Buhari’s Booby-traps as Early Warning Signals
By Oke Epia, The National Assembly has enormous powers granted it by the constitution of Nigeria. Most important of these is the power of appropriation which grants that the elected representatives of the people have the sole responsibility to determine and approve of how public revenues belonging to the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria are spent. Any action or inaction; decision or indecision whether by commission or omission by the Executive which undermines or vitiates this power is usually not taken lightly and can attract maximum sanctions on the erring official including the president. President Muhammadu Buhari rode into office on a very popular mandate and continues to enjoy a massive following. But he nonetheless needs to be properly guided on his relations with the legislature. The president needs to be told that in the over two months of his stay in office, he has unwittingly laid some booby traps in his path that may haunt him in future. The national assembly may not be in the mood to bark right now but that does not mean it cannot bite when the stakes get high. That is why President Buhari must understand that a few of his actions and decisions must have been noted on the bad book of the federal lawmakers who may use them against him when the chips are down.
President Buhari in June announced a bailout for distressed states to the tune of N713 billion. The broke states which owed workers’ salaries for months and were faced with increasingly degenerating conditions of public services had cried to the president seeking a lifeline. Like a merciful father with the milk of humanity flowing in his veins, the president after several back and forth meetings with state governors reeled out a bailout package for the insolvency-threatened states. A princely sum of N713 billion was sourced from proceeds of the sale of gas by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), a development which generated a round of controversy in the polity over alleged claims of empty treasury met by President Buhari on assumption of office. In all of these, a critical arm of government and one imbued with the power of appropriation by the constitution – the national assembly – was left out by President Buhari. While the leadership of the national assembly which was then embroiled in the conflict of the internal contradictions that threw it up stayed mute on this obvious misstep by the presidency, a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Igariwey Iduma-Enwo, would not let the error slip away. He hugged the lime light by becoming the first member of the 8th national assembly to take the president to court. Mr. Iduma-Enwo, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) member from Ebonyi State, filed a suit at an Abuja Federal High Court challenging the unilateral decision of President Buhari to order the release of the bailout funds. He wants the court to determine whether Buhari had such powers under the 1999 Constitution to release the bailout without the approval of the National Assembly. Specifically, he wants the court to give life to Sections 192, 163, 164 and 168 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which prescribes the way and manner public funds shall be distributed from the federation account. His prayer is that the court should declare the action of the President “unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful, null and void.” Speaking with journalists on his action, the lawmaker challenged President Buhari to “show us where it is stated in the constitution that the President can unilaterally give money without the approval of the National Assembly,” adding that: “It then means that one day they can sit at Aso Rock and pass the national budget. Why do we have the National Assembly if matters like this can be handled by fiat without letting the National Assembly know about it or play its role as the appropriating authority?”
In another case, the presidency last month announced that the Buhari administration has secured a $2.1billion loan from the World Bank for rebuilding the North-east ravaged by the violence of the deadly boko haram sect. The announcement was made with glee from Washington DC in the middle of a state visit to the United States by President Buhari. The loan would be released through the International Development Agency (IDA), an arm of the World Bank “which gives low interest rates loans to governments,” according to a statement by Mr. Femi Adesina, special adviser to the president on media which also quoted the president as urging the international financial institution to “to send a team, which would work in concert with a team from the Federal Government, so that a proper assessment of needs could be done.” The statement explained further: “The first 10 years will be interest free, while an additional 30 years will be at lower than capital market rate. The World Bank is eager to move in quickly, give out the loans, and give succour to the people of North-east, long at the mercy of an insurgency that has claimed over 20,000 souls.”
As an opposition party, the PDP has taken the president to task on this World Bank facility. The party’s spokesman, Mr. Olisa Metuh queried the rationale for the loan which it alleged was shrouded in secrecy, adding rather expectedly of a party in opposition, that the fund was sourced to off-set the 2015 election campaign expenses of the APC. Mr. Metuh thundered a torrent of questions at the presidency: “What is the loan for? What are the terms and who are those working the papers? Who are the people to decide on how the money will be spent?” Even though these queries issued from the opposition, they are however germane enough to have been raised by a panel of national assembly members for officials from the executive to answer had the matter been brought before the federal legislature. This is one minus the national assembly may whip against Buhari since it was not consulted on the loan as demanded by law.
Also in June, the President in far away Johannesburg, South Africa at the 25th Africa Union (AU) Summit, informed the world that he had directed that the sum of $21m be released without delay to the Multinational Joint Task Force. This money according to President Buhari, is part a $100m pledge by Nigeria to the force set up to fight boko haram by members of the Lake Chad Basin countries. “Out of the pledge of $100m which Nigeria made to the task force, I have directed that $21m be released within the next one week,” he told his audience after explaining that members of the Basin Commission had agreed to muster a $30m take –off fund for the task force. The presidency did not tell Nigerians if this sum of money had hitherto been appropriated as constitutionally demanded, nor was the source from which the fund would be pulled made public. The national assembly would also have taken note of this denial of its role to appropriate and oversight.
Actions and inactions like these which amount to a careless laying of banana peels on the path of his administration tend to call to question President Buhari’s sincere understanding and appreciation of the roles of the legislature in a democracy. President Buhari had impressed many, especially members of the legislature when during an induction course for lawmakers of the 8th national assembly last April announced his commitment to work closely with the legislature on delivering on his election promises to Nigerians. He was quoted thus: “The legislature, by nature, is inherently democratic in the sense that all members are equal and are elected representatives of the Nigerian people. As President-elect, I recognise this fact and believe that legislators carry this heavy burden of representation with all the seriousness it deserves. For a President to be successful in addressing community development and the general welfare of the various people of the country, he or she would benefit from working closely and in harmony with the legislative arm of government. I therefore commit myself to working with the legislature as development partners motivated by the desire to deliver good governance.”
These fine rhetorics by President Buhari appeared to have turned out hollow when confronted with the acid test of how the leadership of the national assembly emerged. The president’s initial vagueness on the critical issue of zoning was interpreted differently in several interested quarters and this laid the ground for a protracted struggle for the leadership positions of the national assembly which only just got sorted out after weeks of grandstanding, arm-twisting, negotiations and bloodied noses. By the time a more decisive intervention came from Aso Rock, opposing positions had already dug in and avoidable schisms created including an unhealthy cold war between Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker Yakubu Dogara on one hand and the president and a clique of APC leaders on the other. This bad blood has come to define the beginning of the relationship between the presidency and the national assembly. Worse still, the president appeared to have allowed it to impact on his pledge to carry the lawmakers along in his administration. The questionable exclusion of the legislature from his recent diplomatic shuttles especially the very important state visit to the US is one gaffe the president could have done well to avoid.
By and large, the president needs to reappraise his standing with the national assembly to avoid a possible crisis of confrontation for which instruments of battle have been provided.
Epia is an ex-parliamentary adviser at the National Assembly. Follow him on Twitter @resourceme
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