A Vicious Debate over Legislative Power of Appropriation

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The leadership of the National Assembly did not take kindly to allegations of ‘consistent budget padding’ levelled against it by a former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, report Deji Elumoye and Shola Oyeyipo

Until late last year, the trio of former governor of Lagos state, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara, were active members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). While Tinubu, as one of the national leaders remains a determining factor in the party, Saraki and Dogara parted ways with APC over irreconcilable differences and defected to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party in July, 2018.

Although Tinubu had since June, 2015 taken exception to the way Saraki and Dogara emerged Senate President and Speaker respectively, against the APC’s alleged choice of Senator Ahmad Lawan and Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, he had at every given opportunity hit hard especially on Saraki. It was, therefore, not surprising when early last week the two-time former governor of Lagos fired another salvo aimed at Saraki and Dogara.

Tinubu, in a statement by his media aide, Mr. Tunde Rahman, alleged that the duo of Saraki and Dogara always padded budgets with projects that profited them.

According to him, Saraki and Dogara had allegedly hijacked and padded national budgets for the four years that the APC has been in power. Tinubu said rather than his perceived future political ambition, his intention is to prevent a reoccurrence of the Saraki and Dogara eras in the National Assembly leadership.

“With the Senate leadership usurped by regressive elitists, that chamber constituted a brake on progress and good governance. The Senate leadership, and to a lesser degree, the House leadership, stymied the APC legislative initiatives while attempting to hoist noxious, reactionary and self-interested legislation on the nation.

“Just look at the way Saraki, Dogara and their ilk hijacked the budget process these past four years. National budgets were delayed and distorted as these actors repeatedly sought to pad budgets with pet projects that would profit them.

“Even worse, they cut funds intended to prosper projects that would have benefited the average person. After four years of their antics halting the progress of government, we should do all we can to prevent a repeat of their malign control of the National Assembly.

“If we are truly committed to optimal governance, then we also must be equally committed to ensuring that the National Assembly leadership be competent and experienced as well as imbued with a progressive mindset and a desire to work in close cooperation with executive.

“This is all Asiwaju has hoped to achieve. There are no ulterior motives. Everything he has done is in concert with and in furtherance of the wishes of President Buhari and the party. Thus, those who cast aspersions at Asiwaju, in reality are bucking against the stated position of the President. This is a democracy and people have the right to oppose whoever they wish to oppose.

“However, if these mongers oppose the President, let them be of sufficient courage to plainly say so. They should not disparage Asiwaju as an indirect way to contend against the president,” Tinubu said.

But Saraki, in a strongly worded response by his media aide, Yusuph Olaniyonu, described the budget padding allegation as careless, irresponsible and callous.

On the allegation that national budgets were delayed, distorted, padded, new projects introduced, funds for projects reduced, “to halt progress of government”, the Senate President described as unfortunate that a man like Tinubu, who was in the Senate during the ill-fated Third Republic did not have a better understanding of how the legislature works.

Saraki reminded Tinubu that the passage of budget was definitely not the exclusive responsibility of the leadership of the Senate as most of the work was done by the various committees.

“These committees are headed by Senators representing different parties. It is the level of co-operation between the committees and the MDAs in the timely defence of the budget proposals and the ability of the two chambers of the National Assembly to reconcile their figures that usually determine how soon the budget is passed. To put the blame of budget delay on the Senate President or Speaker can only be mischief, or at best, playing to the gallery”.

He further explained that any so-called delay in the passage of budgets under the Eighth National Assembly could be tracedto the refusal of heads of MDAs to defend the budget proposals for their agencies on time.

“Last year, the President himself had to direct the Secretary to Federal Government to compel heads of MDAs to appear before the National Assembly committees following the report made to him by Saraki and Dogara.

“So, if a man like Tinubu is spreading this falsehood about budget passage and delay being deliberately orchestrated by the National Assembly leadership, one wonders whether he tries to even understand what happens in the federal legislature at all or is it that the only thing that is of interest to him is “jockeying and maneuvering for influence”, he asked.

