The National Assembly has commenced moves that would enhance returning the federal budget cycle to the conventional January to December, although without addressing details of the budget, report Deji Elumoye, Chuks Okocha and Adedayo Akinwale
The National Assembly, last week, began proper scrutiny of the N10.33 trillion budget estimate for 2020 fiscal year presented to it earlier this month. The Senate as well as the House of Representatives had a fortnight ago invited the Ministers and heads of departments and parastatals to appear before their respective committees to defend the estimates in the 2020 budget.
On his part, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Senator Mattew Urhoghide cautioned against late submissions of audited account of Ministries, Departments and Agencies, explaining that such action encourages corruption instead of preventing it.
In his opening remarks when the Auditor General of the Federation, Anthony Angina, appeared before the committee, Urhogide emphasised that the main idea of auditing was to prevent corruption, “but when audited reports are submitted three years belatedly, it does not prevent corruption but in fact encourages it. Your audit report of the MDAs is three years belatedly as the audit reports of the 2015, 2016, and 2017 are about to the submitted. What is the essence?”
He, however, said in Nigeria, the reverse was usually the case as after acts of corruption may have been committed, government’s anti corruption agencies would then go after those that committed the act for prosecution.
This, he said, should not be the case, stating that legislation would be put in place to reverse the present style of auditing in Nigeria, adding that the Senate Public Accounts Committee would henceforth ensure that there were right personnel and funding for the office of the Auditor General of the Federation.
For the first time in the history of budget defence in the legislative chamber, the media was last week barred by both the Senate and House of Representatives from covering the budget defence by some MDAs.
In the Senate, the media were not allowed to cover the budget defence of MDAs like Federal Inland Revenue Service, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Ecology Department, Public Accounts Committee, Army, Air Force, Petroleum Downstream, Diaspora and the Non Governmental Organisations, Primary Health care and the Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Capital Territory and the Department of Local Content.
At the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, after welcoming the Auditor-General of the Federation, whose office the lawmakers said was underfunded to effectively help Nigeria fight corruption in public spending, and as soon as it was time to look into the 2020 budget of the Office of the Auditor- General, which in any case was very high on recurrent expenditure; journalists were asked to excuse them.
The same situation played out in the Committees on Power and the pattern continued, when the Committee on Ecology and Climate Change asked journalists to excuse it almost immediately after the opening remarks from the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, who stood in for the Minister.
The Committee on Defence also asked the newsmen to leave at some point, which was quite understandable as discussions bothered on Nigeria’s security challenges.
Confirming that Media were not needed during the budget defence, the Chairman of Senate committee on Media and Publicity, Senator Dayo Adeyeye, said the media would constitute a distraction during the budget defence by the MDAs
“The budget defence will not be done in the direct presence of the media. It will constitute a distraction, when sensitive issues are being discussed. Serious issues cannot be discussed openly like that. Like the nitty-gritty of the budget cannot be discussed in the open.
“When President Buhari was preparing the budget, the media was not involved. It was after the budget was ready that he read it at the joint session of the National Assembly. So, it is when the budget defence is concluded that the media can be briefed on the account.
“The chairmen and members of the various committees can brief the media after deliberations and the media would be told what was discussed. The budget defence should not be done in the full glare of the media. No, I don’t think so. This is like playing to the gallery,” he stated.
A member of the committee on Media and Publicity, Senator Sandy Onuh corroborated Adeyeye’s position saying, “In governance, there is the secrecy oath. If there is no secrecy, why is that law there? It ought to have been abrogated. There is need for the committees to do their job without any distraction”.
While Senators now have copies of the 2020 budget details, House members are still in the dark as to what the details of the budget contain. The inability of the green chamber to get the details of the budget has resulted in an atmosphere of confusion hanging over legislative activities in the House as the budget defence by MDAs had since begun in earnest.
The new found love between the executive and the legislature has made the various committees in the House to continue their various activities on the budget, and while in some cases, some committees have started giving their blessing to the various MDAs that appeared before them. To further cement the new relationship between the executive and the legislature, President Buhari has directed all ministers and other heads of government agencies to suspend foreign travels and defend their budgets before the National Assembly.
Analysts are of the opinion that it is rather unfortunate that the legislature will jettison its roles and shy away from the truth to ensure party supremacy. They believed that with the legislature and the judiciary already under the arm of the executive, the country’s democracy was in danger.
Nevertheless, in the last one week, MDAs have been coming to defend their budget without details. This appears to be the first time such would be happen since the return of democracy in the country. It would also be the first time democratic principles are being sacrificed on a platter.
However, this might not be unconnected with an alleged ‘order from above’ directing the lawmakers that the details of the 2020 budget should not be touched rather the headings should be used to pass it.
Some lawmakers had said on the condition of anonymity that, “it’s unfortunate that we have started to jettison our roles by shying away from the truth.
“It’s virtually impossible to pass the appropriation Bill without the details but we are watching, because this is the real budget padding as nothing will be added or removed because the N100billion intervention fund must scale through,” he said.
Another lawmaker from the North Central zone frowned at the alleged instruction to be out of place, adding, “We have it on good authority that there is an instruction from above that the details of the 2020 budget should not be touched rather the headings should be used to pass it.”
Some of the committees in the House where the MDAs have appeared to defend there 2020 budget seemed to have adopted a standard rule of sending out journalists they hitherto invited to cover during the 2020 budget breakdown by various MDAs. The committees include that of Foreign Affairs and Committee on North-east.
In principle, while it is not possible to pass an appropriation bill without the details, whether or not the 2020 budget would be passed by the end of the month remains to be seen. But with the lawmakers’ readiness to murder the tenets of democracy and the principle of checks and balances, it can’t be ruled out.
The Senate President, Dr. Ahmed Lawan, had penultimate Friday at the unveiling of the House of Representatives Legislative Agenda reiterated the commitment of both Chambers to pass the 2020 Budget before the end of the year.
He stated: “Already the House has suspended plenary, the Senate will do the same on Tuesday for the consideration of budget defence by MDAs. I will like to take this opportunity here to say that only the window of October is available for budget defence.
“Any minister or any head of agency, who decides to travel out of Nigeria without defending his or her budget will have no opportunity again to defend that budget.
“The National Assembly will do the right thing, will do the appropriate thing, we will work on the budget and pass it. We will not allow anyone to frustrate our desire to pass 2020 budget by the end of this year. It is an opportunity for everyone, who is supposed to defend her budget or his budget to take the opportunity available.”
With the steps taken so far by the legislature on the 2020 Appropriation Bill sent to it by President Buhari, the budget cycle of January to December appears feasible as the two chambers of the National Assembly are working towards passing the budget before the mid of December. But what cannot be guaranteed is that this legislature as currently constituted will do a good job. It doesn’t look like it.