Posted in: Politics

2013 Budget impasse: Breaking the jinx of late passage

Rotimi Akinwumi/Abuja

 

Photo: President Goodluck Jonathan and Senate president David Mark.

Against all expectations and in a move that broke the jinx of decades, lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly approved the 2013 Appropriation Bill on the eve of a new fiscal calendar as the money Bill was passed into law on December 20, 2012. The achievement of the parliament was the first of its kind since democratic governance was reintroduced in the nation since 1999. In passing the budget, members threw away pride and legislative grandstanding as they had earlier insisted that some “super power” Federal government agencies that had for years refused to submit their budget for legislative approval must do so, before the 2013 budget would be passed. With the threat shelved and the budget passed, hope rose among Nigerians that for the first time in many years Nigeria would begin to run a budget from the first day of the New Year.

EXCUSES AND FENCE MENDING

For reasons best known to it, the parliament did not commute the passed Bill to the presidency until mid January and the expected signing of the budget by the president immediately became an issue as the nation’s number one citizen withheld his signature, opening up a gallery of excuses from his henchmen on why the budget will not be signed as passed by the parliament.

In opening up the long drawn debate on the budget, the presidency rejected the decision by the National Assembly to jack up the final appropriation figure from a proposal of N4.92 trillion submitted to the federal parliamentarians in  October 2012 to a figure N4.987 trillion.

In faulting the parliament, the presidency hinged its resentment on the passed budget on three tripod of increase of the oil benchmark leading to increase in final budget figure, zero allocation to the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC; and addition of some items not included in the original proposal which the presidency said were contained in the constituency projects of the parliamentarians and some other projects not listed in the budget ab initio.

The Presidency said it was unhappy with the final document of the budget, which was ‘padded’ with N63 billion by the lawmakers and therefore, would not sign until a review was made to the Bill.

The issue of Zero allocation to SEC because of Oteh was a result of long drawn battle between the parliament, especially the House of Representatives and the presidency as the lower chamber had insisted that Jonathan must sack Oteh in line with their resolution, a decision the presidency spurned.

As payback to the presidency, the Reps refused to allocate a dime to SEC in the budget and the  Senate concurred with the decision of the Reps to give zero allocation to SEC as it also adopted the recommendations of the lower parliament on the premise that the refusal of President Jonathan to sack Oteh, was an affront on the legislative house.

The issue of oil benchmark was also touted to be a source of crisis as the President was said to have asked the lawmakers to revert the oil benchmark to his original submission of $75 per barrel,

Fence mending efforts between the parliament and the presidency on the budget started covertly but the men of the presidency took the war to the fore front as efforts were made to discredit the parliament even as the talks were ongoing.

The Chief Economic Adviser to the President, Dr. Okeidegbe Nwanze, led the “excuse team” of the presidency as he disclosed at a press conference in Abuja that the decision not to sign the budgetwas altruistic and that even if it tarries, the business of governance in the country will not suffer.

According to him, in the interim, the Executive and Legislative arms had reached an understanding on how Government would continue to function pending the resolution of the contentious issues and subsequent signing into Law by the President.

His words: “ I want to start by stressing that President Goodluck Jonathan wants to sign the 2013 Budget as soon as possible if our discussions with the National Assembly lead to a resolution of certain key issues.

“Remember that the Executive submitted the Budget to the NASS in October 2012. Nigerians were very happy about this because it was a refreshing difference from the delays we had got used to. We worked very hard to achieve this. So we definitely want budget implementation to begin as soon as possible so that Nigerians can start enjoying the many benefits in the budget

“The NASS returned the budget in December 2012. Upon review by the Executive, some grey areas were identified and needed to be resolved. Since then we have been working in partnership with the NASS to resolve the issues around the budget.

“The President wants the issues resolved in a manner that will protect the best interest of the Nigerian people. He supports a collaborative approach in the discussions with the National Assembly.”

In introducing some sort of blackmail and buck-passing into the issue, the presidential Adviser said: “There is an issue on constituency project which is on the table and discussion is still on-going and it is very difficult to give a definite answer on the matter when discussions are on-going, but we are making progress in reaching understanding and accommodation on the issues on the table.

“The overhead as passed by the National Assembly is higher than was submitted by the Executive and again, we are having discussion and progress is being made but not fully resolved.

“On Capital Votes, there were some re-allocations. Some went up and some went down and some were removed, thus making it difficult to implement. As a result of that we have pointed out those areas and both the National Assembly and the Executive are discussing with a view to resolving them.

“There were differences in what the Executive submitted in the votes for Personnel and what came back from the National Assembly as the votes were cut down. This has remained unresolved. It would be difficult to pay salaries with the personnel votes they passed and this may lead to industrial challenges. But as I said we have been in discussion on it,”

The Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, DrNgoziOkonjo-Iweala, had earlier hit the nail on the head by saying that President Goodluck Jonathan would not be signing the 2013 budget as passed by the parliament until drastic measures were taken on the Bill by the parliament to bring it down to what the presidency wanted.