Continuing, he said, “To further make the points here clear, we invite Tinubu to look at the records of the time of submission of budgets and their passage since 2010 and he will see that with the exception of the 2013 budget, which was passed on December 20, 2012, all the budgets have been passed between March and May of the same fiscal year.

“This should give him a better understanding of the fact that the date the Appropriations Bill is submitted to parliament and the readiness of the MDAs to defend the proposals submitted as well as timely agreement on the figures by both chambers of the National Assembly are the main determining factors in when the budget is eventually passed. So, Tinubu should see that the facts cannot support his spins and fake narrative”.

Tinubu was further challenged to be specific about where Saraki and the leadership of the National Assembly “sought to pad with pet projects” as he alleged, saying, “Tinubu should be graceful enough to substantiate this allegation. We consider that allegation careless, irresponsible and callous. We therefore demand that he should withdraw it.

“However, there is need to let him know that it is the constitutional responsibility of the National Assembly to review the proposals sent by the executive and where it deems necessary, it is within the power of the legislature to make changes.

“A good example, is the decision by the National Assembly to include in the 2018 budget the one per cent of the total budget, amounting to N33 billion, as allocation for Universal Health Coverage as provided by an extant law, which had been hitherto observed in the breach. Is this what Tinubu considers as budget padding? And this was a decision which was praised across the world as a real benefit to ordinary people across the country,” Saraki explained.

On his part, Dogara seemed to have taken more of his time to digest Tinubu’s vituperations and reacted 48 hours after in yet a statement by his media aide, Mr Turaki Hassan, who accused Tinubu of manufacturing falsehoods and painting a non-existing picture of his stewardship.

For Dogara, Tinubu is “pursuing fascist agenda to control all levers of power in Nigeria,” adding that “only the ignorant with dubious academic certificates will say the maker of a document has padded the document that only he can constitutionally make.

“The legislature cannot be accused of padding a budget it has unquestionable constitutional power to review. The budget is a law and the executive does not make laws. Therefore, it’s only the ignorant and those who hold dubious academic certificates that say the maker of a document has padded the document that only he can constitutionally make.

“In the words of his lordship, Hon Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court, in suit No FHC/ABJ/CS/259/2014, delivered on March 9, 2016, ‘the National Assembly was not created by drafters of the constitution and imbued with the powers to receive ‘budget estimates’ which the first defendant is constitutionally empowered to prepare and lay before it, as a rubber stamp parliament. The whole essence of the budget estimates being required to be laid before Parliament is to enable it, being the Assembly of the representatives of the people, to debate the said budget proposals and to make its own well informed legislative inputs into it.”

The Speaker, while advising Tinubu to be circumspect in his use of language, said “In this case, he spoke as a spokesperson of depravity. Our reaction must therefore be seen as a provoked counter-punch. Anyone can descend into the gutter if he so wishes but no one has a monopoly of gutter language. We won’t run an adult day care centre anymore on matters like this.

“If Asiwaju had confined his intervention to stubborn facts, this response would not have been necessary. He, however, used the opportunity to manufacture falsehoods and paint a non-existing picture of the stewardship of Mr. Speaker and the work of the 8th House of Representatives under his watch. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to set the records straight for posterity.

“We do not expect Asiwaju Tinubu to dwell on brazen mendacity, much less murder facts and decorum in his rabid bid to justify his patently clear fascist agenda of controlling all levers of power in Nigeria. Asiwaju Tinubu’s nocturnal agenda has no parallel in the history of any democracy and it is more loathsome when he throws caution to the winds and maligns government officials, who are doing a yeoman’s job of stabilising the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, even in spite of political differences.

“It is on record that the Speaker has done more to stabilise this government more than Asiwaju Tinubu and his ilk, whose stock in trade is scheming, manipulation and subversion, especially, when they feel they cannot be caught.”

