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Still on the budget powers controversy


President Muhammadu Buhari (C) presenting copies of the 2017 budget documents to the National Assembly on Wednesday, December 14, 2016.

No compelling attempt has been made by the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to deal with the budget padding controversy. Last year, the issue was a dark spot in the administration’s anti-corruption record. Chairman of the Appropriation Committee in the House of Representatives, Abdulmumin Jibrin (APC, Kano), was sacked by the leadership of the House because of his involvement and outcry over padding of the 2016 budget.

The budget, which details his committee worked on, was replete with so many discrepancies, resulting in Buhari’s decision to withhold his assent. The discoveries were embarrassing to the National Assembly. The Senate proved its non-involvement in the malfeasance. Jibrin’s hands were caught in the cookie jar. He was accused of unilaterally removing funds for construction of Lagos-Calabar coastal railway from the budget. He allegedly increased the budget by as much as N4 billion, without consultation with other members of the committee and the House.

The saga turned hilarious after Jibrin lost his juicy position. He turned into a parrot, barefacedly reeling out details of how the 2016 budget was padded to take care of the interests of presiding and principal officers of the House. He was determined to bring down the House. Unfortunately, the House successfully contained his brinkmanship and got him suspended, on September 28, last year, for 180 legislative sitting days.

The Jibrin debacle is not the thematic essence of this piece. His acts of budget padding are referenced herein to provide anchorage for the thesis that the blight has continued to afflict the nation, leading to hemorrhage and distortions in public finance. The historical malevolence has enriched a few privileged public office holders. Our commonwealth is misappropriated and plundered in a conspiratorial and gangsterish manner while the masses are perpetually impoverished.

Budget, which is an instrument of stimulating growth and development, is perverted on the altar of legislative leitmotif that feeds on constitutional empowerment. Appropriated funds are manipulatively diverted for personal aggrandizement. Buhari saw through the legislative chicanery last year and, in his righteous indignation, returned the fiscal document to the National Assembly in protest against the removal of some key projects and insertion of others that he did not include in the original bill he presented to the legislature.

The presidential assent to the 2017 budget was dilatory due to the perennial problem of budget padding. About 4,000 new projects were reportedly introduced into the budget by the legislature. The executive frowned at the development. After reaching an agreement to rectify identified flaws via a supplementary budget, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, seemingly reluctantly, signed the appropriation bill into law. He still remarked about the introduction of entirely new projects or modification of projects in the budget by the legislature.

Interestingly, the National Assembly continues to insist that it is constitutionally empowered to deal with the appropriation bill in all its ramifications, including inserting new projects not proposed by the executive. The House of Representatives, through its publicists, has been focused on the advocacy. They have issued a series of statements that are celebratory of that position.

For instance, they drew public attention to a judgment by Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court delivered on March 9, this year, on the issue, in a suit filed by Femi Falana (SAN) on March 31, 2014, which resolved all four questions formulated for determination in favour of the National Assembly (third defendant).

The most critical of the questions which came close to the point at issue was: Whether by virtue of Section 81 of the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), the third defendant is competent to increase or review upward any aspect of the estimates of the revenues and expenditures of the Federation for the next financial year prepared and laid before it by the first defendant (the President, Federal Republic of Nigeria).

Although, the President, Attorney-General of the Federation and the Auditor-General of the Federation (1st, 2nd and 4th defendants respectively) did not react to the plaintiff’s originating summons, the legislature has celebrated the determination of this question in its favour. I sincerely do not think this is the bone of contention. Nobody has said that, in the consideration of the appropriation bill, the legislature does not have the power of upward or downward review of any aspect of the proposed financial provisions. The argument has been that the legislature can do that within the ambit of the proposed fiscal provisions. It has the constitutional enablement to redistribute proposed expenditures with reference to only the projects and budgetary provisions presented to it by the executive.

If, for instance, the executive proposes to spend N200 billion on Lagos-Calabar coastal railway in a financial year, the legislature can decide to increase or decrease the proposed allocation depending on its considerations. The amount by which it is increased can be taken from another subhead to take care of the increment; or, the amount by which it is decreased can be taken to another project which, as feared, might be underfunded in the budget. It is not for the legislature to incorporate an entirely new project that is alien to the original contemplation of the executive.

The legislature is expected to keep within the policy framework of the budget as well as the underpinning capacity of government to generate revenue and source for funds to finance the budget. Otherwise, the legislature will always be driven by the exercise of its hesitant power to increase the proposed expenditures and thus put the executive under pressure to implement the altered budget.

The legislature must authorize expenditure from the consolidated revenue fund of the federation before the executive can access and spend. This is settled. There is constitutional imperative for checks and balances, which limits the spheres of proposing and approving authorities.

But the real contention is not expressly addressed by the provisions of the constitution and the judgment by Kolawole, which is: can the legislature introduce entirely new projects into the appropriation bill during considerations and/or prior to approval? Falana’s suit did not call on the court to rein in on this moot point, which remains the real issue requiring judicial ventilation.

If the executive and the legislative arms of government are not ready to embrace the idea of pre-budget consultations to accommodate and prioritise viable projects in which they have located national and constituency interests as I had suggested in a similar piece; or the need for cooperation between both arms of government in the preparation of the estimates so that by the time the money bill is laid, most of the grey areas would have been resolved as suggested by THISDAY newspaper in its Tuesday, June 27, 2017 editorial, titled: Needless Tussle over Budget powers, the executive should seek Supreme Court’s intervention for clear-cut pronouncements on the powers and limits thereof of the legislature with respect to the sacrosanctity of its (executive) budget proposals.

Now that another budget ritual is in the offing, the search for judicial interpretation should be expedited to avert the annual rigmarole over budget padding. Sensible!

Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja.

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