The 2018 federal Appropriation Bill was submitted to the National Assembly on November 7, 2017. Although the timing did not meet fit and good practices as contemplated in our laws and sound public finance management practice, this was a departure from previous years when the budget was presented by the executive, very late in December, to the legislature.
To the extent that everyone recognised that the budget would not be ready by January 1, 2018, the expectation was that it would be ready in the first quarter of 2018. And the National Assembly did give that promise to the Nigerian people.
However, 188 days thereafter, the Appropriation Bill has not left the legislature for presidential assent. This seems to be the longest period that the budget has stayed with the National Assembly before passage in modern public finance management history. Nigerians are generally unhappy with the performance of the National Assembly and the apparent dereliction of duty. The budget is not just any other piece of legislation but it is at the core of the economic function of the state by showing the priorities and the policy guidelines for private and public stakeholders. In economic thought process, running a government for almost half of the year without a new budget is like running a rudderless administration with no sign posts, and simply planning the affairs of the state “as the spirit leads” the executive.
This discourse intends to dissect the issues and challenges that lead to delays in Nigeria’s budget approval process and proffer solutions to the unnecessary impasse. It is pertinent to recall that the 2017 federal budget was signed into law in June 2017. The 2017 Appropriation Act stated in its Section 1 that it was for the period ending on December 31, 2017 as recognised by the Financial Year Act and barred any further release of funds from the budget after the end of the financial year. However, in Section 11, the Appropriation Act stated that: “In line with the provisions of Section 318 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, this bill will run for a course of 12 months starting from the date it is assented into law”. What is the implication of Section 11 of the 2017 Appropriation Act? Clearly, the legislators had mandated that the 2017 budget be implemented for 12 calendar months commencing from the date it became law by presidential assent. Thus, in the minds of the federal lawmakers, the non-passage of the 2018 Appropriation Bill is within the parametres of what they had earlier approved in 2017.
In my earlier reaction to Section 11 of the 2017 Appropriation Act and sections of similar nature in previous Appropriation Acts, it was my position that the legislators misunderstood the clear intention of Section 318 of the Constitution which grants them the power to define and articulate the financial year of Nigeria. It was just the power of the legislature to amend existing laws and nothing more. Thus, the National Assembly could redefine the Nigerian financial year to start in May and end in April of the following year and this would be a legitimate exercise of legislative powers. What the constitution does not provide is for the financial year to become uncertain, unclear and a yoyo based on the whims and caprices of legislators. Essentially, going by the conceptualisation and practical action of the National Assembly, the financial year as stated in the Appropriation Acts of 2016 is different from that of 2017 and 2018. This could not and cannot be the intention of the constitution makers.
Having dealt with this conceptual issue, it is clear that the presidential submission of the 2018 Appropriation Bill by November 7 of 2017 was late. Although the 1999 Constitution grants the President the latitude to present the budget for the next year to the National Assembly at any time within the immediately preceding financial year, the Fiscal Responsibility Act has established some timeline that would aid the presentation and approval of the budget. The Act mandates the Minister of Finance to prepare and present the Medium Term Expenditure Framework to the Executive Council of the Federation before the end of the second quarter of every year. The Act calls on the Executive Council to endorse the same by June ending, after which the MTEF would be sent to the National Assembly. It is to be recalled that the MTEF is the basis of the revenue and expenditure proposals in the budget. Thus, the MTEF is to be laid before the National Assembly by late June or early July before their mid-year legislative break. Its approval will lead to the preparation of the budget which is expected to be with the legislature not later than four months to the end of the year. The Appropriation Bill 2018 should have been with the legislature by the first week of September 2017.
After the early submission, Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government should be prepared to defend their budgets with the requisite information and documentation that will enable the legislature to approve the budget proposals. And this is an area that the National Assembly complained about early in the year leading to an order by the President for the MDAs to provide the lawmakers with the required assistance. Also, the National Assembly ought to draw up a timeframe during which they must work on and approve the budget rather than the budget approval process being an open ended exercise. Four months should be more than enough for consideration and approval of the executive proposals. Tardiness on the part of legislative committees and clear abdication of duty should be punishable under the rules of the Senate and House of Representatives. The sanction should be stiff enough to deter violations of the time frame. Further, I dare say that any MDA that fails, refuses or neglects to provide necessary and sufficient information for the approval of their proposals within the timeline can be left out of the budget and their approval can come by way of supplementary budget when the right information has been provided. If this stance is provided by National Assembly which also sticks to it, the MDAs will be forced to be more ready and forthcoming with the required information.
As we are complaining about the late approval of the 2018 Appropriation Bill, who is thinking about the 2019 budget? The Minister of Finance through the Budget Office of the Federation should have been in the thick of preparing the MTEF 2019-2021 so that it will be ready before the end of June and the process for 2019 will roll out as stated above. No, the Minister and the bureaucracy will wait until it is late and the entire cycle of failure will be repeated. For 2019, the process will likely be more delayed because both the executive and legislature will be distracted by the politics, party primary elections, campaigns and elections proper slated for the first quarter of the year.
If we are a serious country, the time to start the 2019 budgeting process is now. In the final analysis, what is the definition of insanity? For me, it is repeating an experiment, a process, time after time, without altering any of the variables and expecting different results at each new experiment. This is what the executive and legislature have been doing with the budgeting process since 1999.