Squabbles begin as Senate seeks N1.4tr for constituency projects
• Presidency has right to veto N’ Assembly, says Buhari’s aide
• We will oppose it, Labour warns
The Senate yesterday signaled the start of another budget squabble that could distract governance and further impoverish Nigerians in the coming year. It approved for further legislative work, a bill seeking to reserve almost a quarter (20 per cent) of annual budgets for its members to manage as constituency projects exclusive of the Executive arm of government.
Consistent but silent disagreements between the legislature and the executive over what would become of constituency projects have been at the centre of delays in passing national budgets.
The 2016 budget — implementation of which has been a subject of controversy — had a very rough and delayed takeoff mainly due to the lawmakers’ veiled demand for constituency projects. Although government claims to have released a large chunk of the capital vote much later in the year, the impact on economic recovery from recession is yet to be felt. Consumer prices have remained high as Nigeria’s data agency — the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) — puts inflation rate at more than 18 percent, even as unemployment remains on the rise.
Asked how the Presidency would react to the lawmakers’ demand, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters, Ita Solomon Enang, said the Executive arm of government would wait for the Senate to pass the Bill. “If a bill is being worked on, we prefer to wait …we do not need to join issues with Senators because the President has the right to veto or sign any Bill into law,” Enang who spoke by phone from the United States of America (USA), said.
If the legislators stick to their guns, it will heighten the subsisting tension between the executive and legislative arms of government and frustrate governance.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) yesterday said its members would oppose 20 per cent allocation to constituency projects.
The workers described it as a waste of resources saying the country is in recession and funds should not be recklessly spent as was the case with the 2016 budget.
“Federal Government should be considering ways of cutting spending. The 20 per cent allocation is a waste of money. Besides, there is no proper record of what the money will be used for; it is only few of the constituencies that use the funds to develop the country,” Lagos State Chairman of the NLC, Comrade Idowu Adelakan, said.
Twenty per cent of the N7.2 trillion budget proposal, which President Muhammadu Buhari is to present to the joint session of the National Assembly on Wednesday amounts to N1.4 trillion, a sum that could be spent outside of the official supervision required for budget implementation. Spending 20 percent of the entire budget outside of the executive powers could encourage corruption and deprive the country of the much-needed funds to provide security, build socio-economic infrastructure and create jobs for economic recovery and growth in 2017.
The Senate has already approved next Wednesday for the President to present the budget proposal even as the National Assembly was yet to conclude work on the preparation of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) which the Fiscal Responsibility Act stipulated must be the basis for preparing annual budgets.
Sponsored by Senator Stella Odua (PDP, Anambra North) the Constituency Bill which passed the Second Reading yesterday has already been referred to the Senate committees on Appropriation and Finance, and it is expected to be passed into law early in 2017 — meaning that the budget will be passed after the lawmakers’ demand would have been met.
The Senate directed the committees to turn in their report on the Bill within four weeks. The key provision in the Bill is the one, which states that at least 20 per cent of annual budgets must be dedicated to constituency projects.
Should the Bill be passed into law before the 2017 budget proposal is signed, a total of N1.4 trillion would be dedicated to National Assembly constituency projects.
During the debate on the general principles of the bill on the Senate floor, Senator Odua explained that it seeks to grant legal backing to the provision of Constituency Projects in the Annual Budget of the Federation by a minimum of 20 percent.
“One of the unique features of our democratic journey so far is the concept of ‘Constituency Projects’. Available statistics show that 70 percent of Nigerians live in the rural areas and the intention of the bill is to ensure that good governance is delivered to these crucial areas. The bill is also intended to correct the top-bottom approach of governance and replace it with the bottom top approach,” she said.
However, the National Assembly is yet to approve the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), which the law stipulates must be approved before the President can produce and present budgets at the joint session of the National Assembly.
A Joint Committee of the Senate working on the MTEF is yet to conclude its work.
It has however scheduled a meeting on the MTEF matter for next Tuesday, December 13, 2016.
When asked how the Senate would accept a budget proposal that was produced in breach of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the deputy majority leader of the Senate, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, said:
“What people don’t understand is that the approval of MTEF is not a precondition for accepting the budget. But it is a precondition for passing the budget into law. I want you to understand the difference.”
Na’Allah’s explanation raises questions on whether or not the 2017 budget will be passed in good time.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act provided, among other things, that:
“Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Act or any other law, the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework shall:
•Be the basis for the preparation of the estimates of revenue and expenditure required to be prepared and laid before the National Assembly under section 81 (1) of the Constitution.
•The sectoral and compositional distribution of the estimates of expenditure referred to in subsection (1) of this section shall be consistent with the medium term developmental priorities set out in the Medium Term expenditure Framework.
In the same vein, a Bill for an Act to provide for inauguration of the President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, also known as Presidential Inauguration Bill 2016, has been approved by the Senate for further legislative work.
The Bill, sponsored by the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, seeks to align presidential inauguration in the country with international best practices as obtained in the US and many other democracies.