Last week the Senate began deliberating on a bill that seeks to address many problems in this country’s annual budget cycle that have almost made the budget a laughing matter. The Bill identifies several problem areas to do with the budget, including the knotty issue of non-implementation and provides punishments for them. Among the suggested sanctions is impeachment of the president for non-implementation of the Appropriation Act.
The National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS), the National Assembly’s research arm, prepared this bill after series of engagements with stakeholders on the budget process. The engagements revealed that lack of sufficient and comprehensive regulatory framework for the budget process is the principal obstacle to effective budget implementation in Nigeria so it provides specific timelines for the preparation, consideration and enactment of national budgets.
Section 33 of the Bill provides that anybody found to have breached any of the budget processes would be deemed to have committed an act of misconduct. Sanctions would then be applied against the responsible public officer, legislator or civil servant found to have committed the misconduct. The sanctions include impeachment, suspension from office, written warning, removal of chairmanship of committee and termination of employment. It listed the acts of misconduct to include failure to implement a budget project where appropriated funds are available to implement it; failure to take reasonable care to ensure there is compliance with the law by one’s institution, colleagues or subordinates; non-compliance with the budget process calendar; refusal to carry out official duty and attempt to prevent another official, public servant or civil servant from discharging his function.
Other offences listed in the bill include tampering with the report of a committee or subcommittee with intent to mislead or gain. This provision seeks to address the charge of “budget padding” which was sensationally made by former House Appropriations Committee chairman Abdulmumini Jibrin, who accused top National Assembly leaders of padding the budget. The proposed law also provides punishment for any person “who unlawfully provides, offers, solicits or accepts anything of value for a direct or indirect benefit.” This provision addresses the widespread allegation that members of National Assembly committees engage in extortion when heads of Executive agencies appear before them for budget defence.
The problems of Nigeria’s federal budget however begin from the Executive side and the bill addresses some of those. It provides that the budget should be submitted to the National Assembly by the President not later than the first week of September, while it should be passed into law not later than second week of December and the president should assent to the bill not later than December 30. If adhered to, this will mark a tremendous improvement over what happened in 2017 for example, when the budget bill was submitted in December 2016, passed by MPs in April and only assented to by the Acting President in July.
By far the most interesting provision in the bill is the one to make budget implementation mandatory. It provides that the president could be impeached for failure to implement the federal budget. The Executive immediately cried foul, with Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang saying “the planned imposition of penalties is unrealistic” because “implementation of budget is based on availability of funds.” He also said “the budget is a mere statement of expectation; it would be difficult to really sanction anybody for not implementing it.” We are appalled that Enang, a former chairman of the Senate Rules and Business Committee, will make this ridiculous statement.
It is not for nothing that the budget is called Appropriations Act. It is a law just like any other law passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the president. As soon as that is done budget, every single provision in the budget is a law that must be implemented to the letter. If Executive officials however see it as a mere statement of intention and therefore reserve for themselves the right to pick and choose which aspects to implement and which ones to discard, then it makes nonsense of the whole costly and cumbersome exercise.
Non-implementation of budgets has now become the norm in Nigeria. Every year, ministers, MPS, civil society groups and the media engage in an exercise of trying to establish what percentage of the budget was implemented. This ranges from as low as 20% to, on a good year, as high as 60%. Even the method of calculating the percentage of the budget that was implemented is fraudulent because it is only the percentage of money released for the project, whether or not the project was actually implemented.
As soon as a budget is passed into law, every single provision in it is law and civil servants in the relevant ministries do not need any further approval from ministers, Federal Executive Council or the president to initiate its full implementation. As for money, the Finance Ministry must provide it. If government revenues fall short, then it must borrow in order to implement every item in the budget. That is exactly what happens in the United States. The so-called shut down of government is not because the US government’s spending exceeded its revenues, which it nearly always does, but because the borrowing ceiling set by the US Congress has been exceeded and there is no resolution by Congress to raise it.
We must begin to adopt the same practice here. We are wasting very valuable time as a nation when budgets are prepared, only to be thrown into the dustbin allegedly because of monetary shortfall. Someone must be punished for making unrealistic financial estimates. Budgets must be fully implemented if Nigeria is to make progress. We agree entirely that budget non-implementation should be an impeachable offence.