It is in the interest of everyone that the budget is signed into law
Almost seven months after it was submitted to them and with half the year almost gone, the National Assembly last Friday night transmitted the harmonised version of the 2018 Appropriation Bill to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. It says a lot about our country that there is such tardiness in dealing with what ordinarily should be a signpost to measurable governance and accountability in a given year. To compound the problem, there is no guarantee as to when the president would sign the bill into law given the usual bickering between the legislature over areas of 'distortions' that we are likely going to witness in the coming days, may be weeks.
To the extent that budget cycle begins from formulation to legislative approval to its implementation and evaluation or monitoring, it is regrettable that at the federal level, we seem to have institutionalised a regime of budget implementation not commencing officially in January of a fiscal year. In fact, in recent years, it has never commenced in the first quarter of the year. Yet, this particular budget was submitted as far back as last November with expectations at the time that it would be passed, signed into law and be ready for implementation by January this year.
However, that has turned out a mirage even though both the executive and the legislature should share the blame. With the usual allegations of budget padding and failure of officials of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to appear before finance and appropriation committees of the National Assembly, the process of passing the budget dragged on endlessly as critical stakeholders raised concerns about the implications of the delay for the fragile economy.
What is even more worrisome is that if the past were to be any guide, there is no sign that the implementation would commence anytime soon since there is no guarantee that President Buhari would assent to what has just been passed by the National Assembly. In 2017, for instance, the presidency delayed assent for a month because of its disapproval of some alterations and the introduction of some items into that budget by the legislature. This time too, it is not likely that the president will assent without asking sundry questions, including the hike to N9.1 trillion from the N8.6 trillion that was initially proposed.
To the extent that every budget is intended to provide financial control and serve as the basis against which developmental activities can be monitored, what the current delay suggests is that the Nigerian economy is not operating optimally. The implications of that are many and far-reaching. One, capital projects which are critical for development cannot be executed since contractual agreements cannot be initiated without budgetary approval. Two, following the fact that capital projects cannot be executed and contractors cannot be paid, other businesses which provide services directly or indirectly to them are affected by the squeeze.
What the foregoing inevitably leads to is cyclical unemployment and a dwindling in some small businesses that we have seen over the years in Nigeria. For instance, the food hawker who hitherto provided food to labourers at a construction site may be out of business whilst projects are delayed. What follows is that the economy contracts at a rapid pace due to the liquidity squeeze while the government becomes dependent on borrowing to fund recurrent and other essential expenditure which is not prudent.
Such state of affairs is unsettling for a country on the eve of an election year, with the attendant huge pressure political activities will exert on the economy. We therefore hope that both the presidency and the National Assembly leadership can work in harmony to ensure that the 2018 budget is signed and ready for implementation without any further delay.