There are signs that ongoing exchange of salvoes, between the executive and the legislature, may affect faithful implementation of the 2017 appropriation.
The latest in the series of brickbats is the acting President, Yemi Osinbajo’s criticism of the National Assembly (NASS), for tinkering with the 2017 budget to suit its desires.
Osinbajo, who spoke shortly after assenting to the budget, said the appropriation bill sent to the NASS was an exclusive property of the executive, even though the legislature was free to allocate funds and possibly amend the document, stressing that such privileges do not empower the lawmakers to inject new clauses to the document.
These remarks got swift responses from the leadership of both chambers of the NASS, as the lawmakers insisted they did not overreach themselves by jerking up the budget from N7.28 trillion to N7.44 trillion.
The Presidency has, however, maintained that it will seek the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 81 of the 1999 constitution, on whether it empowers the legislature to substantially alter appropriation bills.
While both tiers of government spar, legal luminaries appear to be solidly behind the lawmakers this time around, insisting that they are entitled to what they did.
In submitting that the legislature has the power to deliberate on budget proposals and make alterations, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Sebastine Hon said: “Section 81 says the President shall ‘lay’ before the National Assembly budgetary proposals. This means the legislature has power to deliberate on the proposals and not just to pass them as robots.
“The legislature exercises this power under Section 81, read together with Section 59 of the constitution. There can’t be any other interpretation, because if the framers of the constitution had intended to forbid the legislature from tinkering with the proposal, they would not have made provisions requiring the President to lay the estimates before the National Assembly,” he stated.
“I quickly add here, however, that the National Assembly does not have power to substantially change the colouration of the budget; as this would amount to it making the proposals rather than the president.”
Another silk, Sylva Ogwemoh (SAN), said what the lawmakers receive from the president each year is estimates of revenue and expenditures, which they are entitled to work on as they are not rubber stamps.
His words: “A cursory reading of Section 81 of the 1999 constitution would show that what are laid before each arm of the National Assembly, at any time in each financial year are estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the federation for the following financial year.
“The heads of expenditure contained in the estimates (other than expenditure charged upon the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation by the constitution) shall be included in a bill, to be known as an Appropriation Bill, providing for the issue from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the sums necessary to meet the expenditure and the appropriation of those sums for the purposes specified therein.
“It must be stated that the National Assembly is not a mere rubber stamp of the estimates provided by the president, but duty bound to scrutinise the estimates with a view to either approving them as presented, or altering them in the overall interest of the nation.”
According to him, the purpose of Section 81 is to provide checks and balances in accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers, which is a natural and basic part of our presidential system of government.
“We should also not lose sight of the fact that Section 85, provides for the audit of public account. In effect, whatever alteration is done to the budget estimates presented to the National Assembly, by the president is subject to scrutiny and should be properly accounted for at the end of each financial year, if we are all committed to doing the right thing in Nigeria.
“Furthermore, a combined reading of Section 59 of the constitution dealing with an appropriation bill, or a supplementary appropriation bill, including any other bill for the payment, issue or withdrawal from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, or any other public fund of the federation of any money charged thereon or ‘any alteration in the amount of such a payment, issue or withdrawal’ and Section 169 of the constitution dealing with distributable pool account ‘on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly’ should give further credence to my above position,” he pointed out.
In both sections of the constitution, he said, the emphasis is on the phrase ‘’any alteration in the amount,’’ and ‘’on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.”
In giving his perspectives, Abuja-based legal practitioner, Abubakar Sani said: “The constitution should be interpreted liberally. This means that the spirit behind the constitution, rather than the literal meaning of the words, guides its interpretation.
“A budget is but a law called an Appropriation Act. To that extent, the normal rules observed in debating and considering bills are applicable. This includes amendments to the bill as originally presented, in a process called political horse-trading or lobbying. The end result is that the bill, as passed, usually reflects the input of both its sponsor and other legislators,” he said, adding that such is the essence of parliamentary democracy.
Meanwhile, there are fears that the renewed face-off between the Presidency and the NASS may result in poor implementation of the 2017 budget.
This emerged at the weekend following a declaration by the Senate insisting that the budget as passed was in order and fully implementable.
The upper arm of the NASS also ruled out the possibility of dragging the Presidency to court over the budget palaver, just as it stated that it is the Presidency that should approach the court if its powers on budget matters are encroached upon.
A member of the Senate Committee on Appropriation, Rafiu Ibrahim, told The Guardian that the fact that the leadership of the NASS always bent backwards to address concerns expressed by the Presidency did not mean that the legislature was not aware of its powers as provided in Section 80 of the 1999 constitution.
Ibrahim, who is also the chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Insurance and Other Financial Institutions, however, made it clear that failure to implement the Appropriation Act would amount to a breach of law.
“I don’t think anybody could use anything as a cover up in not implementing the budget … As you know, not implementing the budget, or even partial implementation of it is tantamount to breaching the Appropriation Act. My take on it is that all arms of government must have mutual respect for one another. If there is no relationship, and if we want to use the power given to us by Section 80 of the constitution, we can rewrite the constitution. That is why the congress could close down government in the United States because it is a presidential system of government. Why did we agree to adopt the presidential system of government if we want the president to have all the powers?”
He advised that, “since the constitution has assigned responsibilities to every arm of government, we should continue to respect such roles and mutual respect even as we make efforts to manage the relationship.
“And I am so sure that most of what was agreed on by the Presidency and the leadership of the National Assembly, as communicated to us by the leadership have been reflected in the budget. There is nothing in that budget that is not implementable. I challenge them to bring out what is not implementable about the budget. Is this not how they argued about the 2016 budget? Did they not now say that they have achieved 82 per cent of that budget?
However, Second Republic minority leader in the House of Representatives, Dr Junaid Mohammed, has thrown his weight behind Osinbajo’s opposition to the alteration of the 2017 appropriation.
Mohammed in a chat with The Guardian likened the introduction of new projects into the Appropriation Bill by the NASS to the usurpation of the powers of the executive arm over the budget.
Mohammed, who canvassed the need to clarify the limits of the powers of the NASS on budgets, claimed that the drive by the legislators to go out of their ways to insert projects into the budget had to do with their inordinate ambition to enrich themselves at the expense of Nigerians.
Said he: “The National Assembly does not have exclusive powers over the budget, but it has the powers to be involved in the budgeting process. The power to initiate the process in my view should belong and reside with the executive branch, while the power to oversee the budget; to see that the figures are correct, the priorities are right and in the national interest belongs to the National Assembly.
“I totally agree with the acting president that the NASS cannot introduce new projects into the budget. Doing so is akin to usurping the powers of the executive arm. Being a member of the National Assembly should not be an ego trip. When they kept making reference to their powers to prescribe how Nigeria’s money should be spent, it should not be equated with the power to make such interventions in a decisive manner.”