Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Budget: NASS and Presidency as partners in crime

If you listen well around you these days, you will hear not a few Nigerians mutter to no one in particular: “This is not the change Nigerians voted for last year!”  Since the coming into power of the All Progressives Congress on May 29, 2015, it is instructive that all it has done is to blame previous administrations for the nation’s woes. All you hear is that the Peoples Democratic Party destroyed Nigeria in its 16 years at the helm of affairs. To my mind, it is not the PDP or any political party for that matter that should be held responsible for the country’s miserable state. It is the ruling elite across all political platforms. There are the PDP governors that did well and former opposition governors that performed poorly too. Even if we acknowledge without admitting that the PDP fared badly in governance, that exactly was the reason the electorate voted out the party at the centre and most of the states. The APC has been at the helm of affairs in the last 11 months, what has it to show in terms of good governance credentials?
Shortly after coming into office, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari sponsored a supplementary appropriation bill which was passed into law by the National Assembly on December 1, 2015. The N575bn budget was used mainly to fund the fuel subsidy payment and counterinsurgency operations in the North-East. There was no hue and cry about that budget. However, since Buhari presented the 2016 appropriation bill to the National Assembly on December 22, 2015, all hell has been let loose. No sooner was that symbolic exercise done than we began to hear of padded, doctored and missing budget.  The executive later admitted to all the faults and tried to clean up the budget, though the errors never got fully rectified. The Presidency had to dismiss and transfer some employees of the Budget Office for the numerous blunders in the financial estimates.

One had thought that National Assembly would salvage the situation and play by the rules. That was not to be. In the process of exercising its constitutional powers of appropriation, the lawmakers further compounded the executive mistakes on the budget. In passing the 2016 budget on March 23, 2016, they decided to rewrite the financial plan. It removed some of the executive’s proposed programmes and projects and substituted them with their own. This is preposterous! The National Assembly obviously overreached itself by that singular act.
One of the most contentious projects removed from the budget was the Calabar-Lagos Railway project which the National Assembly claimed was smuggled in by the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi. If the National Assembly would not accommodate that project on the premise that it was not in the original budget submitted to it by the President, where does it derive the powers to also pad the budget with extraneous projects not sponsored by the executive? I have perused Section E of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which gives the National Assembly powers and control over public funds including the budget and I do not see anything which says the legislature has the right to smuggle in projects not planned for by the executive. `The powers of the legislature on budget are to increase or reduce budget benchmarks including cost allotted each of the proposed projects not to smuggle in projects.
It is not the first time Nigerian lawmakers are doing this. It has been their pastime. Be it at the federal, state or local council levels. The constitution, it must be stressed, has set out individual arms of government’s powers with each acting as a check on the other. While the legislature makes laws, appropriates funds and oversights the executive arm, the executive implements the laws passed by the legislative arm while the judiciary interprets the law. None of the three arms has absolute powers under the principle of checks and balances. This attitude of the legislature trying to usurp the power of the executive should not be tolerated in a wholesome democracy. The unhealthy rivalry between Nigeria’s executive and legislative arms is counterproductive to national development.
In competing with the executive branch, the Senate recently purchased 108 new cars at an inflated price. According to a press statement released by the Nigeria Labour Congress President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, the Senate inflated the unit cost of the Toyota Land Cruiser Sports Utility Vehicles it procured for senators by over 100 per cent. The NLC  said while the Senate bought each of the cars for N35.1m, the actual market price stands at N17m. The congress also accused the Senate of spending money without appropriation while the vehicles were also being bought after the senators  collected  their car “loans” last August for the same purpose. The NLC quoted the Senate spokesperson, Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, as offering a childish and laughable defence on the matter when he said: “Special advisers use SUVs, why not senators or do Nigerians expect them to trek to work? And in any case, cars are capital projects!” Did he actually say that? If truly he did, that is an indication of the mindset of Nigerian leaders. It’s all about self-aggrandisement rather than national interest. Well, the NLC has unequivocally demanded the return of the SUVs.  It remains to be seen how all of this will pan out.
On the 2016 national budget embarrassment, it is heartwarming that the leadership of the National Assembly, having met with Vice-President Yemi Osibanjo and the Minister of National Budget and Planning, Udoma Udo-Udoma, have agreed to rework the financial estimates rather than maintain their initial intransigent positions asking the President to sign the budget in its current flawed state and submit a supplementary financial estimate for consideration in due course. I do hope this reconsideration will be done expeditiously. As things currently stand, the country is at a standstill, economically.
It was recently revealed that the Federal Government has been borrowing N60bn or thereabout monthly to pay its workers. Investors, both local and foreign, are hedging to put in their money, waiting to see what is in the Federal Government’s financial plan for 2016. The Nigeria Stock Exchange has also been at the receiving end as investors take their profits or divest completely from Nigeria due to the government’s unserious nature about financial planning. The financial year ends on December 31, and even with the National Assembly’s extension to March 31 of this year, that too has come and gone. We are already inching towards the end of the first month of the second quarter of FY2016 and no capital budget has been released.  It is also unclear where government intends to pluck the about N2tn deficit in this year’s budget. Oil price is still very volatile in the international market and it is unknown if the $38 per barrel benchmark is going to be realisable. With all this in mind, it remains to be seen if the 2016 federal budget is going to achieve any meaningful result.