Opinion: On the executive-legislative budget war
By Eze Onyekpere
[email protected]; 08127235995
We are back again to the era of sowing corn and expecting to reap cassava. The executive and legislature arms of government are back in the trenches about the extent of their respective powers in the budgeting process. This is not a new challenge and it is as old as presidential democracy in the country. Admitted that there is an inbuilt tension between the powers granted to the executive and the legislature by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, but a proper appreciation of the nuances of budgeting would have solved this problem. This challenge is not inevitable; it is avoidable and it is a conflict that can be transformed into opportunities for progress and development.
Let me start by affirming that madness is not only about violent behaviour that is manifested by the insane and which leads to their being in chains. It is more than the foregoing. As Albert Einstein asserted, madness is about doing an experiment repeatedly without changing any of the variables and expecting a different result each time the experiment is conducted. The basis for the expectation is unfounded in fact, law and logical reasoning. So, this is really insane. The executive and legislature, especially at the federal level, are engaged in this dance of insanity through their different repeated actions and omissions in the federal budgeting process.
From 1999 till date, the consensus, harmony and concord needed to design and approve successful budgets have been lacking. The executive claims that budget initiation, its underlying parametres and macro-economic framework are reserved for them and any new project introduced by the legislature is in the nature of initiation which it claims is outside the purview of the legislature and therefore null and void, illegal and unconstitutional. They believe that the role of the legislature is very restricted in the process. The executive insist that they produce the data and have the original information on which the macro-economic framework is constructed. With this mindset, they craft the budget with little or no input from the legislature with the exception of the parametres set in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework which is usually sent to the legislature for approval as stipulated by the Fiscal Responsibility Act.
On the other hand, legislative extremists believe that they can do whatever they like with the money bill including the realignment of figures inter and intra ministries, departments and agencies and to initiate entirely new projects even at the late hour of appropriation. There is an insistence that the estimates sent by the President to the legislature are mere proposals and there is nothing different between the budget bill and any other bill that comes to the National Assembly. Ideally, bills do not leave the legislature exactly the same way they were introduced; there must be a discernable legislative input into the process of passage. The legislature is often accused of budget padding or inserting projects that were not there originally at the time the executive sent the budget.
With this at the back of their mind, the two arms of government have been locked in perpetual acrimony and turf war. But the casualties are usually development projects and the common people who are caught between the gladiators. This is not the best way to go. Budgets are passed late, implementation is poor while the results are poorer. It is imperative to state that the two arms of government are working for the Nigerian people and the government is one. Both should be working to achieve the purpose of development and improvement of lives and livelihoods. There is no arm that is holier than the other in terms of asserting that the executive is cleaner than the legislature or vice versa. Members of both arms have been caught with their arms in the cookie jar although the bulk of the stealing is done in the executive because they control more of the resources.
There is a way that both arms have refused to take over the years. It is the way of dynamic collaboration and cooperation.Dialogue between the two arms is important and taking others into confidence is imperative. Let me state that a budget should have a policy framework as the background and this informs the selection of projects and programmes. For the leadership of the executive and legislature that come from the same party, the policy document should be the product of their party and no one should disagree over its contents. The key projects should also be easy to discern and could be debated and agreed at party caucus before coming into the officialdom of the two arms. These key projects should be discussed at the preliminary stage with both arms having an agreement. This should be at the time of preparing the medium term sector strategies and medium term expenditure framework.
In terms of constituency projects, since they have come to stay, the agreement on the overall sum should be taken early and legislators asked to submit their projects to respective MDAs for scrutiny. These projects will be scrutinised to see if they fall into line with sectoral priorities so that their designs, technical drawings, environmental and social impact assessment will be done to ready them for implementation. Even if the original projects submitted are not in tandem with policy priorities, the legislators should have the opportunity to select new ones in accordance with sectoral policy priorities. The iterative process between the executive and legislature in selection of projects will remove undue friction so that when the estimates are presented, the process of legislative approval will be a done deal.
Refusing to engage and talk to each other at the beginning and in the course of budget preparation can only lead to the current exchange and shouting match. In late June 2017, after the release of the 2017 budget and at a time the Acting President has instructed that the 2018 budget estimates be ready for executive presentation to the legislature in October, this altercation and claims is unnecessary. The expectation of Nigerians is that the 2017 budget implementation should begin in earnest whilst preparation for 2018 should also be in top gear. With these claims and counter claims, the executive will most likely ignore the legislature at this early stage and the legislature will wait until they send the estimates. The whole cycle is repeated to the detriment of the nation.
In the final analysis, the executive and legislature should not repeat this budgeting experiment which has been ongoing since 1999 without varying the circumstances whilst expecting a new result. You cannot be wrong and get right. Punch