Since the return of democratic governance about twenty years ago, the problem of delays in yearly budget passage has been a recurring decimal, regardless of the party in power, with attendant negative effects. This has led to the usual blame-game between the Presidency and the National Assembly. TAIYE ODEWALE and BODE OLAGOKE examine the causes of delays in budget passage and asks, who is to blame?
Before the advent of the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria on May 29, 1999; yearly budgetary circles at whatever levels of government, be it at the national, states or local government councils, ran from January to December.
While the cycle to a large extent at the states and local government councils, still run from January to December, it is not so at the centre with the budget of the federal government which in recent years, have either run from June of every year of passage to June of the following year or May of the year of passage to the month of May of the following year.
The yearly delays in budget consideration and passage by the National Assembly started in year 2000, during the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency which was passed by the National Assembly in April of that year after months of bickering and disagreements between the lawmakers and President Obasanjo over some proposals in the N598 billion budget estimate which was eventually signed into law in May.
Although, during the same Obasanjo’s presidency, attempts were made to revert to the January to December yearly budget implementation circle with the passage of N2.3 trillion 2007 budget on December 20, 2006, by both chambers of the National Assembly, having received the budget from the Presidency on October 11, 2006.
However, such attempts did not succeed in returning the country to the traditional January to December budget implementation circle.
Even the Fiscal Responsibility Act introduced in 2007 to guide both the executive and legislative arms of government at the centre on expected roles to play at different stages of budget planning, presentation, consideration, and passage within stipulated time frame; has not helped in solving the problem as the N2.74 trillion 2008 budget planned, presented, considered and passed in line with its provisions; was signed into law in April 2008 by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, having been forwarded to him by the National Assembly in March.
Since then the trend has remained the same with the usual attendant blame game between the executive and the legislature.
While the executive and in particular, the Presidency, always blamed the National Assembly for spending too much time on the budget consideration before passage, the lawmakers always fire back at the Presidency for setting the stage for such delays by presenting yearly budget estimates late, aside from its officials not responding to budget defence sessions in time with relevant committees over-sighting their establishments.
A worrisome example of such scenarios was the N8.7 trillion 2018 budget presented to the joint session of the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari in November 2017, but spent seven solid months with the lawmakers before it was passed in May 2018 as N9.12trillion budgetary proposals.
Within the seven months, blames and counter blames over the delay were fired from the Presidency to NASS and vice versa.
While President Buhari and other government officials wondered what the legislators were doing with budget proposals for half a year before passage, the legislators, particularly their leadership, fired back claiming it was their constitutional right to screen such proposals thoroughly regardless of whatever time it would take.
Specifically, the President of the Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki, in April last year, when the appropriation bill had spent five months with the federal lawmakers, declared that the executive arm of government should blame itself for the delay and not the National Assembly.
Saraki, who made the declaration in Jos, Plateau state, during retreat of the Senate Press Corps, said as long as the executive, particularly the Presidency, is not ready to collaborate with the National Assembly on its programmes and policy direction, there is bound to be friction.
He explained that though by the doctrine of separation of power, healthy frictions in terms of checks and balances are envisaged in a presidential democracy, but it is not so yet with our democracy because of lack of required respect and regards for the Parliament as an institution.
“If you take the 2018 Budget, for example, even before they had bothered to find out where the cause of the delay is coming from, people were already attacking and blaming the legislature.
“When I led the leadership of both chambers of the National Assembly, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives to see Mr. President, he came to the meeting being briefed as if the delay was that of the National Assembly. He was humble enough at the end of the discussion to render an apology,” he said.
Earlier, at the same retreat, Senator Olubunmi Adetunbi, in his paper presentation on improving Nigeria’s budgetary process through executive-legislature cooperation, had called for paradigm shift on their model of engagement.
According to him, the model of engagement between the two arms on budgetary processes should be at the planning stage and not at the stage of presentation of Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper (MTEF/FSP) by the executive to the National Assembly.
He also said the “time has come to rethink the effectiveness of MTEF/FSP as foundation for budget planning” in the country.
But over the years, the MTEF/FSP documents which contained parameters upon which budget estimates are based, have never been forwarded to the National Assembly in August for consideration and preparatory to presentation of budget estimates in September as specified in the Fiscal Responsibility Act.
For instance, the 2019 Appropriation Bill passed last month by the National Assembly, but yet to be assented to by the president, was presented on December 19, as against September, and even MTEF /FSP papers were presented in October as against August. Perhaps, the way out of the problem may be provided for in the coming 9th National Assembly, going by the submissions recently made by elected federal lawmakers seeking leadership positions in the next Assembly.
Senate majority leader reacts
One of such lawmakers is the incumbent Senate Leader, Ahmad Lawan, who as part of his agenda as President of the 9th Senate, if elected, is to ensure the restoration of January to December Budget calendar in collaboration with the executive.
Lawan, who stated this at the Head Office of the Blueprint Newspapers in Abuja penultimate Thursday, said: “It is rather sad that the budget process has not produced the kind of time outcome in this country. Let me remind you that our economy is largely dependent on public expenditure, and if the budget is not passed, Nigerians will complain of budget delay everywhere you go.
“That means the budget touches every life in this country. We have had discussions amongst ourselves in this group, and most of the senators we have met on how to solve this problem of this budget process so that we can produce a budget document at the that is required of it, and our conclusion are that we need to have a proper and timely engagement and consultations with the executive arm of government, so that we are able to have the budget proposal presented by Mr President in September or October of a year.