Dogara further stated that “when the history of Buhari’s administration is written by those who know the truth of what really transpired in the last four years, Asiwaju’s pretentious loyalty to President Buhari will then be exposed. We won’t say more but no matter how long it may last, the truth will one day overtake lies.

“Perhaps, Asiwaju is still bitter about the leadership contest for Speakership of the 8th Assembly, even though the actors have moved on culminating in Speaker Dogara magnanimously facilitating the appointment of his opponent in the race and Tinubu’s protégé as House Majority leader.” Dogara explained that the main cause of delay in passing the budget is the persistent refusal or neglect of the executive to present it in good time.

“For the record, in the last four years, there was no urgency or plan by the executive to achieve a January to December budget cycle. For the avoidance of doubt, we will show the dates the budget estimates were submitted by the executive in the last four years below.

“The 2016 Budget was submitted on December 22, 2015, exactly nine days to the end of the year. 2017 budget submitted on December 14, 2016, just 17 days to the end of the year. 2018 Budget was presented on November 7, 2017, the earliest even though it also fell short of the 90 days stipulated by the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The 2019 budget was presented on December 19, 2018 exactly 12 days to the end of the year.

“As if the late or delayed submission of budget estimates wasn’t enough, in most cases, ministers and heads of agencies contributed to the so-called delay by consistently refusing to appear before National Assembly Standing Committees to defend their budget proposals in line with the provision of the law.

“At some points, the leadership of the National Assembly had to take up the issue with the president, who advised his ministers to honour legislative invitations to defend their budgets.

“What Nigerians don’t know is that the Executive, through the various Ministries, continued to propose additional projects to be included in the 2018 budget even as at April and May of 2018, which further delayed the passage of the 2018 budget. These were communicated officially and if anyone is in doubt, we will exhibit the letters with the dates they were written and received.

“The National Assembly inserted a clause in the Appropriation Bill consistent with S.318 of the constitution, which allowed the budget to last for 12 months after Mr. President’s Assent. This enabled the executive to spend more of the capital component of the budget as it still had 12 months protected by law.

“As an activist legislature, the National Assembly effected an amendment to S. 81(1) of the constitution to compel Mr. President to present the budget estimates not later than 90 days to the end of a financial year in order to solve this problem but unfortunately, very unfortunately, Mr. President declined assent to the bill, which was passed by both chambers of the National Assembly and over 2/3rds of the State Assemblies.

“The National Assembly made a further attempt to make the budget process much better by improving the institutional capacity of the Parliament to process and pass National budgets by passing the National Assembly Budget and Research Office (NABRO) Establishment Bill. It was loosely modeled after the American Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Again, Mr. President declined assent to the Bill,” he further explained.

Reiterating that the 8th National Assembly is not a rubber stamp parliament and reserves the right, working cooperatively with the executive, to interrogate projects unilaterally inserted by the executive branch without the input of or consultation with parliament, Dogara said “The parliamentarians are representatives of the Nigerian people and you don’t expect them to rubber stamp budgets that are heavily skewed and lopsided against most sections of the country.

“It is their responsibility to ensure equitable and even distribution of capital projects across all the nooks and crannies of the country, if the executive fails to do so. In any case, it is false to state that legislative intervention in the budget process is to benefit the legislators and not their constituencies.

“We challenge Asiwaju Tinubu to prove otherwise. He should also show in what way the 8th assembly acted differently from other assemblies of the past to warrant the kind of language used”, Dogara further submitted.

After all said and done about budget padding, the leadership of the federal parliament needs be reminded of the need to without further delay pass the 2019 Appropriation Bill submitted by President Muhammadu Buhari on December 19, 2018.

Saraki had last week promised that the 2019 budget report, which had been laid before the Senate would be passed on Tuesday. It is therefore hope the House too would follow suit by passing the budget this week after which it would be transmitted to President Buhari for assent.