- To seek judicial interpretation on extent of parliament’s power to alter Appropriation Bill
Strong indications emerged at the weekend that the Federal Government may invoke the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for judicial pronouncement on the limit of powers of the National Assembly to alter the appropriation bill laid before it by the executive including whether it can unilaterally increase the nation’s budget without any recourse to the executive.
Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola (SAN) gave the indication at the weekend.
Although he did not indicate how soon the original jurisdiction of the court would be invoked, he however said that such judicial interpretation would strengthen the nation’s democracy.
Fashola who spoke extensively on why there was the need to seek the judicial interpretation during a chat with an online portal—The Cable, alleged that the National Assembly committed a number of constitutional infractions in its attempt to introduce projects into his ministry’s budget which the executive knew nothing about.
The power of the National Assembly to fundamentally alter the content of the appropriation bill by a way of removal and interpolation of projects had sparked off a hot debate in the polity recently with both the executive and the legislature maintaining different positions.
The executive, for instance, had maintained that such powers were not available to the National Assembly while the parliament had maintained that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) clothed it with such powers.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dogara had, last week, stressed the position of the parliament while the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) had raised eyebrow over such claim with the latest criticism from the executive coming from former Governor of Lagos State and member of the inner bar, Babatunde Fashola.
According to Fashola, “In a federal example like ours, nobody should be scared to have a judicial interpretation of the limits of the power the parliament can exercise during appropriation,” he said.
“It is the law that affects our day-to-day developmental expectations. My view is that I don’t think parliament has the power to increase the budget because parliament does not collect taxes. Budget has expenditure as it has revenues, and if executive has formed the view about earning and borrowing subject to the approval of the parliament, I think it is only fair to say we won’t push you beyond what is reasonable. If executive says it is unreasonable, there is room for consultation but to unilaterally increase the budget is not something that lies in the power of the parliament, although they can reduce it.”
The former governor of Lagos state, who is a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said the issue of separation of power should not be taken out of context, maintaining that the three arms of government are “inter-dependent” and no arm can be absolutely independent, if not the business of government will never be carried out.
Fashola said: “I don’t think that they can sit down and legislate projects that are not federal projects, that would be doing violence to the constitution because there are three levels of government. The local and state governments have their responsibilities and the federal government should be building federal roads not state roads.
“In my budget, you will find things like motorised boreholes, primary health care centres. That is a violation of the constitution, it shouldn’t be in the appropriation law of the federal government. If the judiciary decides that it is the national assembly that should make the budget and hand it over to the executive to implement, so be it.”
He said he cannot argue “fairly” that a legislator has no input to make into the developmental plan of a nation “but the question is how and when”.
“I had cause to appear before the committee of the house of reps and I even presented a paper at their invitation because they were planning to pass a constituency project law and they were doing a hearing on the bill and they were planning to create constituency offices and I said they shouldn’t do it, it’s not necessary because there are institutional capacities within our national framework for this kind of thing,” he said.
“When the president submits the budget and these committee hearings start, everyone is excited and we are going from one committee room to the other, you’ll wonder what we were doing then. That is the place I expect that issues about projects that affect constituencies to be brought up but the issues to be taken on must be federal issues.
“A federal legislator’s constituency project must be a federal matter otherwise you’ll be encroaching into the territory of the state legislator, that is my argument.”
Fashola said a lot of money is spent on those committee hearings only for the outcome to be significantly different from what was agreed upon.
“They provide water, snack, media coverage and various things, that is tax payer’s money being spent. After all of that, you expect everything to be fine and that all of the things that you have discussed will be reflected in the output of the budget,” he said.
“What happens is that there is another committee called the appropriation committee and I don’t know how they brief each other but when your budget returns, it is different from the budget that you discussed and defended. You don’t recognise it anymore.
“When I was defending my budget, we didn’t discuss boreholes or primary health care centres, now I have hundreds of them in my budget. I have new roads that are state roads, I inherited over 200 roads when I became minister that we are trying to complete and even the right to add something must be in a context of our national development.
“We have reports from previous administrations that there are thousands of uncompleted projects in Nigeria. Those projects must affect constituencies and those are what we want to focus on and complete those that have started. Some of the roads don’t have a design so they can’t be built this year. What I would have suggested if they were federal roads is that the contract for their design be awarded so that next year, we can award them and start building”.
He advised that the outcome of committee hearing be summarised into a one or two-paged communique so that they form part of the documents that are submitted to the appropriation committee “so that if any new issue arises, it is only fair to call the ministry back to say we want to do this. It is unfair after defending your budget that the committee unilaterally decides to chop off this and that and apply it to areas that were not previously discussed with you, without considering if you have the manpower to do it”.