Threats to block executive bills, including the 2014 budget, by members of the opposition All Progressives Congress in the National Assembly may further worsen the economy
A recent report by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, NBS, estimates that 54 per cent of Nigerian youths are currently unemployed, while the rate of unemployment keeps rising, from 21.1 per cent in 2010 to 23.9 per cent in 2011. The figure is said to be above 25 per cent in 2013. How to generate employment, thereby reducing poverty said to be responsible for insurgency in the North and the Niger Delta, is the biggest challenge facing President Goodluck Jonathan.
To fix the problems, the Jonathan administration has embarked upon a lot of measures, including the SURE-P and investments in agriculture, especially dry season farming, to make agric an all-year round activity in the country. Last year, the SURE-P reportedly generated hundreds of middle and low-level jobs across the country, and it succeeded in financing the return of train service. To further address the problems, the federal government has budgeted N268.37 billion for its poverty alleviation programme and a total of N641.79 billion for security in 2014.
But these projects and the gains of the previous year would be in jeopardy if the threat of the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC, that its members in the National Assembly should block the passage of all bills from the executive, including the 2014 budget, is allowed to become a reality. The budget would have been passed as planned since December last year, but disagreement between the executive and the legislature over oil benchmark for the budget delayed the process. The two arms of government eventually agreed on $77.5 as against the $79.6 proposed by the executive. Recurrent expenditure stands at N2.4 trillion while N1.1 trillion was voted for capital expenditure.
In a communiqué issued on January 23 after a meeting of its interim National Executive Committee, NEC, the APC directed its members at the National Assembly to block all legislative proposals including the 2014 budget and confirmation of all military and civilian positions to public office until the rule of law and constitutionalism were restored in Rivers State in particular and Nigeria in general.
The party alleged that a culture of impunity and lawlessness was being promoted and supported by the presidency, especially in Rivers State, where Joseph Mbu, the state commissioner of police, “has become the de facto military administrator of the PDP in the state.” The party gave instances of the brazen lawlessness of the police to include the forcible dispersal of 13,201 newly recruited teachers at the Port Harcourt stadium by the use of tear gas, blocking the entrance to the Government House in Port Harcourt and preventing an aircraft chattered by Governor Rotimi Ameachi from taking off. Other acts of impunity listed by the party include the disruption of a peaceful rally during which Magnus Abe, a senator from the state, was shot “with intent to kill,” and alleged unlawful detention of persons sympathetic to the state governor.
After last Monday’s senate screening of newly appointed service chiefs in which APC senators participated, the party further clarified its position on the blockage of executive bills. In a statement signed by Lai Mohammed, its interim national publicity secretary, the party said blockage of executive bills did not mean that legislators should boycott their chambers. The party said its legislators were directed to “filibuster,” and not boycott the national chambers.
Explaining its position further, the party stated that filibustering is a legitimate legislative tool that has been used in many advanced democracies to force the executive to the negotiation table. The statement said the contributions of APC legislators to debates in the chambers are expected to “help sway things one way or the other.” The party said the directive would benefit not only the APC, but the whole of Nigerians.
But contrary to the expectations of the APC, the directive was flayed by many groups and individuals who saw it as “taking politics too far.” The ruling PDP condemned the directive as anti-people and capable of further wrecking the economy. Other smaller opposition parties working with the PDP also attacked the APC, saying the directive could lead to the collapse of the economy and disintegration of the country.
APC senators and members of the House of Representatives declined to talk to the magazine on the issue saying it was a party matter and only the party was authorised to speak on the matter. But the party last week said that those criticising it were only “playing to the gallery just to feather their nests,” and that they were not doing so for national interest. Mohammed explained that the National Assembly had passed resolutions asking for the redeployment of the commissioner of police in River State, but the resolutions were ignored by the presidency. He said what the party did was to use its majority to save national institutions from the impunity and lawlessness of the executive.
The tone of debate during last Tuesday’s consideration on the 2014 budget in the Senate showed that APC legislators were determined to toe the party line. All the APC senators who contributed to the debate berated the budget, saying it was anti-people and anti-Nigeria. Goerge Akume, who is the minority leader, said the budget could not be reasonably considered since relevant documents that would enable the Senate take informed decisions were not provided by the Ministry of Finance. He listed the documents to include budget performance in 2013, fiscal targets in 2014 and revenue and expenditure projections for the next few years.
