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Before we pass the 2018 budget…

It is another budget season. It is the time of the year lawmakers from both chambers of the National Assembly get busy. It is also a season of accusations and counter accusations. And so far, the National Assembly, particularly, the Senate, appears to be ahead of the Executive. But as expected, the gibes will not go unnoticed without a dignifying rebuttal from the Executive.

Before the Senate, vis-a-vis, the National Assembly, approves the 2018 budget estimates, certain things must be done first. The yearly embarrassing called budget padding must have taken the centre stage now. If this is allowed to slide, we may be faced with another embarrassing round of padding brouhaha.

Before I give my thoughts, let me take you through a long walk to the recent past. In 2016, the now suspended former chairman of the Appropriation Committee in the House of Representatives, Mr. Abdulmumini Jibrin, blew off the lid, when he accused the Speaker of the House, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, and nine other principal officers of the Green Chamber of padding the budget 2016 budget.

At first, no one took him seriously, until he started releasing documents to back his claims. Anti-graft agencies got involved and the airwaves were daily bombarded with budget padding blues. In the end, Jibrin got his fingers burnt and nothing happened thereafter.

While this drama played out, the Senate was insulated. But early in the year, it joined the fray. This time, the accusations did not come from the parliament. A Super Minister in charge of Works, Power and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, raised the alarm.

I need to quote Fashola extensively here. Read what he said then: “Everybody is complaining about power supply but they (National Assembly) also cut the budget for Mambila power project and the Bodo Bridge that connects the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Station.

“If after we have defended the budget and we have gone and the legislature unilaterally changed the budget, what is the purpose of deliberation? What I have in my budget now is primary health care centres, boreholes.

“We were asked to complete those abandoned projects; the budget of Lagos-Ibadan Expressway was reduced by the National Assembly from N31 billion to N10 billion. We owe the contractors about N15bn and they have written to us that they are going to shut down.”

Although my brief is restricted to the Senate, let me apologetically replay a response to Fashola’s punchy allegations. Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Abdulrazak Namdas, responded then.

Hear him: “Also, the budget of the 2nd Niger bridge was reduced from N15bn to N10bn and about N3bn or so was removed from the Okene-Lokoja-Abuja road budget.

“I am not saying that the legislature cannot contribute to the budget, but I hold the view that it cannot increase the budget because they do not collect the revenue with which to run or implement the budget.”

“We could not watch the country’s patrimony being unfairly skewed to one region or a few regions to the detriment of other states and geo-political zones.

“We need to remind Mr. Fashola that the National Assembly is a national institution made up of members from all geo-political zones, they represent all tendencies, interests and ethnic nationalities.

“It has a responsibility also to ensure balance in the distribution of road projects and other developmental facilities.

“The proposal from Mr. President on the 2017 budget of the Ministry of Works, Power and Housing did not pass this test! This partly informed the intervention of the National Assembly so that every region can be carried along in project allocation.”

Since the Senate was at the centre of the padding palaver, Senator Danjuma Goje, who was named by Fashola, responded harshly: “Fashola should know that he is dealing with the National Assembly of Nigeria and not Lagos State House of Assembly. This assembly is composed of very patriotic and experienced Nigerians. Many have done this job before him. Many were governors before him. The ministry is too big; the ministry comprises works, housing and power.

“If the job is too much for him, if he cannot adjust, then he should do the honourable and needful thing. No amount of blackmail or propaganda by him will stop this National Assembly from doing its duties in accordance with the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

Fashola wanted to have the last laugh. So, he responded again: “I think, first, that Goje’s language is unparliamentary and therefore not deserving of a reply. I need a better budget as a tool to do my work and that is why l am speaking out. In this context, it is left for Nigerians to then decide whether budgeting for constituency roads is more patriotic than budgeting to complete the Kano-Maiduguri Road that connects five states, the Lagos-Ibadan Road that connects three states and helps to move food, imported goods and fuel across the country; or the second Niger Bridge that connects the South-East and the South-West geopolitical zones of at least 11 states together.

“I will also leave Nigerians to judge whether it is more patriotic to budget for the Mambilla Power Project that will contribute to more power supply across Nigeria or reduce the budget to build street lights in legislative constituencies. It seems that it is Goje who needs a behavioural prescription about legislative function.

“Let me reiterate that I see parliament as a house where very vigorous debates about development should take place and it is important for Goje to acquire the temperament of debate and disagreement.”

Now that I have provided the fiery exchange between Fashola, the Senate and the House of Representatives, let me briefly make my intervention.

I am not a lawmaker, but as a parliamentary reporter, I understand the process of budgeting. I also understand that the National Assembly reserves the right to tinker with the budget and pass what it deems good enough for Nigerians.

The same reason the parliament can insert borehole in place of road projects, town hall in place of bridges and primary healthcare centres in place of new rail lines. As long as they have the power of appropriation, they can do and undo.

The only way to address this yearly face-off between the two arms of government is for the Executive to approach the court. They can get a judicial interpretation to determine if lawmakers can remove and add anything to the original budget proposal sent to it.

Until this is settled, the circle will continue. The Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, is a lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). The Federal Executive Council has good lawyers. Let them take the lead and settle this rift once and for all.

The court, which is an arm of government, should be able to interpret what the law is silent about. But it cannot unilaterally do this if the other two arms do not do the needful. Whether or not we want to accept it, budget padding will be here for a long time until those responsible, do the needful.

For me, this must happen before the National Assembly passes the 2018 budget. We need to jettison the yearly ‘gentleman arrangement’ between the two arms. Let us put this behind us.

I so submit!

  …One more thing 

In my column published on October 29, I made some claims, which many senators found offensive.

I sincerely apologise for the  offensive piece. I respect senators, I respect the Red Chamber and I will not deliberately denigrate it. My sincere apologies.

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