By Bankole Wright
The National Assembly Thursday faulted acting President Yemi Osinbajo’s stance that the National Assembly was not constitutionally empowered to alter the budget proposal submitted to it by the executive arm of government.
Both chambers were responding to Osinbajo’s remarks on Tuesday, when he expressed frustration over the National Assembly’s habit of introducing new projects into the nation’s annual budgets, insisting that the federal legislature only has the power to adjust funds allocated to projects by the executive.
The legislature’s amendments to annual budgets, especially the insertion of new projects that were never proposed by the executive, have remained a recurring area of friction between both arms of government every year.
Tampering with the Appropriation Bill has also been blamed for the delays in the passage of budget every year.
Frustrated with the recurring problem, the administration is now considering filing a lawsuit at the Supreme Court to get a judicial pronouncement on the issue.
The Umaru Miss Yar’Adua government had also filed a suit at the Supreme Court in 2009 on the same matter, but was prevailed upon to withdraw the suit and eventually opted for a political solution.
In its defence, the legislature has maintained that it is constitutionally empowered to alter the budget and would not serve as a rubber stamp for the executive.
However, reacting to Osinbajo’s statement, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, speaking at plenary Thursday, said the acting president might have been misquoted, as there was no ambiguity over the powers of the National Assembly to tinker with the budget proposals submitted by the executive.
Saraki was reacting to a point of order raised by Deputy Senate Leader Ibn Na’Allah.
“The point of order raised by the Deputy Minority Leader is very important. I also have the experience of having a couple of our colleagues coming to us on the 2017 budget.
“I am sure that the acting president must have been misquoted because there is no ambiguity in the constitution on our responsibilities. The matter has been cleared and settled,” Saraki said.
Na’Allah had said that the statement by Osinbajo angered some senators, who he said complained to him.
“I rise this morning based on what happened yesterday in my office. About five senators bombarded my office, angrily complaining about a statement credited to the Acting President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, to the effect that the National Assembly does not possess any power to alter the budget submitted to it by the executive,”
Na’Allah added that he knows Osinbajo very well, as they both worked together on several cases practising as lawyers in Lagos, and was therefore sure that the acting president did not question the power of the lawmakers to alter the budget, or he was misquoted.
“He (Osinbajo) is somebody I know so much. I would rather believe that what was alleged to have been said could not have been said by him. And even if it was, he must have been misquoted,” the Deputy Senate Leader said.
He went on to highlight the importance of the National Assembly in the structure of government, noting that the constitution has taken care to ensure that there is adequate representation for very part of the country in the legislature.
“The decision to elect representatives is to make sure that every ethnic group in this country is represented. Therefore, landmass and population are the bases by which elections into the House of Representatives are held, according to the Constitution.
“Again, when that was done, it was discovered that 68 per cent of those to be elected (into the House) would come from the Northern part of Nigeria by reason of landmass and population, which is obvious.
“So it was decided that our legislature should be bicameral and a Senate should be established based on equality of states,” Na’Allah explained.
He went to state that the chambers in the National Assembly are equal. “There is nothing like upper and lower chamber as far as the constitution is concerned. It is a bicameral legislature and the intention is to put in check whatever democratic decisions arrived at in the House to avoid dominance,” he stated.
Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, however, disagreed with the statement that the two chambers are equal.
Raising a point of order, he noted that the Senate is superior to the House of Representatives, adding that the superiority informed the additional responsibilities to the Senate by the constitution.
“The constitution assigns additional responsibility to the Senate and excluded the House: that is the confirmation of nominees. This is why many people contest for Senate from the House.
“I hope one day that the deputy leader will contest for House and go back to the House,” Akpabio said.
However, Senate Leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan backed Na’Allah’s position.
“I am in support of the deputy leader’s position. I was at the House for eight years. I am convinced that no chamber can make any legislation without the concurrence of the other.
“If you cannot send a bill to the executive for assent without the House, you will know that none of the chambers is superior to another. The Senate only got one additional responsibility,” he argued.
Continuing, he said: “I moved from the House to the Senate to participate in the additional responsibility of the Senate and not legislation.”
Saraki at this point waded into the argument. “The matter has become a controversial one. We should just leave it,” he ruled.
Just like the Senate, the House also took issues with Osinbajo’s statement, when the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, maintained that the National Assembly has the constitutional powers to introduce new projects; add, remove or reduce items in the Appropriations Bill.
Speaking at plenary Thursday, he also said the constitution further empowers the parliament to override the president in the interest of the public, should the executive decline to assent to any bill.
Reacting to a motion on a Matter of Privilege moved by Hon. Lawal Abubakar (APC, Adamawa), the speaker said the framers of the constitution vested the power of lawmaking in the legislature, while the execution or implementation was vested in the executive.
The judiciary, he added, interprets the law so as to ensure checks and balances.
He said the House under his leadership would not be a rubber stamp for the executive and would “do everything to uphold and protect the independence of the legislature”.
“When it comes to the budget, the power of the purse in a presidential system of government rests in the parliament.
“A declaration as to which of the arms has the power and rights, inasmuch as it is related to the interpretation of the law, is the function of the judiciary and not of the executive,” he added.
Dogara argued that the Appropriation Act is a law enacted by the parliament and that public officers from the president to his ministers had sworn to uphold the constitution and the said refusal or failure to implement the budget was a violation of the constitution, which has consequences.
Abubakar had argued that his privilege as a member had been breached by the statement made by Osinbajo, who was quoted on two occasions stating that the National Assembly has no power to introduce new projects into the budget before passing it.
But Dogara stressed that the parliament has the powers to override any veto, saying: “The worst the executive can do is to say they will not sign and after 30 days, if we can muster two-thirds, and it doesn’t have to be two-thirds of the entire membership, once a quorum is formed, with two-thirds of the members sitting and voting, we can override the veto of the president and pass it into law.”
He said in the United States, from which Nigeria copied its presidential system of government, any budget proposal sent to the Congress is presumed “dead on arrival” and only comes “alive” when passed by Congress because the legislature has the powers to tamper with the proposal.
He further argued that the designers of the constitution left things the way they are because the executive is just one man (the president), while every other person in the executive arm is acting on behalf of the president, “so the relationship between the president and every other person there, is that of servant and master”.
“It is only in the parliament where we have representatives of the people that there is equality and you can state your mind on any issue, you can bring matters of priority the way you deem fit.
“From the very pedestrian interpretation of the functions of the three arms of government, one makes laws, the other executes the laws, the other interprets the law.
“So, a declaration as to which of the arms has the power and rights, inasmuch as it is related to the interpretation of the law, is the function of the judiciary and not of the executive.
“I don’t even want to believe that the acting president made that statement; I don’t want to believe that, sincerely speaking.
“Because when it comes to the issue of the budget, I think we better say these things and make it very clear, so that our people will have a better understanding.
“When it comes to the budget, the power of the purse in a presidential system of government rests with the parliament,” Dogara maintained