Since 2016 when he presented his first ever budget as a civilian, President Muhammadu Buhari has had issues with the National Assembly such that questions now arise as to whom between him and the legislature is the problem.
Specifically, he has always accused the National Assembly of tampering with his budget. By tampering, Buhari means that the National Assembly alters figures he appropriated to different sectors of the economy. In other words, his expectation has always been that the budget proposal which he sends to the legislature ought to return to him exactly as sent. This is an expectation that is couched in military dictatorship.
As a military Head of State, Commander-in-Chief and dictator, Buhari did not have a legislature to scrutinize and question his budget. In fact, no one did. Even his military ruling council will not question his budgets because in a military circle, no one asks questions. Everyone is simple expected to obey orders as given. This indicates that for Buhari the civilian president, who self-professed to be a born-again democrat, understanding the functions and powers of the National Assembly must have been difficult. He presents himself as a leader who does not expect anyone to question his dictates. But that is where he gets his relationship with the legislature wrong.
In signing the 2018 Appropriation Act into law, Buhari said: “I am concerned about some of the changes that the National Assembly has made to the budget proposals that I presented. Many of the projects cut are critical and may be difficult, if not impossible, to implement with the reduced allocation. Some of the new projects inserted by the National Assembly have not been properly conceptualized, designed and costed and will therefore be difficult to execute”.
With the above, Buhari accused members of the National Assembly of tampering with his budget. But NASS did not let that go unreplied. The Senate reminded him that “the action of the National Assembly while working on the budget was informed by the provision of the constitution on the need for inclusion, balance and the fact that the first responsibility of government is the security and welfare of all citizens.”
House of Representatives Responds
Following that, the House of Representatives fired in thus: “The budget is usually a proposal by the Executive to the National Assembly, which the latter is given the constitutional power of appropriation to alter, make additions or reduce as it may deem necessary. The Legislature is not expected to be a rubber-stamp by simply approving the Executive proposals and returning the budget to Mr. President. Therefore, the additions Mr. President complained of in his speech are justifiable.”
Femi Adesina Quakes
However, looking worried that NASS had the effrontery to assert its independence and powers to work on the appropriation bill, and also, expanding the blame game which has been the hallmark of Buhari administration since 2015, Femi Adesina, Buhari’s ace spokesman, writing on his Facebook page in what he titled ‘Further Clarifications On The Distorted 2018 Budget’ said:
“Throughout the budget consideration process the executive, through the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, was in touch with the National Assembly. The executive was approached by the National Assembly who indicated that they intended to increase the benchmark price by US$5, from US$45 to US$50. Out of the US$5 increase the National Assembly informed the Executive that they intended to utilize US$2 (amounting to about N170 billion) for projects selected by themselves. They asked the Executive to suggest important projects that could be accommodated with the funds arising from the balance of US$3.
“After some consideration, the Executive was of the view that an increase in the benchmark price of crude oil to US$50 was not unrealistic and the President decided to accept this in the spirit of compromise required for a successful budget exercise. The Executive had, in that spirit, suggested that from the additional funds arising out of the US$3 increase, $1.25 from the increase should not be appropriated as expenditure, but utilized to reduce the deficit in the budget. The Executive therefore restricted itself to submitting, for the consideration of the National Assembly, important items that could be funded from US$1.75 of the US$3 increase. NASS eventually raised the benchmark price to US$51, apparently to accommodate the additional allocations to Health and NDDC.
“The Executive is therefore surprised that with an additional sum of N170 billion Naira available for the National Assembly to spend on Constituency Projects, together with the sum of N100 billion Naira, already provided for in the Budget, that the National Assembly should feel it necessary to cut allocations to important national projects, and thereby distort the Budget, in order to further increase their allocation for Constituency projects. How much is enough!”
National Assembly Shakes The Table
Challenged by the new twist added by Adesina to the debate over powers of NASS to alter the budget, the spokesmen of the two chambers of the National Assembly, Senator Aliyu SabiAbdullahi and Hon. Abdulrazak Namdas in a statement titled ‘The President’s Budget Speech: Our Response, by the National Assembly’ explained that: “In his speech at the signing ceremony, certain observations were raised about the work of the National Assembly and its Constitutional responsibility to modify and amend the budget estimates submitted to it by the Executive.
“You may recall that when the National Assembly passed the 2018 budget, it gave reasons why the budget was increased and why certain projects and programmes had to be provisioned for. However, due to recent developments, it is once again necessary to let Nigerians know the justification for our actions on the 2018 budget, which were based on our Constitutional responsibilities.
