19 February 2013

Nigeria: Blame Game Over the Budget


The 2013 budget is caught in a web of intrigues, Omololu Ogunmade and Muhammad Bello write

Budget controversy between the Executive and the Legislature is one of the few ego contests by the leadership that weigh down on the polity. This, of course, is not peculiar to Nigeria. But given the current slide, close monitors of the system are still to come to terms with what is new about the subsisting budget debacle between President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly.

Yet, one question that quickly comes to mind is: why is the President, despite his initial effort at fast-tracking the early submission of the budget is suddenly foot-dragging in appending his signature to the fiscal document?

Ironically, those who should know better have refused to hazard answers to this. Instead, series of meetings, many of them nocturnal and closed door, are being held between the president and the leadership of the National Assembly and without promising indications. Taking a cue from this, many have come to agree with those who have bought into the notion that: it is politics!

A meeting relating to the budget took place last week at the presidential villa. Presided over by the President, his deputy, Alhaji Namadi Sambo and members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) alongside the leadership of the National Assembly, the meeting ended yet without a word from the ensemble on whether or not any progress has been recorded.

The meeting which kicked off about 8:58 pm when Jonathan arrived the venue inside the presidential villa lasted till about 10:17 pm. But prior to the arrival of the president, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Anyim Pius Anyim and Jonathan's Chief of Staff, Chief Mike Oghiadomhe, had arrived as an advance team.

This was sequenced by arrival of PDP National Chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, who led members of his NEC. And then, Sambo also arrived. 30 minutes later, President of the Senate, David Mark, dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt and brown pair of trousers drove in a black Lexus sedan, accompanied by his deputy, Senator Ike Ekwerenmadu and Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba.

But the Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, was conspicuously absent as being the case in recent time. His deputy, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, later made a sudden appearance at about 9:07pm; several minutes after the meeting had commenced. However, before his arrival, Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly matters, Mrs. Joy Emordi, was sighted making frantic calls, trying to pull through with something. It was no sooner after this that she ushered in Ihedioha.

However, at the close of the meeting, Tukur, Mark, and National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, declined comments on what transpired when approached. THISDAY later gathered that the meeting was not unconnected with the 2013 budget which is yet-to-be signed into law by Jonathan.

A source at the meeting said apart from a subsisting demand by the legislators that the president should sack the Director-General of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Arunma Oteh, the issue of the oil benchmark amongst others, the real problem between the two arms of government was the alleged 'padding' of the budget by the National Assembly in the name of constituency projects.

Unfortunately, the Executive is said not to have found this convenient within the management of the nation's finances, albeit in a transparent manner.

The cardinal points of this effective management, according to the Minister of State for Finance, Dr. Yerima Ngama, are the five key performance indices the ministry signed with the president. He enumerated some of these as: functional micro-economic structure to grow the economy, fiscal consolidation and budget re-composition among others. In realising this, he said the executive arm, through the instrumentality of the president, had succeeded in breaking the budget jinx this year having prepared the document in September and transmitted same to the National Assembly in October.

Although, for the second time in less than two months, Ngama had given hope that the president would sign the budget "after few things are sorted out," this is yet to happen. THISDAY gathered that the situation has remained stagnant because the president is not comfortable with the sum of N93 billion purportedly "smuggled" into the budget as constituency project fund.

"The technical and realistic argument is that this administration inherited a budget that provided less for recurrent expenditure. More was being spent on capital projects. And the president wants to depart from this trend and give a befitting economy to the people who popularly gave him his mandate. But the lawmakers see things differently," our source explained.

He noted that the major problem with recurrent expenditure was the arbitrary increase of workers salary without cash backing for such. Eventually, the absence of money to augment the difference of what was being earned by the workers and what the previous government decided on created a situation where the government had to resort to borrowing to carry out its obligations. This, the minister said, increased foreign debt.

Another source however added: "Other issues that are of significant concern to the president are reducing the debt-deficit ratio, reduction of domestic and foreign debts, making salary expenditure very efficient and improving the non-oil revenue base. Much of these cannot be achieved if you have a bloated budget that appropriates money for things that are not captured within the realm of conventional micro-economic realities."

But the ding dong on 2013 Appropriation Bill remains a puzzle to an average Nigerian because the trend has left many with endless questions. Not many could come to terms with how the two arms of government have allowed the hope brought to Nigerians through the early passage of the budget late last year by the National Assembly to easily give way for despair.

For the first time in the nation's history, the seventh National Assembly recorded a remarkable feat when it passed the 2013 Appropriation Bill into law before the commencement of a new fiscal year. This unprecedented sense of patriotism displayed by both arms through early presentation as well as early passage of the budget gave the hope that the gesture could culminate in substantial implementation of the budget and attendant output. But almost two months after the budget was passed on December 20, 2012, it is yet to be signed into law.

Indications that there was trouble signalled when towards the end of last year, it came to public knowledge that despite the loud celebration that accompanied the passage, the National Assembly was yet to transmit the budget to the executive. It took several interventions, including the media to compel the lawmakers to transmit the budget to the executive on January 14, 2013, about one month after its passage.

Conscious of the media's curiosity to expose the details, the lawmakers opted to be evasive as they attributed reasons for the delay to what they described as "purely mechanical and bureaucratic" problems.

Eventually when the budget was transmitted, information soon filtered out that the president could not assent to the bill because the National Assembly had jacked up its own budget by additional N93 billion. This was aside the N150 billion appropriated for the legislature in the budget. This did not go down well with the Executive which felt the huge sum would not make the budget implementable. But when confronted with the question on the additional budget, the lawmakers denied it and described those who raised the alarm as mere attention seekers.

The alarm was first raised by an unnamed presidential aide in far away Switzerland who blamed the legislature for Jonathan's inability to sign the budget. They were said to have been compelled to raise the budget following the Executive's decision not to include constituency allowance in the budget as it had been the case in the past. Therefore, the controversial N93 billion which has allegedly delayed presidential assent is supposedly meant for the implementation of projects in the various constituencies of the lawmakers.

The failure of executive to include constituency allowance in the project was said to be the idea of the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister for Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who reportedly felt it was not necessary, perhaps after a whopping N150 billion had already been earmarked for the running of legislative activities in the year.

Against this background, whereas, there was initial report that the President would sign the budget last week in view of the fact that the statutory 30 days within which he must sign the budget as stipulated in the 1999 Constitution as amended, elapsed.

But 24 hours after the report, Okonjo-Iweala said signing the budget last week was not feasible because there were grey areas to be thrashed out between the executive and the legislature. Following this was the meeting at the Villa where the issues were meant to have been resolved by both arms.

Ndoma-Egba, who was at the meeting admitted that though, there were areas, however noted that they had been sorted out between the two arms. Hence, he said it was now left for the executive to determine when to sign the budget.

"Yes, there were issues," Ndoma-Egba said, adding: "I don't coordinate the budget. It is the executive that is in a better position to answer the question (on why the budget is still not signed)."

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