“We believe we should have maximum of three months to pass the budget and wait for Mr President to assent to it. I believe that we should tell ourselves the truth in the National Assembly that the budget is the most essential legislation, and the single most important document that we can produce, and make life better for Nigerians; so, why can’t we for example find a time frame, and say this time is only for processing the budget.”
He further stated that: “For instance, if the budget is presented in September, why can’t we take the next four weeks from the day it was presented to do budget defence, no plenary until we are able to present something critical that requires our attention or intervention. No senator or member of the House of Representatives should travel out of the country without defending the budget. And we engage the Presidency on the same thing that no minister must travel out of the country without defending his or her ministry’s budget.
“After that one month window is concluded, anyone who does not defend his budget should forget it. The National Assembly should be able to just work on what it thinks is right on the budget.
“I believe with this approach that will be worked out with the executive the problem of yearly budget delays will be a thing of the past in the 9th National Assembly in the best interest of Nigeria and Nigerians.”
No doubt, the disrupted yearly budget circle is not only affecting the executive in its implementation, the legislature in its monitoring but also Nigerians in terms of benefits.
With President Buhari’s yearly appeals to the federal lawmakers to revert to the January-December fiscal calendar, and the burning desires by ranking lawmakers-elect for the 9th National Assembly to effect the required change, there is appears to be a window of hope in that direction.
Senator-elect Oloriegbe’s views
The senator-elect, Dr Ibrahim Yahaya Oloriegbe (APC, Kwara Central), in a telephone conversation with Weekend Blueprint on Friday, said generally unnecessary frictions between the National Assembly and the Presidency at any time will not augur well for both parties and Nigerians generally as far as the required good governance is concerned.
“The worst of such unnecessary frictions are these yearly budget delays in all ramifications, from presentation to consideration and passage. Such important blueprint or financial plan of action of government on yearly basis for provision of needed services and projects should be treated by all stakeholders with all the seriousness and attention it deserves at appropriate time.
“A way of achieving this in the general interest of Nigerians is for leadership of the coming 9th National Assembly to collaborate with the executive on earlier execution of the entire processes the planning, presentation, consideration and passage of yearly budget estimates entails.
“For me and I believe to many other newly elected federal lawmakers, the way out of these yearly delays, will be critically explored in the interest of both the government and the governed,” he said.
Cross River senator blames executive
In her contribution, a serving senator who is also re-elected for the 9th Senate, Rose Oko (PDP, Cross River North), shared similar views in a separate interview, saying that the yearly delays in presentation, consideration, and passage of budget proposals of the country must be addressed for better implementation and monitoring.
She, however, said the bulk of solution to the problem lies with the executive or in particular, the Presidency as far as early presentation is concerned on one hand, and cooperation of Heads of the various government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), as far as budget defence sessions with various standing committees of the National Assembly are concerned on the other hand.
“If for example, the Presidency, in August of a year, forwarded the MTEF/FSP documents containing the basic parameters, assumptions and indicators which budget estimates or proposals of a following year are to be based, there is no way such request will not be dispensed with by the National Assembly latest by September of that year, and pave the way for presentation of the budget itself to the National Assembly by Mr President, either in that September or October, for consideration and eventual passage in December of that year or January of the year the budget estimates were projected for.
“The second leg of solution expected from the executive, is in the area of budget defence session where most Heads of the MDAs are not always forthcoming when invited until threats are issued. All these lengthens the time budget proposals stays in the hands of the federal lawmakers for the required legislative inputs as provided for by relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
“National budget submitted by any President in power to the National Assembly for expeditious consideration and passage is not budget of any political party or region or geo-political zone, but for Nigeria and Nigerians; and this is the reason thorough screening of such projections are carried out by NASS in ensuring equity, fairness on the execution of projects across the country.
“Once the executive gets it right with early presentation of budget of a coming year in August or September of the outgoing fiscal year, the National Assembly will also definitely get it right by passing such a budgetary proposal in December of the outgoing year has witnessed in 2006, when N2.3 trillion 2007 budget was passed by both chambers of the National Assembly on December 20, 2006, on the strength of early presentation of it by the then President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on October 11, 2006,” she said.
BMO’s take on budget delays
In its reaction, the Buhari Media Organisation (BMO) stated that the National Assembly leadership under the outgoing President of the Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki, consistently played politics with the national budget in the last three years.
Chairman of the organisation Niyi Akinsuji, in an interview with our correspondent, said it was surprising that “such scenario is still playing out up till date.”
He said: “It has become a tradition, over the past three years, by the National Assembly leadership, to play politics with the national budget. It is that unfortunate, the first of the drama that would become an annual rite of legislative show of naked power, was the claim of disappearance of the budget forwarded by the President to the National Assembly, it eventually turned out that the National Assembly were merely playing a perfidious game of hide and seek.
“Since then, the National Assembly had not only contented itself with delaying the budget, but literally mutilating the intent and structure of the budget forwarded to it in 2017 and 2018. So, are we surprised the same scenario is playing out now? No, definitely not, the National Assembly has its agenda and had continued to misuse its privileged powers to delay the budget with direct impact on the development momentum of the country and its citizens.
“We are hopeful that this would change in the coming 9th Assembly, with a National Assembly that is patriotic and people focused.”