 billion as sukuk fund.

Senate President Bukola Saraki had at plenary on March 13, given a hint that the 2019 budget estimate would be debated by the Senate for two days. He said “the reading of the 2019 budget will commence on Wednesday and continue on Tuesday. So, Senators should register their names against the days they will want to debate the budget”.

Some Senators opened debate on the general principle of this year’s budget by frowning at the rising debt profile of the nation. They therefore called for caution on the part of the executive so as not to return the country back to a highly indebted one it was before the 2005 debt relief granted it by the Paris Club.

First to raise the alarm was Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu (PDP Enugu West), who spoke after the Senate Leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan (APC Yobe North) had given the lead debate on the budget estimates for passage for second reading.

Ekweremadu had said though the budget proposals need to be given expeditious consideration and passage in view of enormous time already lost on the bill but was quick to add that its borrowing plans must be scrutinised to prevent the country from exceeding its limit, when juxtaposed with the ratio of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

According to him, “Time is already running out on us as regards consideration and passage of the 2019 budget estimates but the increasing borrowing proposals cum plans on our yearly budget is becoming unbearable. Yes, money must be sought for by any government to fund infrastructure but it must not be solely anchored on borrowing, which in the long run, will take the country back to a problem it had earlier solved. Besides, there are other creative ways of funding such highly needed infrastructure”.

On his part, Senator Dino Melaye (PDP Kogi West), while reeling off statistics to back the nation’s rising debt profile, emphasised that the debt profile of the country was now at $60 billion from less than $20billion it was before the present administration came on board in May, 2015.

According to him, the components of the $60 billion debt profile include $23billion as external debt, $20billion as local debts while $12 billion is already being proposed for financing of Port Haarcourt to Maiduguri rail lines.

“Nigeria is gradually turning to a chartered borrowing nation under this government all in the name of funding infrastructure. This must be stopped, because the future of the country and in particular, lives of generations yet unborn are being put in danger”, Melaye further said.

He added that even with the nation’s high level of indebtedness, the federal government was planning to further devalue the Naira to about N500 to a US dollar and that the Nigeria Stock market suffered a misfortune of N300billion loss with the re-election of President Buhari three weeks ago.

“Inflation is on the rise, unemployment rate is increasing, assumptions made for the budget estimates as regards $60 oil price benchmark and 2.3million barrels oil production level per day are unrealisable and unrealistic”, he added.

However, some Senators especially from the ruling APC disagreed with their counterparts over Nigeria’s rising debt profile.

They include Senators Gbenga Ashafa (APC, Lagos East), Adamu Aliero (APC, Kebbi Central), Jibrin Barau (APC, Kano North) and Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South), who claimed in their various submissions that Nigeria’s debt profile was not as outrageous as being portrayed by those raising the alarm.

Specifically, Na’Allah said rather than saying Nigeria was over borrowing, the country was grossly under borrowing when the total amount borrowed is juxtaposed with her population and resources, both human and capital.

The Senate, last Tuesday, concluded debate on the general principles of the 2019 budget proposals and referred it to its committee on Appropriation headed by a former governor of Gombe State, Senator Danjuma Goje.

It also directed the Committee to submit its report on the budget estimate for final approval of Senate within two weeks. So, with effect from this week, ministers and heads of government’s departments and agencies will begin to appear before the Goje-led committee to defend the allocations for their ministries and departments.

The Senate had since suspended plenary till April 2, to allow the Appropriation committee conclude its work on the budget and report back to the upper legislative chamber.

However, at the House of Representatives, budget defence has already commenced with plenary being suspended, also till April 2, for the purpose of performing legislative duties on the budget.

Making the announcement last Tuesday, Speaker Yakubu Dogara said suspending the plenary was to allow lawmakers attend to the 2019 budget defence.

Already, the 2019 appropriation bill has passed second reading in the House and so, suspending plenary was to enable committees take up ministries, departments and agencies to present their 2018 budget performance and defend their estimates for 2019.

Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, told his colleagues, “It is now time to get back to people’s business. There is so much works to be done in a very little time. The budget is pending; the bill on estimated billing and many other such legislative initiatives that directly affect Nigerians must be attended to. There cannot and should not be a break, and our priority must be the welfare of the people we represent.”

