By Kauthar Anumba-Khaleel, AHURAKA ISAH and SOLOMON AYADO, Abuja –
The National Assembly yesterday commenced debate on the 2018 budget estimates.
In the House of Representatives, the debate began despite attempt to halt it over poor performance of the 2017 budget as well as its negative effect on the country’s economy.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on November 7 presented estimates of the 2018 budget before a joint session of the National Assembly and impressed on the legislators to ensure early passage of the bill to allow for implementation in the coming fiscal year.
No sooner had the deputy Speaker, Yusuf Lasun, read out the bill as the first order of the day, than chairman of the committee on Public Account, Kingsley Chinda, drew the attention of the House to its Rules and Order, pointing out that the 2018-2020 Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) was yet to by approved by the House as it is the practice of the legislature.
The deputy Speaker who concurred with the order raised explained however that the House had limited time to work on and pass the money bill; hence, the need to commence debate on it.
Lasun also explained that yesterday’s debate was one of many steps in the process of appropriation and does not translate into passing the bill for second reading.
He said, “My hands are tied on this but I will just crave the indulgence of colleagues to go on with the debate. The debate is not tantamount to passing the budget. I will crave the indulgence of the House to go on with the debate.
“So, your point of order is noted but I crave the indulgence of the House to allow us go on with the debate”.
With the floor thrown open, leader of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, led the debate on the bill, saying the bill saw an improvement in allocation for capital expenditure, adding that it would reflate and stimulate the economy.
But other lawmakers decried the poor implementation of the 2017 budget and berated the executive arm of government for the development.
Maintaining this line of argument, Abubakar Chika Adamu said, “We should be worried about where we are heading to. Our recurrent expenditure continues to increase and it isn’t good for us.
“We need a situation where we have our capital expenditure going up to 70 per cent, while the recurrent expenditure should be coming down to 30 per cent. Our debt servicing is increasing and by the way, a large volume of budget doesn’t translate to robust development.
“The inflation in practical terms is about 15 per cent. We need to tell ourselves the truth. There is need for the executive and the legislature to sit down together and find ways to turn things around. The federal government is expected to build super structures that are sustainable. Rather, what it is doing right now is provide palliative measures.
“As a parliament, we have been reduced to providing motorcycles, bore holes. No sustainable developments. Is that what we are here for? What I want to see in the budget is what should bring succour to my people, whether I am around or not”.
Similarly, Hon. Muhammed Tahir Mongonu noted that until the budget is fully implemented, Nigerians are denied the opportunity to enjoy dividends of democracy.
He posited that while the legislature plays its constitutional duty of appropriating the budget annually, the executive has failed in its duty of implementing it.
On his part, Hon. Denis Agbo called for harmony between the MTEF and the budget estimates, saying “we should get to a state where the Appropriation Act should be seen as an Act indeed.
“We need to reach an agreement on the items in the MTEF, namely the exchange rate, the oil benchmark”, he added.
Also speaking, Hon. Ibrahim Isiaka noted that the budget failed to generally capture sensitive infrastructure in the country and his constituency in particular.
“Generally, speaking, I have not seen anything in the budget. Now, we have 2018 budget. Now, the question is who conducted the NEEDs assessment in the various constituencies in the MTEF”.
Also in the Red Chamber, Senators yesterday opened debate on the N8.6trillion 2018 budget proposal submitted to it for approval by President Buhari.
There was a mild drama at plenary when the lawmakers, in their varied arguments, seriously criticised the budget estimates, describing it as imaginary and already dead on arrival.
Among many issues in the budget, the Senators queried both the 2016 and 2017 budgets, which were not implemented to a reasonable percentage, arguing that the 2018 budget cannot be exception.
The lawmakers took turns to submit their arguments during the debate on the general principle of the 2018 budget proposal to be passed for second reading.
They declared that N11trillion collectible revenue proposed in the budget cannot in any way be met, going by the experience of previous years.
They called for increase in the oil price benchmark from $45 to $50per barrel.
The Senators knocked the budget estimates on the ground that the proposals were unrealistic and not based on the achievable non-oil revenue projections as proposed in the 2018 budget by the president.
Leading the debate, Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, submitted that all the estimates in the 2018 budget are laudably tailored towards meeting the critical needs of the country, especially as the current democratic evolution and the economy emerges from recession.
According to Lawan, the N8.6 trillion estimates of 2018 budget has a recurrent expenditure of N3.4trillion, capital expenditure of N2.4trillion, statutory transfer of N150billion and sinking fund of N220billion, among others.
But pouring the first volume of venom on the budget, Senator Enyinaya Abaribe (Abia South) posited that the proposed budget is imaginary and highly fictitious because the 2017 budget was not properly implemented.
He said, “What was done in 2017 was less than 15 pe rcent of that budget of what was released. Nothing was done and that was why I called it (2018 budget proposal) fictitious. You are assuming N11 trillion, yet you are generating less than N1 trillion.
“This is imaginary. We beg this government to be very specific in the indications of the assumptions underlining this budget. The assumptions are totally wrong and totally off the mark”.
Also, Senator Gorge Akume (Benue North West) said the oil benchmark of $45 per barrel is not reflective of the reality on ground, adding that it will send wrong signals internationally if the world understands that the budget of the country is based on $45 per barrel, especially when the product sells above $60 per barrel in the oil market.
The deputy Senate Majority Leader, Francis Alimekhena, regretted that year in year out, Nigeria is faced with issues budget, saying the federal government should raise the oil benchmark.
He also said that the over N4 trillion non-oil projection cannot be realised.
Senator Joshua Lidani (Gombe-PDP) said the performance of the 2017 budget, especially as it relates to capital performance is very abysmal, pointing out that it is expected that by the end of the year, only 50 per cent of the capital fund would have been released for 2017 budget.
On his part, the deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, said the budget could only be realizable if the country’s revenue is boosted.