It was gathered that some lawmakers were already mobilising to see how they could pass the 2013 budget as an Act of Parliament in the event that the President returns the bill to the National Assembly without signing it as stipulated by law.

The law stipulates that a bill which has been denied presidential assent after 30 days, may be passed as an act of the parliament by two thirds majority of the National Assembly.

In fact, scared that the National Assembly may decide to veto the document over delay in signing it into law by the president, the executive arm has directed the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) to furnish it with legal advice on the provision of the constitution on the application of veto power.

The Presidency also came out clear on some of the contentious issues in the Budget which has delayed it’s signing, chief amongst them being constituency projects injected into the Budget document by the legislators and the reduction in the personnel estimates submitted by the Executives.

Threat approach

When it became apparent that the presidency was poised to see through its resolve to veto the budget, the parliament also started a move to checkmate his power even as personalities from the Civil Society joined the fray in the battle against presidential powers.

While the parliament was holding both secret and open meetings on how best to handle the “stubborn” president, Femi Falana, a constitutional lawyer and a prominent figure within the Civil Society group started the fire of veto upturn against the presidency when he noted that the hour of grace, within which the president could constitutionally sign the budget had lapse, and therefore, should not be allowed to do so again after February 14.

According to Falana, the president is statutorily stopped from signing the budget into law by virtue of section 58 (4) of the constitution.

The section states that, “Where the President, within 30 days after the presentation of the Bill to him, fails to signify his assent or where he withholds assent, then the bill shall again be presented to the National Assembly sitting at a joint meeting, and if passed by two-thirds majority of members of both Houses at such joint meeting, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required.”

In 2000, the National Assembly relying on the section of the constitution,  passed the Niger Delta Development Commission Act by two thirds majority after the then President OlusegunObasanjo, had declined assent to the bill, following major differences in the law

In a statement Falana sai: “Dissatisfied with the resolutions of both chambers of the National Assembly to add N63 billion to the budget and increase the oil benchmark from $75 to $79, the president has withheld his assent.

“The decision of the Peoples Democratic Party leadership to mediate in the lingering face-off between President Jonathan and the members of the National Assembly over the former’s refusal to sign the 2013 budget has been overtaken by events.

“Having not assented to the Appropriation within 30 days of the receipt of the receipt of the bill, the president is mandatorily required to present the bill to the joint sitting of the National Assembly which may decide to pass it by two-thirds majority.

“However, in order to resolve this lingering constitutional crisis, President Jonathan should request the Supreme Court to determine the extent of the powers of the National Assembly to rewrite the budget.”

A week to the expiration of the “30 working days” of the veto grace of the president, the House of Representatives on Thursday, announced that it was just bidding its time and will do as expected if the situation remained the same.

Zakari Mohammed, House Committee Chairman on Media and Public Affairs who made the disclosure said the House was waiting for the talks between the presidency and National Assembly leadership on the budget to be exhausted just as he said issues being contested in the budget by the Presidency are not issues the parliament should be blamed for.

He, however, gave a caveat that the talks between the presidency and the parliament leadership is not the final point of solution, noting that the NASS leadership can’t agree on issues raised by the presidency and agree to restructuring of the already passed budget unless its brought back to the parliament in session for joint decision to be taken on what should be done.

With a day left for president to sign the Bill, and no serious move seen on the part of the president, the House of Rep made open its resolve to veto his power as it went into an executive session on February 26 plenary with the House Spokesman, Zakari Mohammed, explaining that the decision to override the president’s veto was taken.

His words: “The executive session centered mainly on the non- assent of the 2013 Budget by PresidentGoodluck Jonathan.

“We took a decision that the Leadership of the House should meet with the leadership of the Senate and report back tomorrow morning.

“The meeting was also meant to find a way out of this logjam because by now we expected that Mr. President ought to have assented to the budget.  Of course he has his own reasons but we can not continue to wait endlessly.

“That was why the Speaker called for the executive session to brief us so that we can be on the same page with him.  He briefed us on the series of meetings they have held with the executive arm led by Mr. President and his economic team.

“It was resolved by the House that we must do something; doing something to move forward would be by meeting with the leadership of the Senate and agreeing on the next line of action.

“Tomorrow it is likely we are going to come out with a position on the outcome of today’s meeting.”

“Up till now we have not been able to agree and that is exactly what is responsible for the delay in signing the budget.”

Commenting on the intervention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in resolving the budget impasse he said:

“If up till now Mr President has not signed the budget and this was what gave rise to the meeting we held today while  hoping for another meeting , then it is obvious that the Party’s intervention was not heeded”.

But few hours after the intention of the parliament was made public, news went round town that the president had signed the budget behind closed doors.

Who knows, President Jonathan might have suffered the ignominy of being the first Nigerian president who might have had his veto upturned by the parliament on the nation’s budget.

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