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OPINION: Legislative Oversight and the Budget – by Eze Onyekpere

OPINION: Legislative Oversight and the Budget – by Eze Onyekpere

The presidential system of government which we practice in Nigeria makes provision for separation of powers, apportioning disparate powers and duties to the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. Essentially, the legislature makes laws which the executive is under obligation to implement. The judiciary is called upon in the determination of civil rights and obligations to interpret the laws. The presidential system of government understands that powers may be abused and therefore introduced a system of checks and balances among the three arms of government. Through the power of interpretation, the courts can declare laws made by the legislature unconstitutional and therefore null and void and of no effect whatsoever. The legislature on the other hand has the power of oversight over the execution and administration of laws by the executive. The executive holds the powers of investigation, coercion and implementation of laws and can as well use these powers to call the legislature and judiciary to account.  Thus, it is a system created tor the overall benefit of the citizens.

Since the return to civil rule in 1999 in Nigeria, the federal capital budgets have been very poorly implemented by the executive. Hardly has capital budget implementation risen above 50 per cent by the end of the fiscal year in December. When this fact is juxtaposed against the background that the recurrent part of the budget has been consuming about 70 per cent of the budget, then the implication is the fact that we have been dedicating about 15 per cent of the overall annual budget to capital expenditure. This has led to our poor social indicators, infrastructure deficit and massive unemployment and underdevelopment. What is the role of the legislature in all this? This is where the power of oversight invested in the National Assembly by Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution as amended should be utilised.

By Section 88 of the Constitution, the National Assembly is empowered to conduct investigations into any matter or thing with respect to which it has power to make laws. It also has power to conduct investigations into the conduct or affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged, or intended to be charged with the duty or responsibility of executing or administering laws enacted by it and the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated or to be appropriated by the lawmakers. These powers are meant inter alia to correct defects in existing laws and for the enactment of new laws, expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the system and waste in the administration or disbursement of moneys appropriated by the legislature. By Section 89, the National Assembly has powers to procure evidence needed for the investigation, require evidence to be given on oath, compel the attendance of witnesses on the pain of punishment if they fail to attend, etc.

The constitution did not grant these enormous powers to the parliament for the fun of it. These powers were granted in the public interest. Shortly before the lawmakers went on their 2012 recess, it became clear that the executive was playing games with the implementation of the capital budget. There were all kinds of spins about the capital budget implementation which had no correspondence with reality leading to threats of possible impeachment of the President. The National Assembly since then had indicated that its committees would embark upon, and have indeed embarked on, oversight visits to the respective Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government to determine their level of implementation of the capital budget. However, Nigerians have yet to be formally and fully briefed on what the legislators found at these visits and what the information available to them indicates. We only get snippets from the media on the state of implementation of certain MDAs. This is not good enough.

Oversight visits and investigations are not ends in themselves. They will be unproductive and wasteful of public resources if no follow-up remedial action is founded on them. Apparently, capital budget implementation has remained the way it has been since the visits. Not much has changed and it is still business as usual. At least, Nigerians who use the roads know that virtually all the major roads in the 2012 budget have not witnessed a face-lift. On this score, it is imperative that the National Assembly, in a comprehensive report, briefs Nigerians, the ultimate sovereigns, on their findings. The resources used for this oversight exercise belong to the public resources. Such a report is also expected to contain the way forward in terms of actions that are needed to get guarantees of non repetition; those that should face prosecution and or be relieved of their duty posts. We also expect public apologies from some of those guilty. It should answer the questions: Did the Ministry of Finance release funds as and when due? Did any MDA sit on released money for no obvious reason? Did contractors abandon their jobs after collecting public funds? Indeed, we need answers to the posers; who is responsible and who should bear the pain of scuttling the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Nigerians?

Nigerians do not want the National Assembly to throw its hand up in the air while stating that its resolutions and recommendations to the executive do not have the force of law and that they can be ignored. Yes, some members of the executive may seek to hide under this subterfuge to ensure that the National Assembly backs off exposing their misdeeds. But Nigerians are now wiser. When the members of the House of Representatives sat on a Sunday at the height of the fuel subsidy crisis in January and made far-reaching resolutions, they had the support of all right-thinking Nigerians and this support for the resolutions continued until the Otedola-Farouk bribery scandal which eventually divided and diminished that support. This is a challenge to the National Assebly: Put your budget monitoring reports with well-researched recommendations in the public domain. Give the executive a timeline to make amends and draw a line in the sand if they fail to do so. The National Assembly can be assured of the support of Nigerians if their findings and recommendations accord with the wishes and aspirations of the majority of Nigerians. The rallies, mass action, street protests and media pressure will be too much for the executive to bear and it will be left with no option but to implement these resolutions. But, the lawmakers must be extra careful, vigilant and be above board like Caesar’s wife because he who comes to equity must come with clean hands. Traps will be set but you must not fall; you must lead by the force of your examples. Your constitutional powers will be strengthened by your moral leadership.

Finally, the lawmakers can consider a three to four year trends analysis of capital budget implementation so that the new course of action which they will chart will be well-grounded in theory and practice. History will be kind to them if they should hearken to the voice of the people and lighten the yoke of the masses through their contribution to the design of a new approach to capital budget implementation and oversight.

 

- by Eze Onyekpere (censoj@gmail.com)

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