The National Assembly has been on recess from July 27, 2017. The recess will last till September 19. Going on recess from time to time is the prerogative of the National Assembly. No organisation or institution can work without its members taking a rest periodically. Otherwise, the consequences will be calamitous. However, neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives should have gone on recess when it did this time. Even now that the National Assembly is on vacation, it should terminate it right now. Unknown to most Nigerians, the country is in an emergency situation and only the federal legislature can save it.
Before the National Assembly went on vacation, the Acting President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, wrote a letter to the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, requesting for approval to adjust the 2017 national budget here and there. The letter was read in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but nothing was done. Members were in a hurry to proceed on recess. Most actually travelled out of the country almost immediately with their families and friends.
This should not have been the case. The legislators ought to have treated the letter from the Acting President exhaustively before going on vacation. There are fundamental challenges with the implementation of the 2017 budget the way it is. Implementing it in its present form will create very serious problems that will end up worsening the ongoing national economic crisis, thus making it difficult for Nigeria to exit from the present recession any time soon. In other words, the budget needs to be adjusted in a couple of places in the overriding national interest. Adjustments in budgets when they have been signed into law are technically referred to as virement.
I would like to refer to the budget of the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing as an example of a place where virement is urgently needed. This is a ministry whose activity affects every Nigerian directly every minute of the day; and I have had the privilege of working there in the directorate cadre. In the last one year, there has been tremendous activity on the reconstruction of such critical highways as the Kano-Maiduguri Highway, Onitsha-Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway and, of course, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. However, the reconstruction has, in the last few months, slowed down owing to the rainy season and, more importantly, declining funds made available to the contractors executing these vital national projects.
The funds have declined very significantly because the 2017 budget stayed for a whole five months in the National Assembly which not only scrutinised the proposals critically but went ahead to make fundamental adjustments to the original proposal from the executive arm of government. For example, the amounts proposed for critical national roads, including the ones mentioned above, were slashed considerably. Even the additional 10 per cent of the entire sum proposed for the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing was slashed badly. It is standard accounting and budgeting practice all over the world that at least 10 per cent of the sum of any budget—whether in the public or private sector—be set aside as miscellaneous, otherwise called emergency or contingency. There are emergencies which must be tackled immediately they occur, whether there is a specific provision for them in the budget or not. For instance, two critical bridges in Mokwa, Niger State, collapsed last June as a result of sustained torrential rainfall. One of them, the Mokwa-Jebba Bridge, links the northern and southern parts of Nigeria. Resources had to be mobilised from all kinds of sources to start reconstruction at once.
But given the way the National Assembly has cut the contingency provision in the 2017 budget of the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, it will be very tough to handle emergencies of the Mokwa magnitude if they should occur again this year in any part of Nigeria. Providing reasonably for critical national infrastructure and emergencies is in the greater interest of all of us than diverting resources from, say, the Kano-Maiduguri Expressway or the Calabar-Odukpani Road or the Onitsha-Enugu Highway or the Enugu Port Harcourt Highway or the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to constituency projects of legislators like provision of borehole and distribution transformers or street lights in communities. I make this statement with due respect to the National Assembly members who got to their legislative positions by winning elections, and they frequently go to their people to show how they have fulfilled their electoral promises.
The country is now in August, that is, in the eight month of the financial year. Yet, the implementation of the 2017 budget has not started in earnest. One of the reasons is the inherent fundamental flaws in the budget which need rectification through virement. Since virement can take place only when the National Assembly has approved the request from the executive arm of government, the National Assembly ought to have treated the letter from Acting President Osinbajo requesting for virement prior to proceeding on recess. Since it did not do the right thing early enough, it can still cure the defects from its action by calling off its current vacation which is scheduled to end on September 19. This is a long way.
Admittedly, most Nigerians believe that our legislators enjoy too many holidays. For example, they work only from Tuesday to Thursday. And they often proceed on long holidays on special occasions. They went on a three-week vacation last June to celebrate the Id-el- fitri feast. Worse, there are many legislators who are delinquent in business attendance. Even among those who attend rather often, there are a lot who scarcely make contributions either on the floor of the legislature or in committee meetings. Their constituencies have long given up on them.
To conclude, Saraki and Dogara as well as other principal officers of the National Assembly are hereby called upon to demonstrate an acute sense of responsibility by immediately ending or suspending the two-month recess which National Assembly members granted themselves in order to enjoy summer holidays. The country is passing through a particularly difficult period in history, and our legislators must show that they really understand the onerous task before them. Immediate consideration of the letter from the Acting President requesting for adjustments to the 2017 budget law is of paramount importance. No effort should be spared to ensure that this year’s budget does not fail. History beckons National Assembly.
- Dazang is a retired deputy director in the Federal Ministry of Works & Housing.