The National Assembly on March 17, 2016 told Nigerians that they had approved the 2016 federal Appropriation Bill and the accompanying estimates. Accordingly, the bill was forwarded to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent so that the bill could become law. Thereafter, the expectation was that funds would be released and expended on key national challenges as expected in a country governed by laws.
However, the latest information is that the overall estimates, aggregates and sectoral allocations were passed whilst the National Assembly continued working on the details. Thus, the President has no details of the approved budget. A couple of issues arise from this development. What is the meaning of the statement that the National Assembly has passed or approved the 2016 Appropriation Bill? When is a bill passed or approved? Is it possible for the Appropriation Bill to be approved by the National Assembly without the details? It is a misnomer to state that the Appropriation Bill has been passed or approved when the details are not ready. Essentially, what the legislature did was to remove public attention from itself in a bid to stop Nigerians from complaining about the delayed budget and allocating a part of the blame to them. The President may therefore have been right in insisting on seeing the details before signing the bill into law.
However, the President’s statement that part of the scrutiny to be extended to the bill before he appends his signature is to send the budget back to the Ministries, Departments and Agencies to scrutinise on a sectoral basis to ensure that the executive spending plan has not been distorted calls for caution. As of Sunday, April 3, 2016, the bill had not been sent back to the President with the details. Let us imagine some different scenarios. Imagine the bill is sent back to the President by the National Assembly in the middle of April and he causes it to be circulated to all the MDAs and they eventually get back to him two weeks later, it will be the end of April. Imagine also the scenario where the President disagrees with some provisions rolling out of the National Assembly, we will have a scenario where there is no guarantee of a signed budget by May. There are so many scenarios as one can imagine but the bottom line is that we have lost the first quarter and may lose a good part of the second quarter of 2016 if we continue on this trajectory.
What are the implications of the foregoing scenarios? The first is that the executive and the legislature have lost respect for laws and propriety. The President started the process by presenting the budget very late in the year by December 22, 2015. He continued with withdrawals and substitutions and clear evidences of budget padding from the executive angle. The legislature on its part took their normal Christmas and New Year holidays and the Easter holidays. Yes, the work of approving budget takes time and meticulousness so that a well-crafted budget can be the final product. It however does not take forever. Three months is sufficient time to approve a budget in the legislature. But it now appears the legislature is not in a hurry to get the budget out. With so many members and an array of consultants and civil service bureaucracy in support, the budget should no longer be viewed as an esoteric process. It is a process that has been demystified so many years ago and should be amenable to easy and quick passage.
The second implication is that we are laying a firm foundation and endless apologies for the failure of the 2016 federal budget. Complaints about time constraints, natural weather occurrences, among others have already been provided by the delays. The Financial Year Act defines the Nigerian financial year as the period between January 1 and December 31 of every given year. The law has been there for decades and no one takes it seriously. We are busy attending to the 2016 budget at a time the preparations for 2017 should have been in top gear. When 2017 comes, we do not need a prophet to project that we will still be late in preparing and approving the budget with the way we have handled 2016. The Minister for Budget and National Planning, Udoma Udo-Udoma, may be stuck on the logistics of getting the 2016 budget off the ground at a time he should be concentrating on preparations for 2017.
The third implication from the foregoing is that we have laid the foundation for the late presentation and approval of the 2017 federal budget. By the Fiscal Responsibility Act, preparations for the Medium Term Expenditure Framework 2017-2019 should have been in top gear to get it ready, considered and endorsed by the Executive Council of the Federation before the end of the second quarter in June. But, who is working on it? Maybe, there are officials working on it secretly without the necessary consultations and public engagement which is against the law and public policy.
The dimension of the grandstanding by President Buhari in announcing the details of how he will subject the approved budget to the MDA scrutiny in the international media in the United States of America calls for sober reflection. What is the gain in announcing such to the media in the US and for the attention of countries who normally do the right things in their budgeting process? Would anyone between late March and early April clap for a country whose financial year started in January but without a budget by the end of the first quarter? We need to get our acts together within the borders of our nation and stop this idea of behaving like kids who will perpetually report their misdeeds to their parents or schoolteachers.
For so many years, the Centre for Social Justice, the Fiscal Responsibility Commission and so many agencies have been calling for respect to budgeting laws and frameworks and no one seems to be listening. A man is expected to anticipate and expect the natural consequences of his act but not in Nigeria. We intend to start the budgeting process late and finish early. The laws are not for us. We conduct the same experiment 20 times without altering the external and internal variables and expect different results. This is not the way to run budgetary and fiscal governance. We need to change the way we prepare, approve, implement, monitor, evaluate and audit the budget. If we fail to do so, we will continue the trajectory of underdevelopment in perpetuity.