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Pulse Opinion The National Assembly has a N14.5bn question to answer over 2018 budget

Buhari has called out the national assembly on certain alterations made to the 2018 budget and Nigerians deserve an explanation.

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NASS increased 2018 budget allocation by N14.5bn to buy diesel play The leadership of the national assembly has some explanations to make to Nigerians (Freedom Online)

President Muhammadu Buhari finally signed Nigeria's N9.012 trillion appropriation bill into law on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, seven months after he first presented it to the National Assembly in November 2017.

The twists and turns that have occurred in relation to the bill since that presentation have been nothing short of wince-inducing political manoeuvring, as usual.

After the signing of the 2017 budget in May 2017, the presidency had expressed its commitment to submitting the 2018 budget early enough to get it passed by January 2018 as an expression of its desire to move Nigeria towards a predictable January-December timetable to cover the financial year.

However, even though the presidency initially promised severally to present the budget to the national assembly by October 2017, it was late by a month. Buhari presented an N8.612 trillion budget proposal to a joint session of the upper and lower legislative chamber with the hope that it would be passed early in 2018.

It wasn't passed until May 2018, with the bill inflated to N9.120 trillion after the national assembly made its own alterations and increased the crude oil benchmark price pegged for the budget from $45 per barrel to $50.5.

While the national assembly blamed the delay of the bill on the failure of ministries, departments and agencies to either submit details of their budget proposals or their amendments as requested by Senate committees, there were public accusations by some heads of these agencies that lawmakers were soliciting bribes as conditions for passing their budgets.

The president's signing of the budget on Wednesday was supposed to finally close a chapter on the 2018 appropriation bill but another controversy has reared its familiar ugly head.

Long before the ink had dried on the signed bill on Wednesday, President Buhari expressed his displeasure over the arbitrary cuts made by the legislature on certain items in the original bill that drastically affect the executives' policies and projects.

He noted that the legislature made cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations to 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration while they also introduced 6,403 projects of their own amounting to N578 billion at the same time. He also pointed out that some of the projects which have been inserted were not properly evaluated and relate to matters that are the responsibility of states and local governments, making them unnecessary burdens for the federal government.

Pulse Opinion: The National Assembly has a N14.5bn question to answer over 2018 budget play The presidency has had a tense relationship with the national assembly over the past year (Inside Arewa)

 

When confronted about the president's concerns, the deputy leader of the Senate, Bala Na'Allah, said the alterations were needed to balance projects between the six geo-political zones.

"The way the budget came, if we had allowed it to go that way, we would have been in trouble with those who elected us," he said.

While the president's objection to tampering with the projects formed the crux of his protest against the national assembly, it wasn't the most eye-catching.

National Assembly blesses itself with N14.5 billion

In the original bill that Buhari presented last year, the sum of N125 billion was proposed as the budget for the national assembly for the fiscal year.

Lawmakers tinkered with the budget and increased their allocation, by N14.5 billion, to N139.5 billion in the bill sent back to the president, much to his annoyance. The president could not hide his displeasure with the development as he used it as a last dig in his list of complaints about the bill on Wednesday.

He said, "Another area of concern is the increase by the National Assembly of the provisions for Statutory Transfers by an aggregate of 73.96 billion Naira. Most of these increases are for recurrent expenditure at a time we are trying to keep down the cost of governance.

"An example of this increase is the budget of the National Assembly itself which has increased by 14.5 billion Naira, from 125 billion Naira to 139.5 billion Naira without any discussion with the Executive."

Reactions to NASS inflation

Unsurprisingly, Nigerians have not responded favourably to news that the national assembly unilaterally awarded an additional N14.5 billion to itself.

For years, Nigerians have expressed displeasure with the extravagant financial benefits that lawmakers enjoy for no good reason. This discontent became even more pronounced in March 2018 when a serving lawmaker, Senator Shehu Sani (Kaduna Central, APC), revealed that Senators receive a monthly N13.5 million running cost that is not designated to be used for anything in particular, while still receiving other allowances.

Senator Shehu Sani denies dumping APC play Senator Shehu Sani (Facebook)

 

Weeks after Sani's disclosure, the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the body constitutionally charged with the responsibility of fixing salaries and allowances of all public officials, announced that the N13.5 million is not in the Remuneration Act of 2008 and, therefore, unknown to the commission.

The commission noted that only the management of the National Assembly Service Commission could explain the origin and purpose of the phantom allowance. This remains unexplained till today.

The payment of the now-infamous running cost does not have a budgetary allocation and has been alleged to be discreetly inserted into other spending items that escape scrutiny. And this is what makes the national assembly's allocation of N14.5 billion to itself a questionable action and its initial response has not eased any of the suspicions.

House of Reps says it could have added more

In response to Buhari's public lashing of the national assembly's action, the spokesperson of the House of Representatives, Abdulrazak Namdas, said the legislature could have added even more.

He argued that the budget for the national assembly once stood at N150 billion before it was cut down to N120 billion in 2015, suggesting that the current figure is not exactly that outrageous.

He said, "Before 2015, the budget of the National Assembly was N150 billion for several years. It was cut down to N120 billion in 2015 and further down to N115 billion in 2016.

"In 2017, the budget was N125 billion and N139.5 billion in 2018. This means that the budget of the National Assembly is still far below the N150 billion in the years before 2015."

If a thief gets caught stealing, his defence should not be that he has gotten away with stealing more in the past, but this is the national assembly of Nigeria occupied by prim and proper distinguished lawmakers whom Nigerians have had to endure their tone-deaf commitment to living by a different set of rules.

ALSO READ: Pulse Opinion: Why we need to pay Nigerian Senators more money

What makes lawmakers deserving of increased N14.5 billion allocation?

A Nigerian lawmaker will very easily agree with the average Nigerian that the country is damaged in ways that need repairs but also conveniently be oblivious to the fact that they can do more about it than the average person.

With a biting economy that's yet to fully acclimatise to its climb out of a tortuous recession, cutting off unnecessary fat in the budget should be of the utmost priority. Where best to start but the hallowed chambers of the national assembly?

For more context, N102.907 billion was budgeted for the country's education sector which keeps falling apart with under-funding being one of the major causes. The allocation to education in the 2018 budget stands way below the 26% budgetary benchmark recommended by the United Nations to enable countries adequately cater for rising education demands, especially one like Nigeria with millions of out-of-school children.

Children hawking play Nigeria has highest number of out-of-school children in the world (Nairaland)

 

Quite comically, Senator Ben Murray-Bruce (Bayelsa East, PDP) recently took to his official Twitter account (@benmurraybruce) to share his opinion about how the N1.4 trillion supposedly being spent on fuel subsidy by the federal government should be allocated to "more worthy areas like education".

 

The 'Common Sense' Senator expressed this frustration just a day before the president signed a bill where he and his colleagues had robbed the education sector and other "more worthy areas" just to cater to their own welfare.

The national assembly's decision to increase its own allocation when it could have spread it to other important sectors is nothing short of outrageous. There's no other name for it.

This is why many Nigerians are not so trusting of the institution that they believe is filled with a bunch of self-serving white collar thieves who line their own pockets at the detriment of the general public.

This latest episode will not help that reputation, and it is now the responsibility of the leadership of the national assembly to tell Nigerians the rationale behind their decision.

The N14.5 billion question here is why do lawmakers think they deserve more when the public sentiment demands that they get less?

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