By Edward Onoja
We are in May and the 2018 Budget submitted to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari in November 2017 is yet to be passed. In March, 4 months later, a desperate PMB directed all ministries, departments and agencies of government to submit every detail of their budget to the National Assembly, no matter how minute.
The legislators had claimed they were being stonewalled by some officials and the President stepped in to put a stop to it. The way I read it, Mr. President simply wanted to hasten the process by asking his officials to give the legislators whatever they wanted as long as it gets the nation’s budget for 2018 passed.
It is now nearly mid-May 2018. Both Chambers of the National Assembly promised to pass the Budget on or before April 24. They did not. Last week the House of Representatives broke away and promised to pass the budget this week. After meeting with the President this week the Senate President informed journalists that NASS will pass the budget next week, not this week again.
Their collective body language does not engender any confidence that their next week will actually be next week. But in God we trust.
I am not surprised, but I am worried.
I am not surprised because it is frankly too much to expect anything from the political class which is not tainted with parochial self interest. The federal legislators in particular have a cushy life. The President is blamed for failures at the centre and their state governors bear the burden for whatever goes wrong in their states. They can coast indefinitely.
I am not surprised because this is an election year and both the executive and legislative arms of government are up for re-election. The legislators have no term limits beyond those fixed by their performance or non-performance in office. Some constituencies insist on a loose rotation but that only works if a serving legislator lacks the power or support to truncate it. There is therefore increasing pressure to convince their constituents to return them.
I am worried because the prevalent fear for many of them is that they have lost touch with their people and cannot in all good conscience go home to ask for their votes again.
I am worried because now that elections in Kogi, Rivers, Anambra and other places have shown the President unwilling to interfere in ballots for anyone many now realise they must buckle up and win their return the old-fashioned way.
I am worried because, for many of them, the old-fashioned way means two things – unholy deals and hefty war-chests. Plus, you can buy the former easier if you have enough in the latter.
I am worried because many of them are so terrified of the anger of those they have been misrepresenting that their only hope lies in using the remaining months to the election sweetening disgruntled voters with emergency activism on the floor, token constituency projects and plenty ‘stomach infrastructure’.
I am worried because all of this requires money to be in those war-chests. Humongous amounts of money and now that the corruption-fueled bazaar of the PDP years are over forever, only by arm-twisting the executive into bizarre concessions over the budget is the legislators ever going to find enough money to fill those war-chests.
Already, reports of administration officials complaining that legislators are demanding bribes to pass their items in the 2018 budget have become rife in the press. The media is also reporting that delays to the budget’s passage is not unrelated to alleged refusal by the President to fund constituency projects of members of the NASS.
Recently too, the Ministry of Finance have been embroiled in an image-rending scandal over the sudden approval of N10bn for the National Assembly which is allegedly over and above the nearly N130bn appropriated for her in last year’s budget. Some commentators are deeming it as ransom for the budget and we all know there is no smoke without fire.
I therefore call on the National Assembly to pass our 2018 budget already and prove the pundits wrong.
They must bear in mind the image deficits occasioned the nation by non-passage of her annual budget nearly halfway into the effective year.
They must consider the constraints on domestic spending. The burden of uncertainty placed on every entity already operating within our economy. The reluctance imposed on our resurgent economy at a time when everyone is to get behind it and push as vigorously as possible.
The National Assembly must also imagine the loss of foreign direct investments, some of which will not even knock on our doors before going elsewhere. How frustrating all this must be to a foreign investor who has determined Nigeria as the destination with projected best returns on her investments but who cannot find the country’s latest money bill to guide planning, simply because it is lying in Parliament, unpassed. What a disincentive to enter our economy. What a call to take her money to other places where the returns are not as juicy, but where her basic financials are ready and available, courtesy a lively and selfless legislature.
My fears and my worry about these alleged blatant elevation of petty interests above what should ordinarily be the overarching national interest are real.I am not surprised about the intrigues surrounding the delay in the passage of our 2018 budget, but I am seriously worried. People should do that for which they were elected in the first place, without thought to personal advantage.
In the final analysis, our National Assembly cannot be working so hard to relegate us to last in the league of nations without budget and we do nothing to appreciate their efforts. Nigerians have to develop sub-zero tolerance for corruption and the budget passage process is one area that must come under the searchlights at the next ballots.