Obviously, the budget proposal could have before now been given accelerated hearing but apart from election periods (with the postponements), the errors brought out in the appropriation bill by the duo of Hon. Adamu Chika, representing Shiroro/ Rafi/Munya of Niger State and Hon. Ahmad Patigi, representing Edu/Moro/Patigi federal constituency of Kwara State, accounted for why it did not move at the speed prescribed by Dogara, when the document was presented by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Chika had pointed out some errors in the budgets of the Ministries of Education, Finance, Budget and National Planning and raised another observation with the estimate for the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF).

Although one is not sure if the corrections had been effected on the estimates, committee work has commenced in earnest in the House.

Last Wednesday, the lawmakers kicked off the exercise with the Director-General, Nigeria Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Jonathan Jumah, his counterpart in Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), Mrs. Cecilia Umaru Gaya and the Director-General, National Lottery Regulatory Commission (NLRC), Mr. Lanre Gbajabiamila.

The trio answered questions on various aspects of their agency’s 2018 budget, particularly in the area of performance and their proposal for 2019 expenditures.

The House Committee on Governmental Affairs led by Hon. Hussaini Sulaiman Kangiwa (APC Kebbi) engaged the trio and the high point of the debate with Jumah was when they took him on the proposed expenditure of N72 million on two cars in 2019.

Gaya too had questions to answer for spending a very significant proportion of ASCON’s internally generated revenue (IGR) as running cost in 2018. Her explanation was that the institution does not charge much money for its trainings and that providing electricity could effectively take its allocations.

A cross section of members during plenary

The committee was displeased with the National Lottery Regulatory Commission (NLRC), under Gbajabiamila. Their grouse was that despite its huge potential to generate high revenue and employ many Nigerian youth, the commission was under-remitting.

According to the lawmakers, out of the N6 billion projected revenue for 2018, only N1.9 billion was remitted into government coffers by the NLRC. The committee chastised three agencies that appeared before it for their budget defence issues of inappropriate accounting reports, transparency of revenue generation and expenditure.

As regards the N72 million the NIPSS spent on vehicles, Jumah said the mistake was indicating the vehicle type in the document, arguing that the vehicles were meant for project monitoring, and that the institute could decide to change the type and specification to SUVs.

“The cost for the vehicle is highly exorbitant, because I have not seen anywhere in Nigeria where a Camry car would cost N36 million. And we have not seen any Camry product that is SUV being produced except Sedan. No matter the model, it can’t be beyond 2017, 2018 or 2019”, Kangiwa noted.

The ASCON DG, on her part, was advised to adhere strictly to the principles of federal character in recruiting staff for the institute. She was also asked to provide proof of expenditure on items listed as procured in the 2018 budget.

Kangiwa, while addressing the ASCON boss, had said for spending virtually all the IGR of the body, “It is not enough for you to come here and tell us you spent N20 million, N50 million and N100 million on items and you expect us to look at them, and I say okay. We have to see evidence of procurement by way of supporting documents, and we must have that before we can consider your requests for 2019.”

The college, which generated N998million revenue in 2018, has N18.162 million left in its balance. It also claimed to have remitted part of the 25 per cent required of it to the Consolidated Revenue Account.

The lawmakers did not hide their disenchantment with the Gbajabiamila-led NLRC, calling for the scrapping of the commission for underperformance.

“Government allocated huge sum to your commission but to my greatest dismay the government that appropriated the money is at the verge of losing. Government money is just wasting. That is why we need to have an explanation as to why this agency should still stand, because government is not getting value for its money. This commission needs to be scrapped.

“The main purpose of this agency is to police lottery operators so that it can favour the government. What are we doing when we expected the change to be positive and yet we are not making progress? We have observed that the general performance is very low.

So, we need to have an explanation for that otherwise we will stand this budget down, because it is our duty to protect the interest of Nigerians,” Kangiwa stated.

The lawmakers expressed disappointment that rather than employ about 10,000 Nigerians and become one of the highest paying agencies, the lottery commission is underperforming.