After months of horse-trading between the executive and legislative arms, President Goodluck Jonathan, penultimate week, assented to the 2013 budget without a whisper of apology to the suffering masses of Nigeria who have, over the years, borne the brunt of late commencement of budget implementation.
Jonathan gave his assent reluctantly, complaining that the document was replete with landmines.
Although the budget breakdown has also been made by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Finance minister and coordinating minister for the economy, it’s too early to rejoice.
Several governments have come and gone with various budgets, but one common denominator is the inability of the budgets to positively impact the lives of the poor citizens. Nevertheless, budget figures have continued to bloat.
Jonathan and members of the National Assembly had for over three months haggled on what or what not should be expunged or included in the appropriation bill passed in December 2012.
For many years now, particularly since the return of the country to civil rule, passage of budgets has continued to be a contentious issue. During the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, for instance, the 2000 budget was passed in May of that year; 2002 budget was passed on March 26 of the appropriation year, and that of 2006 was passed on April 12, 2006. In 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005, budgets were neither passed nor assented to before March of the appropriation years.
In 2012, implementation of the budget began sometime in April after a long period of hair-splitting with the nation’s bicameral legislature incidentally headed by two members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a party that has held the levers of power since 1999.
Last year, President Jonathan was threatened with impeachment by the federal legislators on account of what they termed improper implementation of the year’s budget.
Not yet uhuru for 2013 budget
Forty-eight hours after Jonathan signed the appropriation bill into law, the Senate came heavily on Finance ministry, accusing it of hijacking the jobs and responsibilities of other agencies and commissions of government in the budgeting process. David Mark, reacting to a motion by some of his colleagues calling for a review of national planning and budgeting process, said it was time for the National Assembly to sit up and take over its constitutional responsibilities, which he said had been snatched by the executive. He hinted that there must be a return to the status quo against the backdrop of the fact that the ministry was carrying out a responsibility outside its schedules.
Moreover, the statement by Jonathan that the document was replete with landmines laid by the National Assembly is an indication that all is not well with the budget as passed. The President seems wary of the National Assembly, particularly members of the House of Representatives, whose leadership has not shown any readiness to pander to the whims of the Presidency.
Moreover, contrary to the practice of signing the budget openly, Jonathan signed the 2013 budget in secret without the usual media razzmatazz. He reluctantly accepted the $79 per barrel benchmark, the zero allocation to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the N63 billion added by the lawmakers. He rejected the rollover of 2012 constituency projects into the 2013 budget. From all indications, what the President did in the actual sense of it was a mere ceremonial function to please the federal lawmakers. This informed his decision to immediately forward the supplementary budget.
The budget has since been criticised for wearing the usual face of heavy recurrent expenditure as against capital. However, there is a slight improvement in the ratio of current expenditure to the capital expenditure. This year, against the usual over 70 percent recurrent, it is 68 percent recurrent and 32 percent capital.
Poverty amid trillion-naira budget
Over the years, budgets in the country have not positively impacted the lives of the masses. A larger percentage of the budgets has always ended up in private coffers. In the current budget, part of the disagreement with the Presidency is how much should be appropriated to the National Assembly for constituency projects and for “food and drinks”. The National Assembly always ensures that it gets all the money appropriated to it, the civil servants will also not hesitate in ensuring that allocations for salaries and other emoluments are paid to the letter. What may suffer are the capital projects that receive peanuts.
The Senate recently acknowledged that the nation’s budgets had not improved employmen or provided the dividends of democracy. “Over the years, our budgets have not brought growth, have not improved the employment rate and have not brought dividends of democracy to Nigerians, as fast as expected. There is basically a problem with the envelope system, and that must change,” David Mark, Senate president said.
Controversy good for Nigeria
At no time since 1999 has federal lawmakers worked at cross purposes with the executive with great intensity than the current 7th National Assembly. The 4th, 5th and 6th Assemblies, to a large extent, collaborated with the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo. Pundits say President Jonathan appears too soft with the legislators, making the latter to always have their way. Last year, NASS insisted on the sack of Bolanle Onagoruwa, former director-general, Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), and it was done. They also insisted on the sack of Arunma Otteh, director-general, SEC. But the refusal of Aso Rock to do so has since engendered more strife.
However, analysts say the decision of the federal lawmakers to detach themselves from the executive is good for the country.
According to a national chairman of a party, “Election is what brings party men and women together; as soon as elections are over, what matters is service in the interest of the country, it is no longer party affair. This is why the National Assembly, irrespective of party affiliation of members, must always work for the good of the people of Nigeria without compromising it with party loyalty.”
Some hours before the President announced that he had signed the fiscal bill into law, the House of Representatives, regarded as the hotbed of opposition by government, had threatened to commence the process of overriding the President on the budget.
The Senate president had also hinted on what should be expected in future. He said: “Our committees would take full responsibility if they’re unable to effect changes in the next budget because if things are alright on paper and practically on ground things are not alright, we need to review the way we go about things.
“Some people have failed in their responsibilities; while others who have become powerful have hijacked other people’s work. If you go through the National Planning Commission Act, the objectives and functions of the commission, the system has not worked because those operating it are simply resistant to change. They don’t want to change the system because changing it means they’ll lose the authority they’ve arrogated to themselves.”
While the waiting game for the President’s assent lasted, Joy Emordi, his special adviser on National Assembly matters, said: “You know that even husband and wife do have disagreements. There is no way that you can expect the two arms of government not to disagree, but the most important thing is how they deal with the issues at the end of the day.”
Jonathan treading cautiously
Budget, no doubt, is a critical part of every government, and for it to be a subject of controversy says a lot about the limited political sagacity of President Jonathan. As the leader of the party that controls the majority members in the upper and lower chambers of the federal legislature, it was expected he would have a smooth and friction-free working relationship with the National Assembly.
However, his approach, it may be explained, could be a way of avoiding unnecessary controversy. The President, who is being touted as nursing re-election ambition, may have decided to be patient with the federal lawmakers to avoid throwbacks. Otherwise, he has enormous powers to veto the National Assembly on many issues.
The big question
A nation is doomed if its lawmakers show interest in a project only when they can individually derive monetary benefit from it. Whereas such benefits are not possible, they invent all manner of legislative jargons to shoot down such a project. This seems to be the style of lawmaking in Nigeria.
Why must a PDP-dominated National Assembly hold the President to ransom on a matter as critical as budget? Is it a show of competence, or an effort to be on the side of the masses? But the oft-held allegation against the lawmakers has always bordered on self-serving. The strong attachment of lawmakers to money and other mundane things has cast a pall on the otherwise serious job of lawmaking. There is the likelihood of some of lawmakers using the budget as a bargaining chip to get contracts and jobs for their cronies. Some of them may also be positioning themselves and lobbying ahead 2015. Had Nigerians been satisfied with the quality of their representation, calls for either downsizing, scrapping of an arm of the NASS or reducing lawmaking to a part-time venture would not have been deafening.
What to watch
. Possibility of clash of interests between government ministries, agencies and the National Assembly. The hint by Senate that it would insist certain of its committees participate in the budget planning processes gives impetus for this postulation.
.Expect a collision course between the executive and National Assembly over the zero allocation to SEC. The executive may decide to advance some funds to SEC under veiled name and the NASS may kick.