Budget 2016 Impasse: Behind The Noise and Distractions, By Theophilus Opaleye
I have followed with keen interest ongoing debates within Nigeria’s social media stratosphere regarding the 2016 budget, and the power tussle between the Executive and the National Assembly over the inclusion, or exclusion, of certain projects and appropriations. The details remain sketchy, even as the Executive remains reticent in driving home these accusations, but a major contention remains the absence of the Lagos-Calabar rail project as a line item in the budget of the Ministry of Transportation.
Testimonies by those in the know, and details obtained from other credible sources on the matter point to the fact the Lagos-Calabar rail project was not in the budget presented by President Buhari to a joint session of the National Assembly on December 22nd. After the anomalies in the budget became public knowledge, an amended version sent to the National Assembly also failed to make any provision for the Lagos-Calabar rail project. A case was made for the inclusion of this project in the budget by the Minister of Transportation during the screening process, but the law is clear on how such amendments can be made. Only the President is empowered by the Constitution to forward such an amendment to the National Assembly, not any Minister.
But these facts have been pushed from the centre-stage in what should be a landmark constitutional matter but has been reduced to a war of perception between the Executive and the National Assembly, fought in the minds of Nigerians, a war in which the Executive clearly has the upper hand. President Buhari was admitted based on the strength of his personal integrity, and that trust Nigerians have in him remains intact even after a less than stellar first year in office. The National Assembly on the other hand suffers from a morally debilitating credibility deficit engendered by the activities of scrupulous elements who have occupied the hallowed chambers in the past.
Perhaps one of the biggest casualties of this war is Abdulmunin Jibrin, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives, who has been accused, without any verifiable evidence, and even when the facts prove otherwise, of removing a non-existent Lagos-Calabar project from the budget and appropriating the funds to his constituency. This is ironic considering it was Jibrin and his committee that discovered a sum of N54 billion left padded in the budget of the Transport Ministry and reported several other instances of gross misappropriations in the entire budget.
He has also been accused of working against the Change agenda of the President, but I remember this statement in the press credited to him on March 20 in which he praised President Buhari for working with them on the budget – But it is also interesting that the President took direct responsibility and got involved in the process, not only to ensure synergy between the executive and the legislature but also that we can both arrive at a budget that is implementable for the good of all Nigerians. I don’t want to go into details about the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari but I want to put it on record that he has played the role of a father and he deserves commendation.
It also hasn’t gone unnoticed how some online media platforms have hijacked the responsibilities of presidential spokesmen to report events surrounding the budget impasse with bias to unduly curry public favour for the Executive. In the past couple of days we have seen SaharaReporters release statements that contradict the facts of the 2016 budget and the screening. Even statements released by other individuals were blatantly twisted and headlined to misrepresent Abdul Jibrin and the leadership of the National Assembly. Releasing screenshots of text messages sent to committee members and deliberately twisting the content of same to lead the gullible astray does not count in any clime as investigative journalism.
What no one who has any respect for the truth cannot argue against is that on the part of the National Assembly this has been the most open and transparent budget screening since return to democracy in 1999. The current impasse was brought about because the Presidency bungled the budget process from the get go. And while we all respect the President and want him to succeed, the reality is that he is human, and as such not beyond making mistakes. The 2016 budget as presented was fraught with errors, and that did not originate from the National Assembly. If those errors are to be corrected for the common good of the nation, the Executive must first be willing to admit to its failings, and work with the National Assembly instead of playing to the gallery.
On a final note, this war is being prosecuted at great cost to Nigerians and we can no longer afford to have it drag for any longer. The Executive and National Assembly must find a common ground to resolve their differences over the budget for the sake of the people they represent. That is the only way to prove the good intention they claim to have for the people, not on the frontpage of newspapers.