OPINION: Presidency, NASS and the 2016 Budget: The Birth of Constitutional Democracy in Nigeria By Hon. Abdullahi I Mahuta
Since after President Buhari laid the 2016 proposed budget estimate before the joint session of the National Assembly, so many things have been said and written about the it. There were allegations and counter allegations from either side of the two institutions which are constitutionally charged with the responsibility of budget processes. These two institutions are the Presidency and the National Assembly. Nigerians, who are constitutionally onlookers on this issue, were also not left behind in expressing their different opinions, depending on which side of the divide one is.
The issue got to a worrying level when some Nigerians who, in my opinion should know better, try to reduce the whole issue to the personality crises between Buhari and NASS members. The intent of this write up is not to support or oppose any side in this crises, but rather to throw some light on the basic concept of constitutional democracy in relation to what is currently happening with regards to the 2016 proposed budget.
The first conference on human equality, which took place in France in the sixteenth century, is the bed rock of the modern day democracy. The conference declared all human beings, male and female, equal with equal opportunities. Presently, the concept of democracy gives the people the right to elect their leaders for a certain period of time. In addition, these elected representatives are to be guided by carefully drafted laws and regulations called the Constitution.
Humanity, worldwide and from time immemorial, recognizes and accepts the fact that no single human mind, no matter how intelligent and sincire, is enough to be the only guiding light for a particular society. This is evidenced by the fact that every known ruler in the human history had a council or a group of some wise elders, whom he referred to before taking a decision considered critical to the community. In Islam, Prophet Muhammad was clearly instructed in the Qua’an to consult his disciples on social issues. I don’t know much about Christianity, much less, Judaism, but I believe similar injunctions may obtain. However, all the wise councils offered, under the previous systems of government, remained discretional – not binding.
With these view in mind, one can rightly conclude that The main objective of the constitutional democracy, therefore, is to remove personalisation, impunity, discretion and absolute corruption in leadership occasioned by absolute power. These, under democracy, are replaced by systems, standards and officially accepted ways of conducting the affairs of the nation state. Democracy promotes dialogue, cross fertilization of ideas and building consensus around societal issue.
With regards to National budgets, the constitution clearly directed the President of the Nation to prepare and lay, before the National Assembly “…estimates and expenditure of the federation for the next following financial year” (S81(1)). And S81(2) went ahead and described the said document as “…an appropriation bill…”.
Now, to any discerning mind, the question to ask is: after the laying of the proposed budget before the National Assembly, what next? What did the constitution ask the National Assembly to do with the proposed budget? Is the NASS expected to just look at the document and, after some ceremony, return it to the President unaltered? Does the NASS have the power to temper with the provisions of the document? If yes, then what is the nature and to what extent?.
I’m not a lawyer. Im not also a very experienced legislator, but to the extent I’m able to go through the 1999 constitution, I have not yet seen where the constitution explicitly spelt out, clearly in step by step manner, how the National Assembly should go about the budget scrutiny. I mean, in terms of removal, addition or otherwise of the various heads and sub heads contained in the proposed budget – Probably, the first LACUNA. But the most important thing worthy of note is that a budget proposal is a bill. And I believe we are all aware of how a bill, any bill, be it an executive, a private or a member’s bill, is treated in any legislature.
The National Assembly is the legislative arm of the Government and section 4(1) of the constitution confers the legislative power of the country on the National Assembly. And the mode of exercising federal legislative power is through bills as clearly explained in S58(1-5) of the constitution. And as I quoted above, S81(2) of the constitution describe a proposed budget “..as an appropriation bill…’. Specifically, S59 clearly tells us which institution of government has the final say as regards appropriation bill in the following manner. In summary, it provides that:
” The provisions of this section shall apply to –
(a) an appropriation bill or a supplementary appropriation bill…..”
in the event of disagreement between the two chambers of the National Assembly, “…a meeting of the joint finance committee to examine the bill with a view to resolving the differences between the two houses”
“Where the joint finance committee fails to resolve such differences, then the bill shall be presented to the National Assembly sitting at a joint meeting and if the bill is passed at such joint meeting, it shall be presented to the President for assent.””
“Where the President, within thirty days after the presentation of the bill to him, fails to signify his assent or where he withdraws assent, then the bill shall again be presented to the National Assembly sitting at a joint meeting, and if passed by two-thirds majority of members of both Houses at such joint meeting, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required”
The above section and subsections clearly envisage that there could be differences between the two Houses of the National Assembly and also between the NASS and the Presidency. In addition, the sections provides a way out where such differences exist. So far, the first two steps are completed. We await what happens at the final stage. The NASS has presented the bill to the President. The President has withheld his assent and returned the bill to the NASS, obviously, with his observations attached. All these steps taken so far by the NASS and the President are constitutional. And based on the provision of the above quoted S59(4), whatever action the NASS takes, between agreeing with the President’s observations and /or rejecting same, is legal and constitutional.
This is democracy in progress. A constitutional democracy. Very much alien to anybody whose understanding of democracy is only limited to his/ her experience of the 16 years of PDP’s system of Democracy. I don’t think throughout the 16 years of PDP rule a President has ever withheld an assent and returned an appropriation bill back to the NASS. The NASS wouldn’t even dare to alter a letter in the proposed bill. Because a President would have already watered the bill’s journey to and from the NASS.
But President Buhari is a system man. He believes in the rule of law and constitutional democracy. This is what he came to teach. And this is what we should patiently wait and learn. If we begin to think less of the personalities involved and think more of the institutions and the powers conferred on each by the Constitution, then the pieces would begin to fall in the right places.
This is what I plead, especially from those of us who go to school.
Abdullahi I Mahuta is currently a Honourable Member Katsina State House of assembly representing MALUMFASHI local government.