THE ongoing deliberation in the House of Representatives on a bill which seeks to address the problems associated with the late presentation and non-implementation of national budgets is a step in the right direction. If the proposed legislation eventually becomes law, it will help to keep both the executive and legislative arms of government on their toes regarding the timely preparation, passage and implementation of our budgets.
The bill, which emanated from an arm of the National Assembly – the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS) – is the outcome of a series of engagements with stakeholders on the nation’s budget process and how to check its lapses. The proposed law, which is already receiving accelerated hearing, stipulates stiff penalties for those who flout its provisions, including a possible impeachment of the president. It identifies lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework as a serious obstacle to the nation’s budget process and its effective and efficient implementation. It, therefore, provides specific timelines for the preparation, consideration and enactment of budgets. It also, in its Section 33, says that anybody found to have breached any budget process will be deemed to have committed an act of misconduct. The bill goes further to define an act of misconduct to include failure to implement a budget project, where funds have been appropriated for that purpose; failure to take reasonable care to ensure there is compliance with the law, and non-compliance with the budget process calendar. In such instances, sanctions include the likelihood of impeachment (in the case of the president), suspension from office, written warning, removal of such lawmaker (s) from chairmanship of Committees etc.
The proposed legislation lists other punishable offences to include refusal to carry out official duty or attempt to prevent another official, public or civil servant from discharging his duties, as well as attempt to tamper with the report of a committee or sub-committee with intent to mislead or gain undue advantage. This provision is widely believed to be targetted at addressing the “budget padding” controversy, which rocked the National Assembly two years ago when a member of the House of Representatives and the then Chairman of the Appropriation Committee, Abdulmumini Jibril, alleged that the leaders of the House inserted certain items in the budget to benefit themselves and their constituencies.
One of the most profound aspects of the bill is its bid to stop late submission of the budget to the National Assembly by the Presidency. To curb such delays, the proposed law suggests that henceforth, submission of budgets should come as early as the first week of September, and its passage by the legislature, not later than December 30 every year. If these timelines are adhered to by those concerned, significant progress will be made in achieving the nation’s various developmental goals, which the past budgets failed to achieve.
We agree with many aspects of this bill, particularly regarding timelines. However, the provision for the impeachment of the President in the event of non-implementation of the budget appears rather harsh. But, if the legislation succeeds in putting the two relevant arms of the government on their toes and the budgets are submitted, considered, passed and effectively implemented as proposed, the bill will not be widely seen as ill-conceived or unrealistic, as it was reportedly described by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate).
It is high time the government and the National Assembly began to see the budget for what it is. It is the single most important policy document that any government can fashion out. It is the tangible expression of the mission, vision, plans and programmes of the government in power to ensure the welfare of the citizens. Adherence to its timelines and full implementation should ensure good service delivery. Our national budgets have repeatedly come short of this.
Every year, we bemoan late presentation of budgets and even a longer wait for its passage by the National Assembly. This leaves little room for significant implementation levels. Only last month, the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, noted that the 2017 budget had just 21 percent implementation of its capital component. This is the worst implementation level in five years. If this trend of late submission, consideration and poor implementation of our budgets continue, what will be the essence of the different economic blueprints drawn up by the government to ramp up growth?
The Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy, and the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) unveiled early last year have timelines to deliver on specific projects. Sadly, these timelines merely exist on paper. It is disheartening that non-implementation of budgets has become a norm in our development efforts. Government should begin to see the budget as a law, which when broken carries consequential punishments.
The current practice in which the government and its agencies decide to pick the aspects of the budget to execute is unhelpful. While we substantially support this new bill, it can only achieve its objectives and make the necessary impact if the lawmakers quickly pass it and dutifully consider and pass the 2018 Budget.
Year in, year out, our national budgets have been stuck in the National Assembly, sometimes for up to six months into the new year. Both the executive and legislative arms of government need a new sense of urgency on the matter of our national budgets and a good way to ensure this is to quickly pass this bill.