“The matters include virements, settlement of appointments, supplementary budget, borrowing plan, Independent National Electoral Commission’s fund…”
Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
All eyes are on the National Assembly as Nigerians wait with bated breath to see if the federal lawmakers will cut short their annual recess, to consider President Muhammadu Buhari’s request for the virement of N242 billion from the 2018 Appropriation Act for the conduct of the 2019 general election, among other urgent national issues.
Since President Buhari submitted a request for the virement of N242 billion from the 2018 budget to the National Assembly, for various agencies involved in the conduct of the 2019 general election, there have been a lot of concerns about funding for next year’s polls.
The President in his letter, which was read in the two chambers of the National Assembly, shortly before the federal legislators commenced their annual recess, wants the fundtobe vired from the N578.319 billion included in the budget by the lawmakers for new projects in different parts of the country.
According to Buhari’s proposal, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is expected to get N189.2 billion, out of the N242 billion, while the the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) and the Department of State Services will get N4.2 billion and N12.2 billion respectively.
Also, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) will get N3.573 billion. The Nigeria Police Force (NPF) gets N30.541 billion, while Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) will receive N2.628 billion.
“As you are aware, the 2019 general election is scheduled to be conducted early in 2019. To ensure that adequate arrangements are made for free and fair elections, it has become necessary to appropriate funds to enable the relevant agencies commence preparations.
“INEC and security agencies have accordingly recently submitted their requests. These have been subjected to the usual budget evaluation. The aggregate cost of the election is estimated at N242, 445,322,600.
“I invite the House to consider, in the national interest, reallocating some of the funds appropriated for the new projects which were inserted into the 2018 budget proposal totaling N578,319,951,904, to cover the sum of N228,854,008,215 required as noted” the President stated.
However, since the submission, not a few had expressed concern about the timing of the request and the fact that the government is tying the budget for 2019 general election to funds already appropriated for other purposes.
Analysts say for an election, which the timetable was released several months back, the government ought to have included the budget for the exercise in the 2018 budget or send a supplementary budget within the first quarter of this year, so as to enable the electoral body make preparations in good time.
Besides, it is widely believed that asking the National Assembly to vire funds they have appropriated for new projects will subject the funding of the 2019 polls to an unnecessary controversy. There have also been fears in several quarters that the recess by the lawmakers would affect the early approval of the virement request, and invariably the smooth conduct of the 2019 polls.
Daily Sun gathered that the virement request is believed to be part of the reasons for rising tension in the National Assembly in recent times, especially as the defection of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has pitched the lawmakers against themselves, leading to pro and anti-Buhari lawmakers’ battle for control of the two chambers.
The National Assembly had planned to commence its annual recess on July 26, which is barely; one week after the President’s request was read to the lawmakers. But the seemingly power tussle between the presidency and the senate leadership led to the blockade of the official residences of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki and that of his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu. The situation forced the National Assembly to adjourn on July 24.
Following this, the Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Abdulrasak Namdas said the parliament would consider the President’s request when it reconvenes in September.
The stance of the lawmakers had not gone well with the government, with the Presidency saying that the 2019 general election would be in jeopardy if the National Assembly fails to reconvene urgently to treat the request for the virement.
The Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang had stated recently that there is need for the election budget to be approved in good time, so that the various government agencies can begin preparations in earnest.
“In fairness to the National Assembly, they scheduled to consider these matters on the 24th, 25th and 26h of July, but certain unforeseen events happened that they had to adjourn. Therefore, they did not deliberately keep these matters and go away.
“The matters include virements, settlement of appointments, supplementary budget, borrowing plan, Independent National Electoral Commission’s fund and so on.
“I want to say that we are appealing to the National Assembly that we accept that it was not intended by them that the country should suffer. They had made plans to approve this before the exigency that made them to adjourn, but I want to appeal to them that they should consider reconvening for the purpose of considering these urgent matters which are capable of making the government not to perform and deliver on time.”
