At no time in the past has the acrimony between the Presidency and the National Assembly that attended the signing into law of the 2018 Appropriation Bill been witnessed in Nigeria’s budget making history. And the issues at stake have a morbid detachment from the interests of the people.
Eight months after tabling the 2018 budget proposal to the National Assembly on November 7, 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari finally signed the Appropriation Bill into law on June 20, 2018, albeit grudgingly. That was half way through the year. It is a puzzling turn of events for a government with majority in both chambers of the National Assembly that is condemned to evolve policies and programmes to energise an economy yet to shake off the after shocks of a prolonged recession.
“It is particularly not helpful to the private sector, which government has acknowledged as the engine of growth and development of the economy. The budget is a fundamental framework for strategic planning and decision-making by both the public and private sector; as such, delays have far-reaching implications on the nation’s economy and the wellbeing of the people,” the National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) said of the incredibly long time taken to rev the 2018 budget into gear.
Unlike what the country has had to deal with in the past, the brickbats between the executive branch and federal lawmakers following Buhari ascent to the budget is unprecedented and reveal a shocking and unconscionable bargaining with the people’s commonwealth in the lead up to adopting $51 as the benchmark for the 2018 budget, $6 more than the $45 earlier proposed by the Presidency.
In appending his signature to the bill, President Buhari complained that the National Assembly tampered with the basics of the budget and rendered it difficult to implement. Essentially, Buhari also accused the lawmakers of making cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration while introducing 6,403 projects of their own amounting to N578 billion. He also accused the federal lawmakers of, among others, increasing their own budget from N125 billion to N139.5 billion, without any discussion with the executive.
Beyond the late passage is the controversial slashing of funds for some infrastructural projects and emerging allegations of illegal or surreptitious alteration and tampering of allocations seemingly already agreed by both chambers of the National Assembly.
Although the National Assembly has sought to justify its own actions while the president seems to have taken his case to the court of public opinion, the economy is paying a huge price for the fractious relationship between the two arms of government.
The curious aspect of the emerging intrigues surrounding the budget is the vicious slashing of allocations for key projects, mainly in the south east and south south. One of the controversial areas where allocations was slashed is the proposed new terminal building for Enugu International Airport where N2 billion was said to have been set aside by the joint committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives. When it emerged that the figure had dropped to just N500 million after the document was signed by President Buhari, the south east caucus of the Senate led by Enyinnaya Abaribe raised alarm that it was contrary to what was agreed during the budgetary process.
Similarly, Abaribe washed his hands off the N30 billion set aside for expansion and re-enforcement of infrastructure in the distribution companies to rescue stranded firms, alleging that it was smuggled into the power budget without his committee’s knowledge. The allocation, he said, “never passed through the Senate Power committee” of which he is a member.
This in addition to the slashing of the allocations for the newly established Maritime University at Okerenkoko in Delta State, the crucial East-West road as well as the second Niger bridge, developments which the south east caucus in the Senate has claimed ignorance of raise serious questions on the sanctity and integrity of the budgetary process against the backdrop of “padding” that Buhari alluded to in explaining his hesitance in signing the Appropriation Bill into law. For a body that ostensibly acts in concert with each other, Abaribe’s allegations and the stance of the south east caucus of the Senate are weighty.
Given that elections are due just next February, the huge distortion in the budget and the unusual alarm raised by the south east Senate caucus are troubling. For the lawmakers from the south east whose region has borne a disproportionate amount in the slashing of allocations for infrastructural projects, the onus is on them to initiate the process of ascertaining how the funds set aside for their area were tampered with without their knowledge.
Whatever turns out to be the truth about the behind the scenes moves that led to the situation, the south east senators cannot be adjudged to have clothed themselves in honour with their indolence and aloofness to the interests of their constituencies. For a region that has the deputy president of the Senate in Ike Ekwerenmadu, their detached disposition while their colleagues from other parts of the country diligently saw through the interests of their areas is a poor commentary on the quality of representation the south east is getting from the present crop of representatives.
From all indications, the last may not have been heard of the intrigues and behind-the-scene horse trading that preceded the final document signed by Buhari. A crucial first step will be the willingness of south east and south south lawmakers to logically unravel the raison d’etre behind the disproportionate slashing of allocations for capital projects in their regions.