One of the guiding principles for the proper running of any democracy is the doctrine of separation of powers. A doctrine which provides that the three branches of government (executive, legislature and judiciary) should be kept separate and each arm be vested with separate powers to prevent an abuse of those powers. In application of this doctrine the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) vests the executive arm of government among others the power to prepare budget for each fiscal year.To prevent an arbitrary use of power however, the principle of checks and balances was brought into play by the founding fathers of the doctrine of separation of powers. By this principle, while each arm of government has its separate powers, it behoves the various arms of government to check each other to the extent that the law allows to make sure no one arm or more is using its powers arbitrarily nor encroaching on the powers of another arm(s). It is to this end that the Constitution provides that while it is the duty of the executive to prepare budget, it shall not be passed into law unless and until it is approved by the National assembly.
The legal framework for the budgetary process at the federal level is governed mainly by sections 59, 80 and 81 of the Constitution, the Fiscal responsibility Act, 2007 and the Finance (Control and Management) Act, Cap F26. To kick off the budgetary process, section 81(1) of the Constitution grants the President power to prepare the estimates of the revenue and expenditure of the Federation for each fiscal year. Section 80(2) of the Constitution on the other hand provides that:
No money shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation except to meet expenditure that is charged upon the Fund by this Constitution or where the issues of those money has been authorised by an Appropriation Act or an Act passed in Pursuance of section 81 of this Constitution
Allegations of budget padding have become a recurring decimal in the budgetary process every year despite the clear provisions of the Constitution. Only one conclusion can be drawn from a combined reading of both sections 81(1) and 80(2) to wit- the role of the National Assembly in the budgetary process is to approve or reject a budget prepared by the executive and nothing more.
It is therefore disturbing that passage of the budget into law is delayed every year over arguments on whether or not the National Assembly can alter the budget. In a Presidential system of government like ours, the electorates vote for their preferred choice of President based on who has a manifesto that is in sync with the needs of the people at a particular time. However, the President cannot implement his manifesto without funds and to access funds, the National Assembly has to approve budget submitted to it by the President. Where the National Assembly is allowed to go on a voyage of altering the budget as it sees fit, it is no longer the budget of the people but that of the National Assembly. The spiral effect of this is that the executive may lack the political will to implement the budget as it does not reflect its intentions.
Allegations of budget padding or cutting are made every year which causes an unnecessary delay in the passage of the budget thereby making the economy and the people to suffer for what could be avoided by simply approaching the Supreme Court for guidance on whether it is within the powers of the National Assembly to make unilateral adjustments to the budget. In 2012 former President Goodluck Jonathan accused the 7th National Assembly of altering the budget to the extent that it could not be recognized by the executive. In his words, ‘if you send your budget to the National Assembly and they tear it to pieces and package what they like, you start planning and managing the economy. We have challenges every year. Another case in point is the ongoing controversy surrounding the 2017 budget. The Minister of Works and Housing Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN) has raised alarm on the reduction and alteration of the budget submitted to the National Assembly. According to him, road projects were removed among others and in their place, primary healthcare centres, boreholes were inserted. He further said it is unfair to Nigerians after public hearings were conducted and consultations were made with the lawmakers, the budget is still altered, cut or padded.
I am of the opinion therefore, that where the National Assembly is not on the same page with the executive on the estimates for any project, it can only withhold its power to approve or refuse to pass the budget and send same back to the executive for alterations to it deems necessary before it is passed into law. I am also of the opinion that rather than engage itself in an exchange of words with the executive over controversies on the budget, the National Assembly should be focused on encouraging the executive to submit its budget earlier than it does. In the United States of America, the fiscal year begins in October but the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (the Budget Act) requires that the budget be presented to Congress on or before the first Monday in February. This gives Congress ample time to scrutinize the budget. This way, when the budget is finally passed, it reflects the needs of the American people. The necessary Constitutional provisions should therefore be amended to compel the executive to submit its budget five, six months before the beginning of a fiscal year. Where the National Assembly rather concerns itself with altering the budget estimates submitted to it, it would be taking over the constitutional responsibility of the executive thereby rendering the doctrine of separation of powers under the Constitution redundant and ineffective.