Padding according to Ningi and his friends, by Bolaji Adebiyi

Prevailing controversy over federal legislators’ power to adjust the executive’s appropriation estimates betrays a limited understanding of the 1999 Constitution as altered, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Abdul Ningi, senator representing Bauchi Central Senatorial District, should be feeling somehow now. Suspended from the Senate for three months for abusing the privileges of his colleagues by bringing the Upper Chamber into disrepute, he ought to be regretting that a federal legislator of his ranking should have his name etched in some kind of Black Book. Surely, a three-term member of the House of Representatives and two-term senator ought not to find himself in a situation where it would be suggested that he demonstrated a shocking misconception of law-making processes, particularly, appropriation procedures.

His allegation, a couple of weeks ago, that the President Bola Tinubu administration was implementing a N28.7 trillion different from a N25 trillion Appropriation Act the Senate passed in December last year, was bound to raise the dust that it raised. If found true, such executive conduct would amount to an impeachable offence, which could warrant the president’s removal from office. Meanwhile, to the extent that it was what was presented to the president that he signed, the integrity of the leadership of the Senate was at once questionable. How did a whopping N3.7 trillion creep into the spending estimates law? That was the logical question that the ever-suspicious public had asked in believing that the massive divergence was evidence that the government could not be trusted.   

The strongly-worded rebuttal by Bayo Onanuga, presidential adviser on Information and Strategy, and the didactic interventions from Abubakar Bagudu, minister of Budget and Economic Planning, as well as the punitive response from the Senate, is, therefore, understandable. For a government that is battling to ward off the backlash of the harsh impact of its bold economic reforms on the public, mischief from a very important personality of that stature is a luxury that cannot be tolerated. And, if anyone doubted this, it ought to have been cleared by the vociferous reactions of the public and its social critics who not only queried the basis of an otherwise well-intended zonal intervention policy but also disputed the power of the legislature to appropriate funds as provided for in the 1999 Constitution as altered.

Ningi’s substantive claim was that there was a divergence between what was passed by the legislators and what was being implemented by the executive. Proven to be wrong on the floor of the Senate, he decided to raise extraneous issues in an apparent red herring rather than admit his mistake. This is what has now snowballed into the revival of the agelong debate over the power of the legislator to vary fiscal estimates presented to it by the executive. Central to this debate, however, is the thorny issue of zonal intervention projects or constituency projects, a legislative policy that allows each federal legislator to nominate federally funded projects for their constituency and include them in the appropriation law.  

Despite the logic of the policy, its implementation over the years has been very controversial with the public believing that it had not only been corrupted but that it had also become a means of lining the legislators’ deep pockets. Evidence of underhand dealings by legislators is well documented in several reports of anti-graft agencies, particularly, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offence Commission. But that does not detract from the legitimacy and usefulness of the policy as many legislators have indeed ensured the successful delivery of several intervention projects in their constituencies. The huge hostel that was built for the University of Lagos by Femi Gbajabiamila, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and currently chief of staff to the president, is a glowing product of the policy.

Equally mired in steep controversy is the power of the legislature to vary spending estimates presented for appropriation by the executive. From President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2023, there were several fights over this, causing passage delays for several months. Only President Tinubu has conceded that the legislature has the power to vary executive estimates, signing into law the N28.7 trillion Appropriation Bill, which was N1.2 trillion bigger than the N27.5 trillion he had presented to the National Assembly.

It is tempting to believe that Tinubu conceded this power not only because he was a former legislator, who represented Lagos West Senatorial District in 1990, but also because he has a large number of former ranking legislators in his cabinet. The fact of the matter though, is that the Constitution donates the ultimate power over appropriation to the legislative arm of government in S81(1) when it states, “The President shall cause to be prepared and laid before each House of the National Assembly at any time in each financial year estimates of the revenues and expenditure of the Federation for the next following financial year.”

If the legislature cannot vary the estimates, why does the Constitution mandate the president to lay them before it? In any case, Section 82 envisages a situation in which passage might be delayed and authorised the president to spend up to the amount approved for the period in the previous year, pending approval. More importantly, S59, which provides specifically for the mode of the passage of appropriation bill, envisages in subsection 4, the possible divergence between the executive and the legislature and provides that whenever presidential assent is refused the legislature could veto override the president’s veto with a two-thirds majority of each of the two chambers.

The simple logic is that the legislature, which consists of the representatives of the people should have the final say in the determination of public policy, particularly, the allocation of financial resources for the upliftment of the people.

Many public analysts and social critics, who have been unsparing of the legislature probably overlooked or misconceived these provisions of the Constitution and the logic behind them in their interventions in the conversations. Interestingly, many of them neglected to note that similar disagreements had occurred in the United States of America, leading to government shutdowns.   

In fact, by 2024, there had been 10 shutdowns, the most significant of which included the 21-day shutdown of 1995–1996, during the Bill Clinton administration, over opposition to major spending cuts; the 16-day shutdown in 2013, during the Barack Obama administration, caused by a dispute over implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA); and the longest, the 35-day shutdown of 2018–2019, during the Donald Trump administration, caused by a dispute over expanding barriers on the U.S.–Mexico border.

So, it’s not a Nigerian problem after all. But the Tinubu approach appears realistic and commendable. Ironically, his positive move, intended to avoid intra-government clash and tension has now been enveloped by a cynical public outcry over a well-intended legislative policy meant to ensure even allocation of federally funded projects to all the constituencies in the federation.

Adebiyi is the media assistant to the Minister of Budget and Economic Planning, Senator Abubakar Bagudu  

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