Members of the National Assembly have insisted on the amendments made to the 2022 Appropriation Bill, including the reduction of allocation to 10,733 projects and insertion of 6,576 new ones.
The lawmakers stated that by the power of appropriation conferred on the National Assembly by the constitution, the parliament has the right to tinker with the Federal Government’s budget like any other bill.
According to the members, who spoke to our correspondents, in separate interviews on Sunday, the changes made and the response by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), showed that the legislature was not a rubber stamp of the Executive, as being alleged by Nigerians.
Buhari had on Friday while signing into law, the 2022 Appropriation Bill and the 2021 Finance Bill, expressed strong reservations on the “worrisome changes” made by the National Assembly to the Federal Government’s budget.
He argued that the cuts in the provisions for several of these projects by the National Assembly might render the projects “un-implementable” or set back their completion, especially some of this administration’s strategic capital projects.
The President declared that he would revert to the National Assembly with a request for amendment after the parliament’s resumption so that critical ongoing projects cardinal to his regime would not suffer a setback due to reduced funding.
Lawmakers have no right to introduce projects, it is an anomaly, says Itse Sagay
Supporting the President’s view, the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), told The PUNCH that it was illegal for the National Assembly to introduce projects into the budget proposal submitted by the President.
The senior advocate said while the legislative arm of government had the right to adjust figures and make amendments to the budget, it lacked the power to introduce new projects.
He also argued that the National Assembly was trying to usurp the powers of the executive arm of government hence the penchant of the lawmakers for executing projects.
Sagay added, “Yes, the National Assembly has the power to deduct funds from certain projects. But what they don’t have power to do is to introduce projects into the budget. It is an executive budget. It is an anomaly. Nigeria is the only country in the world that legislators introduce projects. It is never done. It is unconstitutional in the extreme.
“It is a pity that the executive has been blackmailed to swallow this bitter pill. The functions of the executive are being taken over by the legislature because they are afraid that if they protest, the National Assembly will not approve the budget. It is pure blackmail.
“The National Assembly members contest elections as lawmakers but when elected, they suddenly want to become part of the executive which is very sad. Constituency projects are part of it and it is illegal.”
When asked why the executive arm of government had never approached the Supreme Court to determine if the legislative had the power to introduce projects into the budget, Sagay said the executive had succumbed to blackmail.
The lawmakers, however, justified their action during separate interviews with The PUNCH on Sunday.
But a principal officer of the National Assembly who wished to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to offend the President, told The PUNCH that the lawmakers would not be inclined towards removing any projects especially because electioneering was about to begin.
He said, “Most Nigerians do not understand what passing a bill is or what oversight is. They want boreholes, refurbished health centres and other tangible things. They want us to buy them sewing machines, motorcycles, JAMB forms for their children and other items for empowerment.
“Telling them to remove such programmes from the project during an election year is like suicide. They will never agree.”
Amendments for Nigerians, not self-serving – House’ spokesman
The Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu (APC/Abia), who was asked if the lawmakers had the powers to tinker with projects and estimates proposed by the Executive, said, “The President complained that the budget was touched, what is the power of appropriation?”
Kalu added in part, “The roles of the various arms of the government are well defined by the constitution. The power of the purse belongs to the parliament and when an executive bill or appropriation bill, which is usually proposed by the executive, it passes through the same process.
“Therefore, if there is any proposal from the executive to the lawmakers in the form of an appropriation bill, which is a proposal, such a proposal is not in itself in a final stage; a proposal is a work-in-progress.
“I say so because the National Assembly, which is a representative of the people, has to look at the proposals and determine which ones are acceptable and which ones will be dropped or amended – the ones that will be increased or reduced – in view of the current realities.
“In view of the current realities, the parliament will always adjust a piece of legislation to reflect the needs of the people. And it is our duty to do that, not just the executive. Maybe at the time the executive did their proposal, those realities were different. But at the time of consideration by the National Assembly, we consider what the current reality is and work out a solution to bridge the gap based on the current reality.”
The House spokesman added that the incident showed that the National Assembly was not a “rubber stamp” after all.
