Yar’Adua’s Budget Battle with the National Assembly

by Joel Nwokeoma

Just as many predicted when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua signed the 2009 Appropriation Bill into law last March, the Executive and Legislative arms of government at the federal level have, for the umpteenth time, locked themselves in a largely unhelpful muscle-flexing over the implementation of the national budget. The President had during the signing ceremony expressed “strong reservations” over the upward review of the budget from N2.917 trillion to N3.101 trillion, a difference of about N170 billion, by the legislators. To many political observers, the history of Nigeria’s ten years of unbroken democratic experiment since 1999 would be incomplete without a mention of this yearly dogfight of sorts between the executive and legislature.

A visibly enraged President Yar’Adua had held that the 2009 budget, whose major thrust is “to improve basic infrastructure (power and transportation), security, human resources, services in education and health with a view to improving living conditions and creating employment”, would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement given the “current realities of the declining international oil prices and production constraints” accentuated by the escalating militant activities in the Niger Delta. The President reasoned that owing to the latter factor, in particular, the country’s oil production capacity has sometimes declined to as low as 1.6 million barrel per day (MBPD) from a projection of 2.209 MBPD. And, for a country that has over the decades depended almost solely on crude oil as the mainstay of its economy, the reality of a dwindling oil revenue was too grim to contemplate more so at a time when the demand for improved services by the citizens in terms of infrastructure are ever increasing .

Curiously, the reservations and complaints notwithstanding, the President went ahead to assent to the budget noting with unbridled optimism that it could result in the “regeneration of the national economy” in a move many analysts say pointed to his lacking the “presidential courage” to confront a seemingly self-serving and unproductive National Assembly. It was the view of many also that the President ought to have with-held his assent to the budget and approached the Supreme Court to define the powers of the National Assembly over budget preparation in a presidential system given his open complaints that the budget was brazenly “bastardized and distorted”.

Having thus played along with the National Assembly on the budget, the least the law makers expected of the President to do about the decidedly defective budget was to submit a supplementary budget to the parliament for their consideration. As the Senate President, David Mark reportedly admitted, there were some parameters that had changed since the estimates were presented to the National Assembly, while stressing that “once we start the implementation, we will see how far we will go in terms of how much of it we can implement”.

However, as soon as the implementation began, the law makers raise the alarm over perceived selectivity in the implementation by the President. While contributing at the floor of the House of Representatives penultimate week, the Minority Leader, Mohammed Ali Ndume, observed that “the 2009 budget was not being implemented as passed” leading to the House mandating its standing committees on Finance and Appropriation to investigate the quantum of money earned by the country between January and May as well as amount released from the 2009 Appropriation. This, the law makers said, was to checkmate the recurrence of “budget failure” that has dogged the country since 1999.

Ostensibly responding to the concern expressed by the law makers, the President quickly forwarded a letter to the House explaining that the 2009 Appropriation was not workable as passed. According to him, the outcome of a Presidential Committee headed by the Minister of Finance to review and advise him on the budget “validates the concern I raised earlier on”. He identified some factors that make the budget simply unworkable to include unstable oil revenue; over-estimated privatization proceeds; inability of internally generated revenue to meet financial needs; injection of new projects unilaterally by the National Assembly among others. As a way around the seeming logjam, the President recommended a complete review of the budget given that the subsisting Appropriation Act contains “approved revenue projections well in excess of what we consider to be realistically attainable”. The same point was amplified days later by the Minister of State for Finance, Remi Babalola, who expressed fears that the implementation of the 2009 budget may not be realized eventually because the key assumptions underpinning it might not materialize.

Not unexpectedly, the law makers, seemingly baying for the blood of the President on account of recent happenings in the polity, which bordered on an earlier allegation of non-performance and arrests and prosecution of some key legislators for corruption, dared the executive to head to court “if it feels the legislature has no power to appropriate”. According to Ita Enang, Chairman House Committee on Rules and Business, “the notion that we made insertions in the budget is not correct; the President brought a budget to the House and we made our own input and passed”. He reminded the President that “The budget as it is now is an Act of Parliament” which he is duty bound to implement, and in the event of any need for review, “let him make such requests through the laid down procedures”.

Not many Nigerians are however taken in by the concerns of the President over the budget which the Centre for Social Justice, in its reaction, described as the “apparent frontloading of an alibi for the imminent failure of his administration to achieve the generation and distribution of 6,000 megawatts by December 2009 and other budgetary objectives.” The body demanded among others the “release of funds from the Excess Crude Account to augment budget revenue to the level contained in the 2009 federal budget…”

Interestingly, at a time when the Federal Government is complaining about lack of funds to fully implement the 2009 budget, it is reportedly lamenting being owed over N260 billion and $260 million in Withholding Taxes (WHT), Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and Value Added Tax (VAT) by companies, institutions and ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) across the country in recent times. The Minister of State for Finance, who disclosed this at the recent annual tax conference of the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CITN), unfortunately merely described the debt as “unacceptable to the government” without as much detailing the efforts being made to recover these debts.

Essentially, it is not enough for the President to declare the unworkability of the 2009 budget less than five months after assenting to it. Having assented to it, it is a trite fact that the defectiveness of the budget notwithstanding, he has to explore the ways and means of implementing it to the letter. It is a known fact that if government can checkmate the festering corruption among public officials as well as plug the extant wastages and leakages in the system, some resources would be released for development activities. Besides, it needs to look at how best to recover the enormous debt owed it.

But, by far, the best option available for the executive is to take up the challenge thrown at it by the legislators to head to court and seek for judicial interpretation of the limits of the powers of the legislature in a Presidential system over budget preparation. This is so because unless this path is toed, the nation will not be spared this unsavoury annual dogfight between the two arms of government that hobbles economic progress to no end. A

bove all, the President needs to be reminded that the nation is tired of the perennial failure to implement the national budget under whatever guise.

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