Having set the task of restoring the country to a January-December budget cycle for themselves at the onset of their leadership, Nigerians are expecting President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, to deliver on their promise, writes ONYEDIKA AGBEDO
With the presentation of the N10.729 trillion 2020 Appropriation Bill to a joint session of the National Assembly last Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari has crossed the first hurdle towards returning the country to a January to December budget cycle. And he made it clear to the lawmakers that the goal of presenting the bill early was to ensure that it comes into effect on January 1, 2020.
President Buhari must have spoken against the backdrop of his experiences with the 8th National Assembly. For four years, none of his appropriation bills got the nod of the lawmakers earlier than March. They claimed that it required at least three months to do a thorough job on the bill and sometimes delayed its passage for up to six months. After that followed the post-passage scrutiny of the document, an exercise that always resulted in a ding-dong battle between the two arms of government usually over insertion/omission of projects. It took at least one month to resolve before the bill got presidential assent. The development did not only distort the country’s budget cycle but also left Nigeria without a reliable fiscal year.
In 2015 for instance, Buhari presented the 2016 budget of N6.08 trillion to the lawmakers on December 15. The lawmakers passed it on March 23, 2016, while the document got the president’s assent on May 6, 2016. While signing the budget, Buhari had noted that it would run till May 2017, which meant the introduction of a May to May budget cycle in the country. But the plan was inadvertently discarded after the president presented the 2017 budget of N7.30 trillion on December 14, 2016. The lawmakers had passed it on May 11, 2017 but it couldn’t be signed immediately because Buhari was in London on medical vacation. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was then serving as acting president, signed it on June 12, 2017. Then on November 7, 2017, the president presented the 2018 budget of N8.612 trillion to the lawmakers, who passed it on May 16, 2018, after about six months, while he signed on June 20, 2018. Upset by the delay, the Senior Special Assistant to President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, had noted that, “the delay which was experienced in 2018 in which the National Assembly held unto the budget for seven months is good enough for the Guinness Book of Records and the president lamented this.”
Then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, who responded to the jibe, blamed Buhari for the delay, saying he had been unable to present the yearly budget in time since assumption of office.
“His first budget was the 2016 budget, which was submitted on December 22, 2015, exactly nine days to the end of the fiscal year. The minimum the National Assembly requires to pass budget is three months. But he presented it just nine days to 2016. Again, the 2017 budget was presented on December 14, 2016, just 17 days to the end of 2016. The earliest he presented budget was on November 7, 2017, which was the 2018 appropriation bill. It was less than two months to the end of the year,” said Dogara.
The explanation did not however prevent Buhari from blaming erstwhile Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and Dogara for budget delays. While speaking in an interview broadcast on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) on May 27, this year, two days to the end of his first term in office, he said: “I think a culture was developed in the National Assembly that they should dictate the terms, which was wrong. It is the executive that dictates the terms and takes it before the legislature. It (the legislature) will examine it and agree or disagree with it.
“But when they go around posing that they are the government and not the executive, then that’s the problem. I felt and I spoke personally to the Senate President, Saraki, and the Speaker of the House, Dogara. They could not deny it.
“I asked them how they felt to hold the country at ransom for seven months without passing a budget. Unfortunately, they were not hurting me; they were hurting the country. So, really, in terms of patriotism, I think I rated them very low indeed.”
But indeed, last Tuesday’s presentation of the 2020 budget is the earliest in the life of the Buhari administration. And in achieving that, he has, to some extent, succeeded in cushioning himself against blames should the country record another budget delay in 2020. Thus, the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, have a challenge in their hands. They do not only have to prove to Nigerians that they have the capacity to rally their colleagues to bequeath a thoroughly scrutinised, well-intentioned and deliverable budget to the country in record time, but also demonstrate that the two arms of government can work together for the common good by checkmating the issues that led to cantankerous exchanges between them in the last dispensation.
Lawan, who represents Yobe North Senatorial District, had faced his first major test on the saddle in respect of dealing with matters from the executive arm during the screening and confirmation of ministerial nominees forwarded to the Senate by President Buhari.
The exercise took the upper legislative chamber just five days to complete, the same number of days it took the 8th Senate, which had lesser nominees to screen in 2015. In 2015, then President of the Senate, Saraki, had received the first list of 21 nominees from the President on September 30, 2015; he announced it on October 6, 2015, and slated the screening of the nominees for Tuesday, October 13. Before the exercise could commence, the President sent the second list of 16 nominees on October 12, totaling 37 nominees in all.
In 2019, Lawan received the list of 43 nominees on Monday, July 22, 2019; he announced it on Tuesday, July 23 and slated the commencement of screening for Wednesday, July 24. By Tuesday, July 30, the Senate had concluded the exercise with all the 43 nominees cleared and confirmed.
It was obvious that the senators attached a sense of urgency to the task, as evidenced in the postponement of their eight-week annual recess, which would have commenced on Thursday, July 25.
Lawan had before adjourning the Senate for recess on Tuesday, July 30, announced that the 9th National Assembly desired to have the budget cycle return to January to December.
“The budget 2020 is going to be part of what we want to do differently from the previous sessions of the Senate,” he said, adding that the expectation of the lawmakers was that the 2020 appropriation bill would be presented to the National Assembly on their return from the recess in September.
“It is our prayer and hope. It is desirable that that is done. Once that is done, it is our intention in the Senate and in the entire National Assembly that we devote a month of, possibly, October for budget defence only. In a situation that we are able to achieve that, no more budget defence after October. Any ministry or agency of government that fails to appear to defend its budget, the National Assembly will take an appropriate action so that we are able to have November and a week or two in December to process and pass the budget and send it to Mr President to sign in December before Christmas.
“We believe that if we are able to do that, our budget will go back to that regular cycle, that desirable cycle of January to December and that will enhance the budget performance of this country,” Lawan noted.
The senator apparently seized that opportunity to re-echo his legislative agenda, which he unveiled on June 7, this year. He had then made it clear that as head of the National Assembly, he would like to see Nigeria run a predictable budget cycle as against yearly budget delays.
“The current trend of not having predictable budget cycle does not augur well for the country which by the grace of God, will be addressed by the 9th Senate and by extension, National Assembly in collaboration with the executive arm of government,” he then said.
Incidentally, Gbajabiamila is on the same page with Lawan on the January to December budget cycle project.
Speaking during a courtesy visit to his office by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, before the House adjourned for their yearly recess in July, the Speaker said: “Again, part of the reforms which we want to achieve is: I will want a situation where before we go on long break in the next week, the MTEF will be submitted to this House so that we can pass it before going. And then, when we come back may be by the end of September, the budget is before us. At the end of the day, we don’t want the budget to be brought in December.”
Now the die is cast. The 2020 budget is before the National Assembly. Although the president did not meet the date targeted by the lawmakers for its presentation, his shortfall was not monumental. So, all eyes are on Lawan and Gbajabiamila to show their true mettle. The ability to meet set objectives is one of the strongest tests of leadership. Whether they would succeed or not would be seen on or before December 31, 2019.