Sagay did not speak from position of law, but lack of understanding – Senate
The Senate Spokesman, Senator Ajibola Basiru, told The PUNCH that the National Assembly was empowered by the constitution to make amendments to budget proposals.
Senator Basiru also faulted Prof. Sagay for saying the National Assembly had no right to introduce projects to the proposal.
He said, “Prof Sagay should read Section 59 of the constitution to know the role of the National Assembly in appropriations. It is unfortunate if Prof Sagay said that and if indeed he said that, then he did not speak from a position of law but lack of understanding.”
The senator said the items introduced into the budget had nothing to do with elections but was done for the benefit of Nigerians.
“What has government projects got to do with elections? In the 2021 budget didn’t we have provisions for empowerments? The observation by the President is very wide. I think it will be lazy to narrow it down on elections. Is it government that will fund our campaigns?” he stated.
Basiru said what the President submitted to the National Assembly was a proposal and a proposal can be amended.
When asked if the lawmakers would agree to amend the budget when the President sends a proposal, he said, “I don’t know the specifics of those budgets but since it has been signed, it has become law until it has been amended. The executive will have to send a proposal for amendment.
“When the proposal is brought, we will consider amendments based on merit so it is premature to say it will be retained or not but currently, it is part of the law.”
But a member of the Committee, Bamidele Salam (PDP/Osun), asked the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, to give further details on the issues raised by the President.
Salam said, “What projects does he have issues with? He was not explicit. I think the minister of finance also ought to have come out. One thing that is very clear is that the executive should not regard the Legislature as a rubber stamp body as some people have been insinuating.
“We are not meant to be a ‘garbage in garbage out’ institution. The legislature is made up of people of competencies in so many areas of governance – accountants, engineers, lawyers, architects and people who have all manners of competencies in any area you can think about.
“In this case, in the wisdom of the National Assembly – 360 people representing federal constituencies and 109 representing senatorial districts – who have the ears of their people and who know the minds of the people they represent, have decided to amend or tinker with the budget in a manner that will reflect the aspirations of the people.
“I think the executive should respect that decision and the fact that the National Assembly is a body empowered by the Nigerian Constitution to appropriate. What that means is that whatever you send in as a proposal can actually be tinkered with, and that is exactly what has happened.”
When asked if the budget could be made difficult to implement by the amendments, Salam pointed out that the National Assembly made the adjustments based on its knowledge of the economy.
“It cannot be a problem to implement. The National Assembly also has in its fold, people who are very knowledgeable about projects and the economy – about income and expenditure flows of the country; who have considered all these issues, including the implementation of whatever is being suggested. And once it is passed, it becomes a law. If it is a law, the Executive is bound to implement it,” he stated.
Also, Richard Gbande (PDP/Benue) stated that the National Assembly acted in line with constitutional provisions.
“Is it not our responsibility to look at budgets? As representatives of Nigerians, we have to do justice to it, most especially as the country is engulfed in security challenges. When it is tilted towards the critical areas to salvage the nation, I believe we have acted within our jurisdiction,” Gbade stated.
However, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Senator Mathew Uroghide (PDP/Edo), said the Buhari-led executive is free not to implement projects considered not to be in the general interest of the public.
When asked if the inserted projects were for Nigerians, the Senator said, “I don’t know what the President has found, so I cannot fault him. He is the one that saw them: they were submitted to the President, they were not submitted to me. That is why I said I cannot say that the President is wrong.
“But when it comes to actual funding; when cash backing these projects, let the ones that are of national interest of the greater majority of Nigerians take priority. And then, the President can come up with a supplementary budget to correct those things; and re-introduce those things to the National Assembly.”
No crisis between Buhari, NASS over budget – Presidency
Meanwhile, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, in a statement on Sunday, made some clarifications on the President’s statement on the 6,576 projects.
Shehu said although Buhari disagreed with the insertion of the projects in the budget and other alterations, the presidential aide noted that ”innumerable lies are being spread about the President being ‘angry’ at, had “blasted” or “lashed out” at the parliament. This cannot be farther from the truth.
Shehu recalled that the Senate President, Dr Ahmed Lawan, said after the budget-signing ceremony, that disagreements as the ones listed by the President were normal in the everyday executive-parliamentary relationship.”