Long delays in approving federal budgets have been blamed on the constant tussle between the executive and National Assembly on which of the two arms of government has the power of appropriation.
The director general, Budget Office of the Federation, Ben Akabueze, said the huge losses as a result of these delays were not in the interest of national development and the economy.
Mr Akabueze spoke in Abuja at a policy advocacy roundtable dialogue on “Budget Cycle, Budget System and Public Expectation” organised by the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) on Wednesday,
He said it was high time the Supreme Court intervened and gives a judicial clarification on the controversy.
“This matter has lingered for too long, and the economy has always been the worse for it. The Supreme Court must step in to give a judicial clarification on which, between the executive and National Assembly has the power of appropriation.
“The clarification is necessary so that Nigerians will know who to hold responsible for the delays. If the National Assembly has the right, let the Supreme Court say so clearly so that the executive will know its job ends with providing all the information required to prepare and pass the budget on a timely manner,” he said.
Participants in the dialogue decried the negative impact of the late approval of the national budget by the federal lawmakers on the country’s economy.
A former Minister of Health, Aliyu Idi-hong, who participated in the discussions, criticised the practice where the federal budget is always delayed for several months due to the absence of a definite cycle.
Mr Idi-Hong, who is also a council member of the chamber, also blamed the menace of “budget padding” on members of the National Assembly who he accused of always abusing the budget process.
He described as selfish the practice where lawmakers removed items in the draft budget proposal submitted by the executive for approval and replaced these with new projects without adequate costing and funding analysis to guide implementation.
In his presentation, the Budget Office DG said the executive has always followed the Constitution and the directive principles requiring it to submit a budget proposal to the National Assembly for approval based on estimates from the ministries, departments and agencies.
According to the DG, although the country has the capacity to prepare bigger annual budgets, government proposals have always been limited to projections from available revenue sources and current priorities.
He said unauthorised insertion of items into the budget by the National Assembly without subjecting them to the due scrutiny of the budget process results in serious distortions and projects abandonment.
To resolve the crisis and end the delays in approving annual budgets, Mr Nwabueze said a Bill, titled “Organic Budget Law, was submitted to the National Assembly in 2006 for consideration and approval.
He said the Bill spelt out a specific budget calendar requiring the executive to submit the budget proposal not later than September each year, while the National Assembly is allowed to complete work on the document by mid-December and return to the president for final assent.
However, the DG expressed regrets that the Bill has since been abandoned in the National Assembly, as nothing is being done to approve it.
“Until 2016, I have been associated with budget preparation for a long time. I have never heard of ‘budget padding’, which relates to unauthorised insertion of items in the budget proposal submitted for approval.
“In 2016 budget, budget padding occurred at two levels – at the Budget Office (where some of the staff inserted some unauthorised items in the budget that did not originate from the MDAs), and National Assembly (where, after the lawmakers passed the budget, at the committee stage, several new items were inserted that were not in the passed version),” he said.
Automated Budget System
With effect from the 2017 budget, he said the budget preparation process was automated, replacing the previous practice where the MDAs were bringing physical proposals to the Budget Office for the staff to manually key them into the system.
“Since 2011, the government had licensed the budget applications under the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS) that enabled MDAs to input their budget proposals directly online to the budget system,” he said.
Since the automated budget system took off, he said the Budget Office only communicates the cost and revenue ceilings to the MDAs to help them upload their budgets directly to the system.
He said the system has an audit trail, where only authorised personnel with personal identification numbers can access and work on the system.
“At different levels, you have the ‘Data Inputer, Checker and Authoriser’, to allow the system monitor the points people put things in the budget.
“The only thing the Budget Office does after the MDAs have uploaded the proposals is to go online to review them to ensure conformity with coded guidelines and instructions to adjust them as appropriate.
“If the MDAs fail to make the adjustments, the Budget Office, through authorised staff, can step in and effect the adjustments. And any item in the form of padding that was not authorised could be traced and removed.”
At the National Assembly, the DG said since 2016, the practice where the appropriation committee was usually asked to forward a copy of the Appropriation Bill to all its members for them to work on, has been jettisoned.
From 2017, he said, the National Assembly also changed its system of handling the budget document.
The appropriation committee, he said, no longer brings only the copy of the bill to its members, ”but the full details (about 2000-page document) to every member before the National Assembly passes the budget”.
“If anything changes from what was already passed, members can remove what was not passed. I believe with this arrangement, the incidence of budget padding is behind us,” he said.