WEDNESDAY GUEST COLUMNIST By Monima Daminabo
Of all the developments that stirred the country in the past few weeks, none had as much impact as the passage by the National Assembly, of the 2018 budget of the Federal Government even as its passage came six months late. Other developments include the commissioning of the new, monumental and ultra- modern headquarters of the anti-graft agency, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) by President Muhamadu Buhari himself. Indeed the poignancy of the EFCC building runs in at least two directions. In one vein the monumental scope of the edifice accentuates the high premium which the federal government accords the on-going anti-corruption crusade.
This is just as in another vein some who see things otherwise, chose to invoke a link between the EFCC building and the popular track “Prison” by late South African reggae musician Lucky Dube with part of its lyrics as “They don’t build no schools anymore, all they build is prison prison”. As this lobby argues rightly or wrongly, why and how is it that while a facility like the head office building of the National Library of Nigeria as well as several other facilities of agencies of government which provide vital sublimity to national life for the citizens are literally abandoned, the EFCC ‘Gulag’ of sorts is seeing the light of day, even as a priority project?
Back to the budget package which was eventually passed simultaneously by both chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives, after what can be described as a most remarkable complement of twists and turns in its rites of passage. The twisted rites under consideration comprise the various legislative processes of budget passage which were nevertheless distorted by several factors including delays spawned by a groundswell of resentment in the executive arm over being scrutinized by the legislature. Hence like previous budgets since 1999, budget 2018 has also come to town statutorily crippled, no thanks to the shenanigans of some public officials whose enterprise – unpatriotic as it is, is still at the expense of the tax-paying public.
As the saying goes, it is not what happens to a man that matters more than what he does with it. In the same vein, while the perennial lateness in the country’s budgets may have been serially condemned, the adequate response is yet to be activated. In fact the National Assembly raised the hope of reversing the trend and actually launched initiatives in that direction. However the lateness of the 2018 budget remains an eloquent testimony to how far this malady in the country’s fiscal regime has remained unresolved. Already the budget package has spent six months in the legislature; that is counting from when President Muhamadu Buhari laid it before the joint session of the National Assembly. Who knows when the President will grant it his assent and allow it to run its implementation course.
In all likelihood, given the minimum time span of three months before the budget cycle impacts on the Nigerian economy meaningfully, August – September remain the open season for the dividends of Budget 2018.Meanwhile that is also when a new budget call for 2019 should commence. Would it then imply that budget 2019 may also be so late, may be coming as late May in that year – ostensibly after the general polls and, associated activities?
In the context of the foregoing, the need for drastic change in the country’s budget regime remains urgent. And if fingers are pointed at the National Assembly by the public in the light of who has the ultimate responsibility for effecting the envisaged change, such a gesture may not be totally misplaced as the federal legislature may be under-estimating the expectations of the Nigerian public with respect to its obligations towards transforming the country’s political economy.
This contention enjoys credence on at least two grounds. Firstly the National Assembly is the country’s apex legislature which with the state assemblies constitute the arm of government which statutorily remains the key change agent of governance. As the actual representatives of the citizenry, the National Assembly is constitutionally endowed with the powers to initiate change in virtually all aspects of the country’s life, including the exclusive powers to remove the President of the country, when and if circumstances dictate so. Secondly, in the light of the unmistakable tendency whereby the executive arm has serially demonstrated lack of capacity to reform its bureaucracy for the better, the onus still falls on the National Assembly to address such, even if it entails exercising necessary leverage in directing its focus on transforming the country’s bureaucracy, in the direction of taking the country to the next level.
Traditional arguments on the separation of powers between the various arms of government often refer to the work by 18thcentury Frenchman Montesquieu, which laid out before the world the principle of separation of powers among the three arms of government. However not even Montesquieu ever argued that the legislature which is the eye and voice of the people, should stand by and watch aloof in the manner of a by-standing spectator, even when some misguided and ill-intentioned citizens, stand on the liberty of their access to the reins and appurtenances of public office, and invoke the principle of separation of powers to muddle up as well as destroy a country’s patrimony, as is becoming the norm in Nigeria.
For those who think that delayed budgets for the country’s fiscal life do not matter, they are standing the truth on its head. For indeed, hardly can they have treated the country with a worse act of disservice. Even as space will fail this piece to delve into the wider implications of delayed budgets, suffice it to be declared that any delayed budget remains a dispensation that is dead on arrival. The best utility it can muster remains the celebration and institutionalisation of distortions in the economy, and providing open sesame for fraud, graft and nepotism; just to mention a few of the very ills the government may be targeting in its anti-corruption war. Incidentally, the new EFCC head office – by its monumental stature, reflects in a sense a befitting response to the equally, widely pervasive scope of corruption in the country’s public life. Just as well, the link between failed budgets and the pervasive corruption which the EFCC is fighting, is not difficult to establish.
It is therefore in the light of the foregoing that the National Assembly, through its Committees on Public Service and other areas of national life, needs to take on frontally, the task of reforming the public service of the country as a matter of bounden duty. Its oversight powers over the business of government are not and should not be confined only to instances of past malfeasances. The more critical aspects of government business which the anti-corruption crusade should address fall within the terrain of procedures, rules and guidelines which are usually manipulated in the breach, to perpetuate the culture of endemic corruption. The procedures that are breached today provide the leeway for tomorrow’s fraud. Addressing the compromised procedures will transform the country’s public service space, curb late budgets, and tame the syndrome of pervasive corruption, to the benefit of the country.