opinionBy Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
It is as hard and severe a thing to be a true politician as to be truly moral. -Francis Bacon
The National Assembly appears set to buckle under presidential pressure once again over the budget. The legal status of a budget passed by the legislators on the 19th of January, which was sent back by the president and has remained un-assented to for longer than 30 days, should not violently challenge legal minds. Section 58(4) of the Constitution states that "where the president, within thirty days after the presentation of the Bill to him, fails to signify his assent, or where he withholds assent, then the bill shall again be presented to the National Assembly sitting at a joint meeting, and if passed by two-thirds majority of members of both Houses at such joint meeting, the bill shall become law and assent of the President shall not be required."
Rather than take the steps demanded by the Constitution, which is to seek to achieve a two-third majority of both houses to pass the appropriation bill, the story now is that legislators are looking at the budget again to see if they can meet the President somewhere along a legally-dubious path. If these attempts to break the "impasse" succeed, there will still be questions about the legality of the budget. A legislature that huffs and puffs over the need to respect its integrity by the executive will damage itself even more grievously hence. It could have invoked the requirements of the Constitution, and leave the president with the option of seeking judicial interpretation over who is right and who is not. It did not. It could have leveraged the extensive opportunities available to both of both arms, such as the PDP or elders before the expiration of the 30 days to prevail on the President to assent or engage it in negotiations. It may, or may not have done this. The result has been massive speculation, threats and an embarrassing situation that will open up both arms to accusations of disrespecting the Constitution.
Just when a glimmer of hope was visible that the legislature could pull its weight to improve the quality of governance and lives of citizens, it decides to toe the lines of tradition. All the contentious issues which may have led to this lamentable situation were avoidable. Year in year out, disputes over size of budgets cause massive quarrels, which are settled in the manner a PDP controlled executive and legislative arm does business. So no one learns anything from them. This year too, the President proposed a budget of N4.487 trillion which the National Assembly raised to N4.987 trillion. Without a background of settled issues over such variations and initiatives, the same old quarrels over who had the final say on sizes of budgets break out again. The constituent irritants in the budget are also thoroughly familiar. The presidency pegged the crude oil benchmark at $75, but the National Assembly raised it to $79 per barrel. This has been a recurring irritant, a phenomenon which suggests that our elected leaders put no value on the utility of settling issues and moving on.
The second recurring irritant was the allocation of N63 billion for constituency projects, which the President insists should not be in the budget. Again, the nation has heard this quarrel over and over again. Presidency says it has sole responsibility to allocate resources to areas of expenditure, and 'constituency projects' represent an exercise in budget-making, a grey area outside the ambit of the legislature. Legislators complain that constituency projects are borne out of endemic failures of annual budgets to be executed as designed (in themselves impeachable offences), and that these leave them severely exposed politically. Just about everyone who has looked at these constituency projects say they represent the worst form of diversion of public assets and waste, and they are the gilt-edged arsenal which is deployed at the executive by the legislature in negotiating budgets. In refusing to accommodate these projects, President Jonathan is toeing the beaten track, and it is safe to assume that he must be standing on firmer grounds than his predecessors, or is holding assent for them as a trump card.
A third issue in the dispute over the budget was the zero allocation entered against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The National Assembly says it will not approve funding the Commission until its CEO Ms Arunma Oteh is sacked by President Jonathan. The Presidency insists that it is its prerogative to decide whether Ms Oteh stays or goes, and as a public-funded institution, the legislature has no right to refuse to approve its funding over an dispute involving its C.E.O. This melodrama over a public officer is not symbolic of the predictable conflicts that could pitch two arms of government against each other. It is an embarrassing sore which has been allowed to fester because the decision making process is captive to a clique which thinks laws are secondary to narrow personal and political interests.
In the next few days, these quarrels will all be settled, but the constitutional provisions relating to budget making and approval would have been more damaged. Intense horse-trading may allow a few constituency projects' from last year to be 'rolled over' and subsumed under some other projects or titles. The size of the budget would be negotiated and some figure that allows both the President and National Assembly to fight and run away will be arrived at. Funding for SEC will almost certainly be restored, and the National Assembly will continue to insist that it will have no dealings with the lady or the SEC.
All in all, those looking to see some improvements in the manner a major policy instrument is managed will be even more disappointed. A process that commenced much earlier amidst the beating of drums and claims that it will be concluded earlier than all other budgets has attracted the same flies around it.
The farce over this year's budget will remind the nation of the embarrassing saga over a civil servant, Abdurrasheed Maina, who had defied the Senate, evaded the police, sued the National Assembly and had to have the President publicly direct the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation to discipline him. That it took the Senate months of pleadings, summoning, invocation of the powers of God, massive anger over his seeming untouchability due to apparent presidential immunity, and then threats to the President over him before any move is made against him, says a lot about the powers of both arms of government, or how they choose to use them. The National Assembly should resist the temptation to plunge deeper into the murky waters which beckon. Its current position with regards to the budget will qualify for farce, and no public relations spin which uses overriding public interest will salvage it. Perhaps it may help it to be reminded of claims emanating from it that the collated views of Nigerians on constitutional amendments are already being tempered with. Perceptions of Nigerians on the commitment of our elected leaders to the rule of law are very poor. In the next few days, they could be worse.