Reps and the burden of delivering on its promise

The House of Representatives, through Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, has repeatedly pledged to return the nation’s budget circle to January-December. Would the house deliver on the promise? JOSHUA EGBODO writes.

The budget

President Muhammadu Buhari had on Tuesday October 8, 2019 laid before a joint session of the National Assembly, the 2020 appropriation bill, with a proposed aggregate expenditure totaling N10,330,416,607,347, out of which the sum of N556,700,827,235 is for statutory transfers; N2,748,598,930,000 for debt servicing; N4,880,309,549,77 is for recurrent (Non–Debt) expenditure, while the sum of N2,144,807,300,334 is for contribution to the development fund for capital expenditure.

Gbajabiamila on the expected outcome

Speaker Gbajabiamla just after the budget was laid the outcome of its scrutiny by the National Assembly would reflect key and strategic priorities of Nigeria.

The speaker, while delivering vote of thanks at the joint session, said “the budget we enact into law will be proof of our priorities and a reflection of the values we hold”. According to him, these values include integrity, accountability in managing the affairs of state and absolute commitment to the best interests of the Nigerian people, as well as building an economy that provides sufficient opportunity for our people to achieve the dreams they hold dear.

While giving assurance that the parliament would immediately swing into action of considering the budget bill, Gbajabiamila, however warned that though, the house will seek collaboration, but in oversight, “we will not yield on our constitutional obligation to ensure faithful compliance with the letter and spirit of the Appropriation Act by the ministries, departments and agencies of the government. 

“We will strive for big wins, resisting the temptation to bask in the false allure of mediocre achievements because this moment calls for nothing short of grand ambition, and transformative ideas. Above all else, we will hold ourselves in the legislature and others, to the highest standards of probity because to fall short of excellence will be to betray the calling of leadership to which we all have answered”.

According to him, “There are significant flaws in the process of passage and implementation of our annual national budgets. Some of these problems are structural. Others are a function of failures of process and inadequacies in attitude. We intend in this 9th Assembly to improve on these past imperfections and to leave a legacy of budgets that are enacted without rancour, implemented diligently and that achieve the objectives of national development for which they are intended.”

On the renewed collaboration with the executive arm, the speaker noted that “We recognise that our highest ambitions and the collective best interests of our nationhood can only be achieved when the legislature and the executive work together in pursuit of our shared ambitions. Therefore, we will make every effort in this 9th assembly to achieve constructive collaboration with the executive on all matters of appropriation, implementation and oversight”.

Plenary suspended

The house, following the presentation, announced its decision to commence action on the budget immediately. Signs that a common ground on that being sought was an immediate closed door session the house held, just after President Buhari and Senators left its chamber, where the joint session took place, spokesman of the house, Hon Benjamin Kalu was to later explain that action would be take on the budget immediately.

Its initial action on the budget bill suggested it was determined to ensure the passage before the Yuletide break. The house dedicated greater part of its plenary of last Wednesday and Thursday to debating the general principles of the budget. It subsequently scaled second reading, and was referred to the House Committee on Appropriations while other Standing Committees were to serve as its sub-committees.

Regular plenary of the house was subsequently suspended until October 29, 2019 to enable the Committees entente MDAs in their respective budget defence sessions.

What lawmakers said

During debate on the budget, members took turns to express their feelings, and the way forward. Hon Olajide Obanikoro, who called for improved funding when it comes to provision for health, stated that doing so would give Nigeria a functioning health system for the citizens, and get people to come from other nations as India is enjoying now.

Also in his presentation, the chairman House Committee on Basic Education, Hon Julius Ihonvbere, while commending the executive on the timeliness and attention to details of the budget proposal, however, called for a higher level of investments into the empowerment of women who have proven to be better economic managers, as well as better investments into technical and vocational training to make the workforce more productive and turn them to be employers of labour.

Minority Leader Hon Ndudi Elumelu called for a budget implementation that would succeed in practically lifting the economic fortunes of Nigerians, not just on paper and unrealistic statistics.

In his own submissions, Hon Yusuf Gagdi expressed hope that the 9th assembly of the house keep to its words of “doing things differently”, even he raised concerns over the huge allocation to debt servicing in the budget estimates. Many more members spoke on the budget before it got the positive nod at a second reading.

Takeoff drama

Debate on the budget, however, faced a dramatic objection at commencement, with Hon Kingsley Chinda, a member of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from Rivers state insisting that the process be halted until details of the estimates were made available to the National Asemmbly.

Chinda raised a point of order, citing Order 12, Rule 19 of the standing orders of the house, which provided that the budget bill shall be accompanied with details of planned expenditure, recalling that President Buhari had in his speech during the joint session, explained that the details would be presented by the Finance Minister.

“During this address, I will present highlights of our budget proposals for the next fiscal year. The Honourable Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning will provide full details of these proposals, subsequently”, the President had stated.

The lawmaker, therefore, argued that the debate should be suspended until the details are made available as promised by the president. “The details need to be presented so we can debate based on that”, he said.

However, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila ruled the lawmaker out of order. “What do we do during the second reading of a bill?  We debate the general principles. During such debate, do we debate the details?, no so I rule you out of order”, the speaker said.

Buhari pledged MDAs’ cooperation

A great challenge or threat to early budget passage in the past had usually been failure of the MDAs to appear before standing committees of the parliament to justify their proposed estimates. This time, however, a departure from such attitude may be in the offing, with a promised cooperation through the president. 

Buhari gave the assurance in an address during the official unveiling of the House of Representatives Legislative agenda for 2019 -2020 period. Represented by the Minister of Environment, Mohammed Abubakar, the president stated that “during budget defence, I assure you that all the Ministers and the MDAs will appear before the National Assembly to defend their budgets. When we do anything short of that that means we are undermining the cooperation between the executive and the legislature and may be undermining the progress of the country”.

A directive was later to be issued through the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), suspending all foreign travel plans ministers, who were further urged to obtain their budget defence schedules from relevant committees of the parliament, as well as retaliate such travel plans with the President.

Committees in action

It appeared also that the committees are good to. In the last week, several of the standing panels have commenced work, by holding inaugural meetings, where blueprints for their operations, especially on the 2020 budget were rolled out.

New focus

Reeling out the focus of the house as it launched its legislative agenda last Friday, the speaker once again pledged a departure from the past, in the business of lawmaking by the House, including budgeting process.

“We will seek through legislation and oversight, engagement and collaboration, the achievement of a kinder, gentler, more prosperous nation, so that we may leave as our legacy, a bequest of love and promise greater than anything else that has come before”, he stated.

Great and lofty ambitions, analysts have described the new direction as well as the zeal of the house, but whether the promises would be kept, especially on the planned return to a January-December budget circle, they say outcome of the 2020 appropriation bill processing remain an immediate test for it to prove that to Nigerians.

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