Hurdles for 2019 budget before the Reps

Budget filibustering has been common occurrences in presidential democracies, and so Nigeria regularly witness politics with its annual ritual of budgeting processes. It has however, not gone to the extreme of lawmakers jeering at a sitting President during the budget laying ceremony. Joshua Egbodo writes.
Bad omen

When President Muhammadu Buhari requested for Wednesday, December 19, 2018 slot to address a joint session of the National Assembly, and subsequently lay the 2019 budget estimates, the requested was received with mixed reactions on the floor of the House of Representatives. A point of order as it relates to matters of privileges was immediately raised by Hon. Abubakar Chika, as Speaker Yakubu Dogara concluded reading the President’s letter.

Chika cited a statement credited to the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma, who reportedly blamed the National Assembly for the delay in the presentation of the 2019 budget. While Niger State-born lawmaker argued that he was yet to, before that moment, be aware of any request for such, and so the Minister’s assertion was in breach of the House and members’ privileges, to which an unreserved apology must be tendered, Mark Gbilah called for an outright boycott of the session by members. It took the intervention of Majority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, who explained that the Minister had put a call to him debunking the report, as well as apologizing for the embarrassment it may have caused members.

That resolved, all eyes were on the presentation, which the President had initially requested for at 10am. Signs that there may be opposition to a smooth joint session began to manifest with reports that there were plans by the minority in the House to boo the President during the session. The presidency was reportedly briefed on the development, prompting an urgent meeting of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, to meet with members of the APC in the House, on the eve of the budget presentation.

Aware of the defiance by the opposition to carry out the plot, there was a dramatic shift from the requested 10 am to 12 noon for the President’s arrival. Unconfirmed report had it that Buhari was advised by aides to shelve personal appearance, as the Finance Minister can do that in his stead, to which he rejected. 

As was the usual practice, when a motion was later moved for the admittance of Senators into the sitting chamber of the House of Representatives, a lot of members shouted in the negative, prompting Dogara to call for a brief closed door session, which was to last for half an hour.
Heckles and cheers
Back in open session with all expectations that tensions may have been doused, opposition members were still chanting protest songs. “Freedom Cometh By Struggle” was in the air, even when President Buhari was being ushered into the chamber. In attempts to give the President a sense of honour, APC members from both houses started shouting “Sai Baba”, and it was a shouting match between the opposing camps.

Prior to Buhari’s entry, the initial chantings were followed by appearances of placards with various inscriptions. Pro-APC members moved and forcefully collected and tore them to pieces. Hon. Bashir Babale and Diri Douye engaged in a fisticuff in the attempt by the former to confiscate a placard from the later. It took intervention of their colleagues to calm frayed nerves at that moment.

With Buhari seated, it yet took a while for the repeated appeals of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, to get his colleagues settle. He commended them for “showing understanding”, but dramatically jumped the usual procedure of him making his remarks first, and called on the President to address the joint session and lay the 2019 budget estimates.

Another round of shouting bout started when Buhari began to roll out figures on his government’s performances with the 2018 budget. The President got repeatedly interrupted during his speech with boos and jeers from opposition lawmakers, and cheers and claps from APC members. At some points, words like “it’s a lie”, “it’s not true”, “no” were loudly heard while the President’s supporters also kept shouting “yes” and clapped in appreciation. Buhari at a point personally told the lawmakers that “we should grow above this…the whole world is watching us”.

When done with the speech and the budget laid, members were still in the shouting frenzy, which made Gbajabiamila to protest. The proceeding was abruptly cut short when the Guards Brigade band stationed at the visitors’ gallery started a recitation of the National Anthem, promoting the sitting President Buhari, who was apparently waiting for the remarks of Speaker Dogara to formally bring the session to a close, to take his leave.
Bantering over the budget

With the inglorious session over, Caucus of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the House described the N8.83 trillion budget, as “yet another hollow ritual”.

Led by Deputy Minority Leader of the House, Hon. Chukwuka Onyema, at a media briefing after the budget presentation, the Caucus said the consistent abysmal implementation of budgets over the last three years has betrayed the APC-led government under President Buhari; that “it’s half-hearted, insensitive to the plight of the Nigerian people who long for genuine progress and development that will positively impact their lives”.

The Caucus said APC’s-led government has since 2015 when it came into power “has been an unfortunate  harvest of lies, blames and propaganda, while its overhyped campaign promises of security’ economic growth and war against corruption have remained a mirage”.

On claims by the government to have stepped up security of citizens, Onyema said this “was partly punctured by a report issued by Amnesty International this week, cataloging more than 3,600 killings since 2016 with 310 attacks recorded between January 2016 and October 2018, 57 percent of which took place in 2018 alone”.

He also queried the rationale behind preparing a fresh budget, when the 2018 budget has not been implemented up to 10 percent, and recalled that budgets of the current government has never delivered their respective promises since 2016.
Mixed grill

Condemnations as well as subtle praises have been trailing the actions of the lawmakers, with many analysts describing the phenomenon as “democracy in action”. The argument has been that if some feel cheering up the President for what they feel he was doing well was right, others who feel he fell short of their expectations must also be allowed to say so by whatever lawful means.

It has, however, been envisaged that the 2019 budget may face a lot of huddles in the House, especially with the reported anger over selective implementation of the 2018 budget. There were also reports that members’ zonal intervention projects, usually described constituency projects, for which N100 billion was approved for both chambers got the worst of attention in 2018, thereby pitching implementing MDAs on collision course with the lawmakers.

The issue of buck passing has also been cited by many as a major problem that the budget may face. While the lawmakers usually accuse MDAs of deliberately shunning committees’ summons to defend their estimates, in what members described as blackmail, government agencies may resort to blaming the parliament of delaying the budget process.

In all of these, it is the opinion of pundits that national interest should take prominence, irrespective of whatever side of divide the actors involved may belong.

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