Regardless, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) says the government is merely blackmailing the lawmakers with the virement request. The opposition party noted that President Buhari’s plan to fund the budget for the next general election from funds already allocated to other projects raises a lot of questions about the sincerity of the government.
The PDP National Publicity Secretary, KolaOlogbondiyan, toldjournalistsinAbuja recently that President Buhari does not want the 2019 general election to hold, insisting that if he wanted it to hold, the government should have presented a supplementary budget to the National Assembly, instead of seeking for virement of funds, meant for other purposes.
According to Ologbondiyan “the Executive arm is out to blackmail the National Assembly members. How can they predicate the fund for election on constituency projects? Why can’t they bring a supplementary budget? They are merely blackmailing the National Assembly.
“It is an attempt to blackmail the National Assembly. Even President Buhari is not prepared for election. The President deliberately brought the request for the virement at a time, the parliament has scheduled to go on break. One thing we know for certain is that whichever game they play, election will hold.”
The National Chairman, United Democratic Party (UDP) , Godswill Okoye concurs with PDP’s position. Addressing journalists recently in Abuja, Okoye said there appears to be a grand plot to sabotage the conduct of the 2019 polls.
He berated the government for not making provision for the funding of INEC and other agencies that would be involved in the conduct of the election, early enough.
In an apparently response to the appeal by the Presidency, the National Assembly leadership after its meeting with INEC leadership said if it was necessary for it to reconvene, it won’t hesitate to do so.
But the INEC chairman, Yakubu Mahmoud is optimistic that the election budget would be approved by the lawmakers soonest. The INEC boss told National Assembly correspondents after a meeting with the leadership, last week that the federal legislature assured the electoral body that budget will be given an accelerated consideration.
“We have been assured of speedy passage of the budget perhaps as early as next week. N242 billion is the total amount proposed. We are confident that all the grey areas will be ironed out and as far as INEC is concerned, our own component of the cost of 2019 election will be speedily appropriated by the National Assembly,” Mahmoud stated.
However, pundits say the approval for the N242 billion virement would not be as easy as the chief electoral umpire thinks; especially as the sub head from which the executive arm of government is seeking the virement has been a bone of contention between legislature and the Presidency.
At the signing of the 2018 budget, President Buhari had complained that the National Assembly injected new projects amounting to N578.319 billion in the budget, stating that the action of the lawmakers may make the budget difficult to implement.
According to him, “the National Assembly made cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to N578 billion. Many of the projects cut are critical and may be difficult, if not impossible, to implement with the reduced allocation. Some of the new projects inserted by the National Assembly have not been properly conceptualised, designed and costed and will therefore be difficult to execute.
“Furthermore, many of these new projects introduced by the National Assembly have been added to the budgets of most MDAs with no consideration for institutional capacity to execute them or the incremental recurrent expenditure that may be required.”
Responding to Buhari’s concerns at the point, the National Assembly at joint press conference organised offered its own defence. Senate spokesman, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, said that actions of the parliament were aimed at ensuring that there is federal character in the distribution of projects, adding “the number of projects had to be increased in order to give a sense of belonging to every geo-political zone of the country to ensure socio-economic justice, equity, fairness, and to command National loyalty.
“These reductions of N347 billion were made from low priority areas to higher priority areas to support the generation of employment for our youth by MSMEs.
We took the decision to reduce the funds in some areas in order to ensure balance and equity in the spread and utilisation of our national funds. Additionally, the figures giving amounts of the reductions made by the National Assembly were unduly exaggerated as we did not make any substantial reduction on any project to the extent of affecting its implementation,” he said.
The fact that the President wants the lawmakers to vire funds meant for these new projects for the election budget is bound to raise a lot of dust. But then Buhari in his letter had stated that the size of the 2018 budget makes it impossible for the government to come up with a supplementary budget to fund the election.
The questions, therefore, are, will the lawmakers bow to pressure to accede to the President’s request? Or would they insist that the government comes up with a supplementary budget? Only time will tell.