Other senators said the recurrent expenditure in the 2013 budget was fully implemented while only a meager 28 per cent of the capital budget was implemented. The senators alleged that only about N400 million was spent out of the N1.6 trillion budgeted for capital expenditure. The party also brought out the issue of increasing recurrent expenditure and carpeted the minister of finance for her inability to stem the tide.
Some of the party’s senators expressed dismay that the 2014 budget showed a sharp rise in recurrent expenditure, which they interpreted as an erosion of the gains of the previous years. For instance, in 2012, the recurrent expenditure fell from 74 to 71 per cent and to 69 per cent in 2013. The senators concluded that the budget was not worthy of consideration and should be returned to the executive. The PDP members on the other hand asked for a speedy passage of the budget after certain noticeable errors are corrected.
Members of the civil society have expressed support for APC’s action, especially with regard to the 2014 budget blockage. Many are of the opinion that the budget will not benefit the country if it is passed as prepared by the executive. Auwal Rafsanjani, executive director of the Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, told the magazine that the budget has so many sub-heads under recurrent expenditure that would simply disappear into private pockets. “I think we should support the APC to block this budget. President Jonathan promised to tackle youth unemployment and insecurity in the country, yet he sent a budget that has 75 per cent of it as recurrent. How is he going to tackle these problems? The National Assembly should scrutinize the budget very well and ensure they pass a budget that would promote good governance,” he explained.
But the business community in the country may not be amused by political developments in the country. Obadiah Mailafia, a renowned economist and executive director of CEPER, said that a country’s budget is an instrument that gives hope to the people and sends the right or wrong signals to investors. He advised that the executive and the legislature must sit together and find a common ground in the interest of the country. “In a country where budget implementation is always very slow, delaying its passage would make things worse. It will send the wrong signal about Nigeria that the government is divided on important issues and that is not good for the economy. A lot of local and foreign investors would not want to put their money in the country and that is not good for the economy. The budget should not be politicized,” Mailafia further explained.
The education sector would also not find a blockage of the budget funny at all. After a year that witnessed long industrial action by teachers in tertiary institutions in the country before government agreed to negotiate and meet the teachers’ demands, many would not contemplate the effect of another long wait by tertiary institutions for a lifeline for the education sector. To underscore the state of emergency in the sector, the government allocated N725.94 billion to it in this year’s budget. If the budget is delayed for too long, there will be unease in the ivory towers where huge amounts are needed for infrastructure, equipment, facilities and research.
But some politicians think that delaying the budget is better than enthroning anarchy that may break the country. Balarabe Musa, former civilian governor of old Kaduna State and chairman of the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties, CNPP, said the presidency was using its incumbency powers to promote evil in parts of the country, especially in Rivers State, because of his differences with the governor, and any legal way to stop him is desirable.
Musa said the reaction of most Nigerians on the issue showed that the people were still politically immature to understand how politics is played and what can be gained when certain things are done. Drawing a lesson from his own experience, he said when he was elected governor of Kaduna State, the ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN, appointed the younger brother of the NPN governorship candidate whom he defeated as commissioner of police in the state. “What is happening in Rivers is all part of an agenda to humiliate governor Ameachi and take over the state,” he said.
President Jonathan appeared to have chosen to remain silent on the crisis in River State, the home state of Patience, his wife. He was yet to speak directly on the issue, and only allowed aides and his party to speak for him. Asked why the President has refused to speak on the crisis in Rivers, Olisa Metuh, national publicity secretary of the PDP, said the problem in Rivers was a revolt against governor Ameachi by members of his group, and that the “presidency is too big” to respond to the blackmail of the opposition.
But with the possibility of the APC securing the majority in both or either chamber of the National Assembly, the presidency may have to do a rethink of its strategy in the interest of the country. As at last week, the APC lost its lead in the House when one member from Nasarawa State defected to the PDP, bringing its members to 173. The PDP also has 173 members in the House. The PDP was still the majority party in the Senate last week, despite the defection of 11 senators to APC. The numbers are expected to change in the coming weeks either way, further heightening tension over the budget.