Last Thursday, December 19, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on behalf of President Goodluck Jonathan, laid the 2014 Appropriation Bill before the Senate and the House of Representatives on separate occasions. The implication of the foregoing may have been lost on many Nigerians. But there are a lot of underlying currents, implications for the present and future of politics and governance that deservedly need to be analysed. First, it symbolises the triumph of politics over good governance. The second is that it represents a descent and a race to the bottom where the ego, whims and caprices of those in the corridors of power take precedence over the public good.
First, let us review the legal provisions. Section 81 of the 1999 Constitution mandates the President to cause to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly at any time in each financial year estimates of the revenue and expenditure of the Federation for the next following financial year. And by Section 148 of the Constitution, the constitution provides that the President may in his discretion, assign the Vice-President or any Minister of the Government of the Federation responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation. Thus, the President constitutionally is generally entitled to discharge the functions of his office either personally or by delegation to the Vice-President or ministers of the Federal Republic. Another relevant section is Section 67 (1) where it is provided that the President may attend any joint meeting of the National Assembly or of either House of the National Assembly either to deliver an address on national affairs, including fiscal measures or to make such statement on the policy of government as he considers of national importance.
The tradition has been for the President to personally address Nigerians from the joint sitting of the National Assembly and thereafter lay the national appropriation bill before the legislature. Except during the ill-health of the late President Yar’Adua, this tradition has been religiously followed by previous presidents. It would be recalled that President Jonathan on two occasions sought to come and personally make the presentation but for the crisis over the benchmark price of crude oil between the executive and legislature and later between the House of Representatives and the Senate. So, why did the President develop cold feet and at what point did he change his mind? We now have a President who is hale and healthy, did not travel or have any official reasons for not personally presenting the budget estimates but decided to opt out of the presentation. On the surface of the afore-cited constitutional provisions, and if you want to cut a pound of flesh without shedding a drop of blood, the President may have been right to break with tradition. There were insinuations that Jonathan kept off because he feared he would be booed during the presentation by some members of the House of Representatives, being a fall-out of the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party. But the President should not have stayed away based on this flimsy insinuation.
But, what have we lost as Nigerians? Nigerians lost the opportunity to see their President present an account of how the fiscal and monetary policies and the economy fared in the last 12 months; giving an account of the implementation of the 2013 budget – the successes, challenges and opportunities. These would have informed the thrust of the policies and interventions in 2014. There was no speech; no account of the past 12 months and what we have instead is a mass of figures without any explanation of how we arrived at them. This is not the way to run an economy. There is no official budget implementation report in the public domain except the 2013 first quarter report on the website of the Budget Office of the Federation. So, the second and third quarter reports are not available. The executive and legislature have different ideas about the level of the implementation of the 2013 budget. Thus, petty politicking triumphed over best practices in fiscal governance. Now, the executive and legislature are fighting, the elephants are fighting and incidentally, it is we the people who will suffer for their refusal to see reason. The presidential system of government, despite its inbuilt tensions, anticipates cooperation from the executive and legislature for governance to succeed. No arm of government can afford to go it alone.
Going forward, the implication is that the legislators in the same spirit of the triumph of politics over best practices in fiscal governance, will in the new year take their time and use toothpicks to comb the appropriation bill and the figures, waste as much time as possible and the earliest we may see the bill passed and signed into law will be after the end of the first quarter. This will be followed by the usual poor implementation, decreasing welfare for the people and negative macroeconomic fundamentals and outcomes. So, without sounding alarmist, as we enter 2014, being the year before the 2015 elections, politics will completely overwhelm fiscal governance and elected officials in the executive and legislature will begin to play to the gallery and to make every point which they believe will be in the interest of their political parties so as to blame the opposition as causing the problems of the people.
What should be our reaction as Nigerians in the face of this dereliction of duty? It is clear that the ship of the Nigerian state is drifting and there is the need for the rescue of the ship, its occupants including the captain and other crew persons. The viable option is only one – let us take more interest in our fiscal governance, fight corruption and dereliction of duty. From the turn of events in the executive and legislature where their personal interest is predominating national interest, we need to do more than commenting in the newspapers and electronic media. We need to build the core of a third group that is neither pro or against the Peoples Democratic party or the All Progressive Congress, a third group that is pro-people, pro-good governance, pro-economic growth and pro-development. Nigerians need to challenge the basis of this misdirection by professional politicians through street action and refusal to obey illegal and illegitimate authorities. We also need to boldly ask anyone or group of persons who are unwilling to continue doing well in office to resign or be forced out through constitutional means or through the expression of the ultimate sovereignty of the people. By doing well in office, I mean the prioritisation of the welfare and security of the people as the ultimate purpose of governance. Nigerians have suffered enough and we do not need to be further punished. We should no longer get distracted by supporting factions of the ruling elite in their squabbles for power when they have not presented any agenda for improvement of the living conditions of the people. We should only support any agenda that will clearly further our developmental aspirations.
By Eze Onyekpere
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