Abuja — With the clock ticking away towards the 30-day deadline President Goodluck Jonathan has to assent to the 2013 Appropriation Bill, the executive and the legislature yesterday engaged in another round of talks to resolve their differences that have stalled the signing of the bill into law.
The president and the leadership of the two chambers of the National Assembly met again at the presidential villa, the second of such a meeting in the last 24 hours.
Barring any major upset in the budgeting process, the bill should be signed latest by February 27 in line with the constitutional provision that requires the president to assent to the budget within 30 days of its transmission to the executive after its passage by the two chambers of the National Assembly.
However, presidential spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, defended the delay in signing the budget into law, saying that it is in the best interest of Nigerians for the two arms of government to resolve their differences on the bill.
The budget was passed on December 20, 2012 just as the lawmakers were proceeding on their Christmas and New Year holidays.
However, the budget was not transmitted to the presidency until January 15, 2013 when the lawmakers concluded the process of putting together all the details of the N4.987 trillion budget.
THISDAY checks revealed that the 30-day countdown starts from the day the budget was actually transmitted to the president but does not include weekends and public holidays.
Based on the calculation, which includes a one-day public holiday declared on January 24, to commemorate the Muslim celebration of Eid-El-Maulud, the budget would have spent 30 days on Jonathan's desk by February 27.
There have been reports of "robust engagements" between the executive and legislature, an indication that the document may be signed soon.
However, there are fears that the president and the leadership of the National Assembly may not be able to resolve all their differences within the stipulated 30-day deadline.
If that happens and the president declines to assent to the budget, the parliament may invoke its constitutional powers by recalling the budget and overriding the president's veto.
Section 58 (4) of the 1999 Constitution allows the president up to 30 days to assent to the appropriation bill or signify the withholding of same, in which case the budget technically returns to parliament.
However, if within the 30-day period the president does not exercise his powers over the budget, the National Assembly has powers to recall the budget and override the president's veto with two-thirds majority of each chamber of the National Assembly.
The Minority Caucus in the House of Representatives recently threatened that it would mobilise its members to override the president's veto if the budget was not signed into law at the expiration of the 30-day deadline.
The opposition lawmakers had urged Jonathan to sign the 2013 Appropriation Bill into law without further delay or risk a situation where the parliament would override his presidential veto as provided in the constitution.
The over 160-member caucus comprises legislators elected on the platform of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Congress for Progress Change (CPC) and All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). In response, members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the House accused their colleagues in the opposition parties of playing politics with the 2013 budget.
The legislators of the ruling party who spoke under the aegis of "PDP Renaissance Group" described the utterances of the opposition lawmakers as offensive and unfortunate coming at a time the presidency and the leadership of the National Assembly were about resolving their differences on the 2013 Appropriation Bill.
The group accused the opposition lawmakers of trying to distort the economic policies of the Federal Government by promoting some unwarranted alterations in the 2013 budget.
"What the opposition wants us to do is to fundamentally alter the very foundation of the budget. That is going to lead to a very big structural problem; and that will not be acceptable. I do not think the 200 PDP members of that House will be hood-winked by the antics of the opposition," leader of the PDP Renaissance Group, Hon. Kyari Gujbawu (PDP/ Borno), said.
Jonathan and the leadership of the National Assembly met for about two hours yesterday, ostensibly over the budget.
However, none of the government officials was willing to give any insight into what was discussed at the meeting.
A similar meeting was held on Tuesday night at the president's private quarters.
Yesterday's meeting took place in the president's office and was attended, among others, by the Senate President David Mark; Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal; and other key officers of the National Assembly.
Also at the meeting were the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; the Director General, Budget Office, Dr. Bright Okogwu; and the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Mrs Joy Emodi.
Attempts by State House correspondents to get an insight into the discussion at the meeting were rebuffed by Emodi who directed them to Abati.
She said without breaking her pace as she walked away from the venue of the meeting: "Everything will be okay. Go and meet the SA Media. He is the one mandated to make comments."
Mark and Tambuwal also declined to speak on the outcome of the meeting.
Abati, however, allayed the fears of Nigerians on the delay in signing the budget into law, saying it is to ensure that Nigerians get a better deal from the budget.
He told State House correspondents after the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting that the delay in signing the budget "is all about making sure the best is done in the interest of Nigerians".
The signing of the 2013 budget that was anticipated yesterday did not take place as the presidency clarified its position on the purported event, saying the public would be informed about development on the budget.
Abati said the position of the Federal Government on the issue of the budget was predicated on the submission of Okonjo-Iweala.
This position, he reiterated, is that there are grey areas in the document that needed to be resolved finally. Although he did not mention what the ' grey areas' are, the president's spokesperson assured Nigerians that once this critical stage is crossed by the two arms of government, the president would sign the budget into law.
Last Sunday, the Chief Economic Adviser to the President, Dr. Nwanze Okidegbe, at a press conference in Abuja, had identified the grey areas to include the non-inclusion of budgetary vote for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), inclusion of constituency project and reduction of personnel votes and capital votes for some ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).
He had said that even if the president signed the appropriation bill in its present form, there would be problems implementing the budget.
According to him, "On the issue of the budget, the position remains the same as articulated previously by the Minister of Finance that there are grey areas in the document that are being discussed by the executive and the legislature and that once these are clarified, the budget will go to the next stage. So, there is no problem."