By Eze Onyekpere
Is Nigeria ready for the 2019 election which is just six months away? Have the executive and legislature given the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) the resources and support it requires to organise the election? These questions are raised within the context of the executive/legislative imbroglio over the funding of the election. It is clear that if the money is not made available through appropriation, the election will not hold, as expenditure of public resources must be based on the exercise of the constitutional legislative power of appropriation. Otherwise, the expenditure will be in violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigerian 1999, as amended.
First, the president sent a proposal in the sum of N242.45 billion to the National Assembly (NASS) in late August 2018, shortly before the NASS proceeded on their annual legislative break. The budget proposal was sent late as there was no justifiable reason for the president not to have sent the budget in the first quarter of 2018. That elections would hold in February 2019 is a fact that has been public knowledge since the last elections in 2015. That the elections require money is also a fact which no one can deny. Thus, the delay in sending the budget to the NASS is inexplicable.
On the part of the NASS, they proceeded on their vacation without considering the INEC budget proposal. But this can be linked to the hurried nature of proceeding on the vacation. The heat of defections from one party to the other in the Assembly was so strong and threats of impeachment were hanging on the neck of the leadership of NASS. Thus, the break was fast forwarded by a few days. If the relationship between the executive and legislature had been good, may be, the leadership of NASS would have used a few days to consider and approve the proposal before proceeding on vacation. But the bottom had been knocked off the relationship and so much bad blood had subsequently flowed in-between. It took a lot of public pressure for the leadership of NASS to consider reconvening to consider the proposal, and then masked men came from nowhere and occupied the premises of the federal legislature. This led to public outrage and the eventual sacking of the director general of the Department of State Services. Thus, public attention was taken away from the INEC budget proposal to what in every respect looked like an attempted coup and a grave affront on constitutionalism.
Upon reconvening the NASS committees to consider the proposal, media reports indicated that the committee membership became divided along party lines on the actual sum of money to approve and how the approvals would come. Members of the ruling party sought a deviation from the way and manner the president made the request by insisting that even the parts of the request slated to come in 2019 should be approved immediately, while the opposition members stuck to the approval as set in the president’s letter. At the end of the day, reason appeared to have prevailed with an agreement on the approval in accordance with the presidential request letter.
In requesting for funding for INEC, the president set a trap for the NASS and himself. The bulk of the money he sought is to come from the virement of funds already appropriated for other projects, which the president claimed were inserted by the legislature. Evidently, the president was not happy about the projects and the impression created is that he signed the Appropriation Bill into law on protest. To get back at the legislature, he therefore asked them to reassign the funds for the INEC funding. From the beginning, it was clear that the battle between the executive and the legislature on the extent of their powers in matters of appropriation had shifted from the national budget and now finds resonance in INEC’s budget proposals.
In approving the INEC budget, the NASS committee unanimously turned down the president’s request on the source of funding and rather asked the president to get the bulk of the money from Service Wide Votes. The emphasis on the unanimity of the funding source agreed by NASS shows that legislators can pretend to be fighting each other along party lines but when push comes to shove, over their access to public funds, they become united and will throw the can back to the president. There was no division along the familiar fault lines of Peoples Democratic Party, All Progressives Congress, and defecting members or those who have stayed loyal to their parties. In asking the president to get the bulk of the money from Service Wide Votes (SWV), anyone who is familiar with good and fit budgeting practices will know that the NASS simply told the president that if you seek to blackmail us for “inserting” projects into the budget, we would not allow you to get away with your soft underbelly slush funds in the name of SWV.
It is important to understand that the federal government turns the idea of the SWV on its head. Generally, fit and good practices stipulate that SWV should not exceed 5 per cent of the budget but the practice now is that it is in excess of 20 per cent and most times, it is for nebulous items nobody accounts for. Indeed SWV are subheads that could be managed by respective ministries, departments and agencies under whose mandate the activities fall. But they have become centralised and pooled and no one asks questions about how they are managed, neither is there sufficient information and reportage by the executive on how the money is utilised. In the last administration, the Oronsaye Committee on the reform of MDAs had recommended that SWV be scrapped but no one listened to this.
The executive/legislative INEC budget feud is not over because the president is bound to refuse to give assent to the approval from the NASS. He will definitely throw back the bill to them and then a stalemate will ensue. It now becomes a game of who will blink first, while the national assignment of preparing for elections will suffer. While this goes on, time will continue running and the February 2019 date will draw nearer. The executive and legislature will be enmeshed in their campaigns to come back to their positions, and governance will likely take a back seat. This set of facts is the rationale for the opening question on whether the executive and legislature have given INEC the resources to organise the 2019 election before we talk of its credibility. Would they resolve their disagreements on time or would the president simply dole out money on the basis of the doctrine of necessity, as some scholars have suggested?
This discourse takes the position that there is no necessity or urgency to invoke the doctrine of necessity. Everything has been contrived by the president, with the NASS playing along. No one is considering the national interest. It is an ego trip. The way forward is for the president and NASS to look for money outside of these two contested pots of “inserted projects” and SWV to fund the 2019 elections. The executive and NASS may, if they so wish, continue their feud after the elections.
Eze Onyekpere is the lead director at Centre for Social Justice.