There are fundamental issues that should take precedence over others. Without sorting out these issues, the right and enabling environment to engage in other tasks would not be available. Governance to a great extent deals with doing these first things first. For instance, you need a constitution, enabling laws, policies, a political culture, elections and budgets to run the paraphernalia of government. Can anyone imagine that the bill to amend the 2010 Electoral Act is still pending before the National Assembly at a time political parties are organising primaries and less than two months to the general election? We are entering the second week of December and the appropriation bill for the next year is still not presented by the President to the National Assembly. Interestingly and most intriguingly too, constitution amendment exercise is ongoing at the same time with party primaries and election campaigns. With dwindling oil revenues, poor funding of the Federation Account and massive divestment by international oil companies, National Assembly members find it difficult to have the presence of mind to consider and approve the Petroleum Industry Bill.
The fact that there will be elections in February 2015 was already in the public domain as soon as the 2011 elections were concluded. We had the executive and legislature sworn in and fully constituted shortly after the 2011 elections. So, it was not a sudden development or an emergency that came overnight and which caught the duty bearers by surprise. Just like it happened in 2011, laws were being amended shortly and during the elections to accommodate developments which could have been foreseen and attended to within the tenure of three and half years. Pray, if there are fundamental amendments to the Electoral Act, will they not lay to waste resources deployed by the Independent National Electoral Commission in preparing for elections based on the existing legal regime? It stood to reason that amendments to the Electoral Act should have been concluded about one year to the elections. On the other hand, a constitution amendment process is not something done in the heat of electoral contestation and passion where decisions may be swayed by actions and reactions of the heat of the moment. Such amendments need clear, lucid consideration undertaken with no strings attached at a time nothing is politically at stake for the lawmakers. It also stands to reason that the constitution amendment process should have been concluded even before the amendment of the Electoral Act.
For the legislative approval of the budget, with the already heated up polity, two scenarios may play out. The first is that the budget will be unduly delayed since the National Assembly and its committees may hardly form a quorum to make decisions and thoroughly review the executive financial plan. So, it may likely be delayed until after the elections considering that, as I write, the undergirding Medium Term Expenditure Framework 2015 – 2017 has not been approved. The second scenario is that with elections looming and candidates and parties looking for money to fund elections, the appropriation bill could be haphazardly considered and passed so that resources can be disbursed and cornered to finance campaigns and the electoral contest. In this scenario, all that will matter to the executive and legislature is their immediate personal interest. Considering the perennial late passage of the federal budget and its implications for the economy, the reasonable thing that should have been done in an election year is that the executive and legislature would have agreed on a legislative budget session of about one month which would have resolved the 2015 budget before the commencement of party primaries and campaigns. The earlier proposal to fix a definite time frame for the submission of the budget by the executive to the legislature did not sail through in the constitution amendment process.
Unfortunately, lawmakers have over the years reduced the approval of the MTEF to the approval of the benchmark price of crude oil, a far departure from what the Fiscal Responsibility Act demands. The Act talks about five major components of the MTEF vis; macroeconomic framework, fiscal strategy paper, revenue and expenditure framework, consolidated debt statement and nature and fiscal significance of contingent liabilities and quasi fiscal activities of government. With the fixation on the price of crude, a thorough review of other components of the MTEF is no longer possible. But these issues will resurface at the budget consideration and lead to unnecessary legislative-executive budget feud.
The dwindling resources coming in from crude oil sales, its implications for funding the budget of all levels of government and the massive divestment from Nigeria by the international oil companies would have made any discerning legislature to have prioritised the consideration of the Petroleum Industry Bill considering its projected impact on the revenues and infrastructure development of the country. Its projected impact on gas availability and delivery which would facilitate the development of the power sector and provide energy for industries should have motivated the legislature to action. From the late Obasanjo days till now, the idea of the PIB has been around the corridors of the executive and the legislature and nothing concrete had emerged from it. Rather, raw and crude politics has enveloped debates about the bill. In previous dispensations, there were allegations about various versions of the bill circulating in the legislature and today, no one can place a handle on what exactly is the problem. Media reports indicate that the committees charged with working on the bill and reporting to the Senate were poorly funded leading to stalled action. It is an irony that the same legislature that is not in a hurry to approve bills that would lead to increased revenue to the Federation Account demands an arm and a leg from the federal budget to run its affairs.
Today, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, has become a governorship candidate of the PDP in Sokoto State; the Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha, is in the race for the Imo State governorship; the chairman of the House Committee on Petroleum Resources (Downstream), Dakuku Peterside, flies the APC governorship flag in Rivers State. This is just a sample as many legislators are winning party tickets either to contest to return to the same legislative house or to another office. So, where will these federal lawmakers find the time to work on these bills? Even after the elections, in the traditional Nigerian way of doing things, monumental litigations from candidates who were not declared winners will distract these legislators. And once the Seventh National Assembly ends, all pending bills will start the journey de novo, leading to waste of financial and other resources invested in the previous legislative processes on the bills.
The straight message to the leadership of the legislature; it is late but not too late for you to select a few very important bills, focus on them and get them out before the end of your tenure. This task of prioritisation should have been done at the beginning of the legislative period; shortly after inauguration and reviewed on a yearly basis, to ascertain whether implementation is in proceeding according to plan. In conclusion, the National Assembly should get the Electoral Act out and encourage state legislators to vote on the Constitution Amendment Bill before the end of December 2014 and whatever time that is left should focus on the budget and the PIB and thereafter, any other very important bill. Surely, this is one debt the National Assembly members owe Nigerians and their beloved fatherland before 2015.
Follow CSJ on Twitter @censoj