“Adjustments and reductions in the locations, costs and number of projects approved were made in order to address geo-political imbalances that came with the Executive proposal. The introduction of new projects was done to ensure the promotion of the principles of Federal Character as contained in Section 14, subsection (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended which states that “the composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria…” The number of projects had to be increased in order to give a sense of belonging to every geo-political zone of the country to ensure socio-economic justice, equity, fairness, and to command National loyalty.
“Within the context of the provisions of Sections 4, 80 and 81 of the Constitution, everything that the National Assembly has done is within its powers”.
According to him, “if the President had been properly briefed by his appointees, he would not have raised most of the concerns that he did in his remarks at the budget signing. It is therefore inevitable for the legislature to give members of the public an insight into what transpired during the appropriations process and how we arrived at the decisions that are contained in the 2018 budget”.
Justice Kolwole’s Interpretation
Indeed, following the 2016 budget impasse, some acolytes of President Buhari approached the Federal High Court in Abuja seeking an interpretation of the powers of NASS to alter a budget proposal by the president by either adding or removing from it. The plaintiff, Femi Falana, also asked the court for a declaration that NASS lacked powers to alter the budget as presented to it by the President.
The matter was determined by Justice Gabriel Kolawole who in his ruling held that:
The Nigerian Constitution has “as its underpinning principle, the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers”.
He noted that Sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Constitution established functionality of the machinery of government at the federal and state levels which is predicated on the three arms – legislature, judiciary and executive.
Having established that as constitutionally proper, Justice Kolawole also held that thought the three arms cooperate, none is superior to the other and that their separate functions entail the need for checks and balances, which, to every sane mind, helps prevent dictatorship.
Justice Kolawole thus upheld sanctity of Sections 81, 85, 88 and 89 noting that it was to ensure that the executive, and agencies under its control, are subjected to oversight by Parliament, and that since the National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to appropriate funds to be expended for the running of government, it therefore has powers of oversight to ensure those appropriated funds are properly administered.
He therefore stated that “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.”
That judgment has not been appealed by the plaintiff.
Fact is, the constitutional power of the National Assembly to alter the budget proposal by the executive is incontestable. In fact, it is seen as the legislature’s prime function as the appropriation bill is the most important executive bill in every fiscal year. Also, the vision of democracy is that the federal budget – and all activities of the federal government – reflects the values of a majority.
Enter Victor Umeh
However, NASS is accused of altering the figures and cutting down on the funding of certain projects. Prominent among these are the Enugu Airport upgrade and the Second Niger Bridge.
Senator Victor Umeh, who represents Anambra central, speaking at a Town Hall Meeting of Anambra State Association of Town Unions on Saturday, June 23, 2018 further blew the lid on whatever the executive was hiding with its blame game.
He told his audience, consisting mostly of Anambra state indigenes that the budget for Enugu Airport was indeed N2billion but that N1.7b had been paid to the contractors leaving an outstanding of N300million. He added however that N500million was approved in the 2018 budget for the airport which indicates a N200m excess to make up for inflation.
He also explained that funding for the Second Niger Bridge was first flagged off in 2007 by President Olusegun Obasanjo but work could not go on as scheduled because of lack of funding. He added that funds approved by the National Assembly in 2016 and 2017 budgets for the construction of the bridge were not released by Buhari. He accused the President of playing to the gallery because of the upcoming general elections.
Kemi Adeosun Kills It
Indeed, Kemi Adeosun, Buhari’s Finance minister, in a tweet on her verified handle @HMKemiAdeosun confirmed the poor state of capital vote releases for the 2017 budget.
The tweet which was also shared on the verified Government of Nigeria twitter handle, @AsoRock, gave out a few details suggesting that of the about N3.86 trillion approved for capital expenditure in the 2017 budget, only N1,580,270,755,084.44 was released as at June 2018.
In The Final Analysis
Buhari may be crying wolf where there is none as evidence provided by his finance minister suggest lack of will in financing capital projects, especially those in regions he sees as constituting his negligible five percent voters.
Buhari has consistently presented himself like he is on a race to win a Nobel Prize in casting blames and shifting responsibility. Many within the corridors of power enthuse that he has successfully enthroned a system of governance where his aides fear to tell him the truth, but rather join him in pushing blames and not taking responsibility.
Political commentators suggest that misunderstanding of the real workings of democracy may prove to be his undoing as he creates the impression of an imperial lord who abhors any questions to his powers.
He may have to take more lessons in understanding that he is actually a civilian president and not a military dictator for whom questioning a C-in-C may be translated to mean mutiny punishable with a visit to the stick and drums.
However, as the issues over the budget persists, Nigerians are still at a loss over who to believe among both arms of government, and their powers as far as the appropriation bill is concerned, especially since both continue to insist on their positions.
As the executive arm has chosen to ignore the court on the matter, it is feared that the issues will still emanate in subsequent budgets.
By Femi Qudus….
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