Since President Muhammadu Buhari’s letter seeking approval for the 2019 general election budget was read on the floor of the two chambers of the National Assembly in July, the polity has been enmeshed in controversy. The delay in passage of the budget by the National Assembly has caused jitters in political cycles, with most Nigerians alleging that there are plans to jeopardize preparations for the forthcoming polls.
While the executive and the All Progressives Congress (APC) on one hand blame the federal lawmakers for hastily embarking on a long recess without considering the budget, the National Assembly leadership on the other has maintained that the executive had ample time to present the election budget but did not.
As this bickering persists, it is important, in our view, that they understand the consequence of delaying the budget so as not to create a constitutional crisis. Before they embarked on their annual recess on July 24, President Buhari had sent a supplementary budget of N242 billion to the lawmakers seeking their approval for the 2019 elections. Following calls to reconvene and pass the budget, the leadership of the National Assembly and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) met to seek a way forward.
For three consecutive times, the National Assembly joint committee considering the election budget met last week and all three meetings ended in a deadlock, leaving certain grey areas in the budget unresolved. As it stands now, unless the committees reach a resolution, the National Assembly may not suspend its recess and reconvene to pass the budget.
There is no doubt that the contentious issues leading to the election budget impasse are resolvable. INEC had sought for the sum of N189.2 billion for the conduct of the 2019 general election. But the president split the figure required and requested that they should be sourced separately. Out of the total N189.2 billion required by INEC for the conduct of the 2019 general election, the presidency divided the source of funding into two, with N54 billion included in the 2019 budget, while N145billion is to be vired from the 2018 budget.
The lawmakers are contending that President Buhari ought to have presented the INEC budget to the National Assembly early in the first quarter of the year instead of asking for virement this late. After the last sitting, the Senate committee on INEC assured that further deliberations will be held on the budget, after which it will be sent to the joint appropriation committee of the two chambers. And good enough, the lawmakers were said to have worked assiduously at committee levels throughout the Sallah holidays to ensure that the final version of the election budget for INEC is ready for harmonisation by a joint committee of the National Assembly for onward transmission to the appropriation committees.
The 2019 general election, in our opinion, is too crucial to be subjected to this blame game between the executive and the legislature. It is against this backdrop that we are urging the National Assembly to, as a matter of national and public interest, pass the INEC election budget despite all forms of intrigues and politics associated with the appropriation process.
The presidential and National Assembly elections are billed to hold on February 16, 2019, while the governorship and State Houses of Assembly elections are fixed for March 2, 2019. April 28, 2019 is the last date for all elections to have been conducted. Pursuant to Sections 76(2), 116(2), 132(2) and 178(2) of the 1919 Constitution (as amended) and Section 25 of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) elections shall not hold later than 30 days before the term of office of the last holder of that office.
Besides, INEC by now ought to have commenced training for its ad hoc staff as well as place orders for election materials. What this implies is that the commission cannot afford to wait till September 25, 2018 for the National Assembly to complete its recess before passing the election budget for the 2019 polls. It therefore becomes critical that the National Assembly urgently reconvenes to ensure that there is a budget for next year’s election. If the lawmakers fail to cut short their recess to pass the election budget before the official resumption date, Nigeria may be plunged into an avoidable constitutional crisis.
While we support that INEC should be well funded to carry out its constitutional duties in good time, the commission must also ensure value for money. It must commence the process of ensuring that its audited reports for previous elections, particularly from 1999 to date are made public so that Nigerians will know if spending by the electoral body is justified.