•President wants N’Assembly to reach consensus on oil benchmark
•House faults claim, denies plan to heckle Jonathan
Muhammad Bello and Jaiyeola Andrews in Abuja with agency report
The presidency Tuesday defended the decision of President Goodluck Jonathan to defer until further notice the presentation of the 2014 budget to the National Assembly.
It said the decision, which the president announced in a letter to the legislature, was done in thenational interest.
Jonathan, for the second time in two weeks, had yesterday deferred the presentation of the 2014 budget, this time, citing the failure of the two chambers of the National Assembly to harmonise their positions on the crude oil benchmark.
Rather than turn up for the presentation of the budget as earlier scheduled, the president wrote the legislature seeking a further deferment of the exercise until the lawmakers had reached a consensus on the appropriate benchmark on which revenue projections from the sale of oil, Nigeria’s major source of revenue, is reached.
THISDAY had exclusively reported yesterday that the president would boycott the budget presentation and had written a letter to the National Assembly explaining his concern about the disagreement between the Senate and the House of Representatives on the crude oil benchmark.
But it was also gathered that Jonathan might have shifted the budget presentation to avoid being heckled by aggrieved lawmakers of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
There were no State House security officials at the National Assembly yesterday morning and the red carpet laid out for the president outside the House of Representatives had been removed, a Reuters witness said.
Under the 2014 – 2016 Medium Term Economic Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper (MTEF/FSP) submitted to the National Assembly in September, the executive had proposed $74 per barrel as the 2014 budget benchmark.
However, following an understanding reached between both arms of government, a joint Senate and House Committee of Finance and Appropriation, raised the benchmark to $76.5 per barrel two weeks ago.
But whilst the Senate kept to its end of the bargain when it passed the MTEF/FSP last week, the House hiked the benchmark to $79 per barrel, causing consternation among the executive.
The president in the letter addressed to the House of Representatives and read by the Speaker, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, during plenary yesterday, said: “Please recall that I had written requesting the Honourable House of Representatives to grant me the slot of 12 noon on Tuesday, 19th November 2013 to enable me address a joint session of the National Assembly on the 2014 budget.
“It is infeasible for me to present the budget in the absence of a harmonised position on the MTEF.
“Whereas the distinguished Senate has approved the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) based on a benchmark of $76.5 per barrel, the honourable House of Representatives has used a benchmark of $79 per barrel.
“In the circumstance, it has become necessary to defer the presentation of the 2014 budget to a joint session of the National Assembly until such a time when both respected chambers would have harmonised their positions on the MTEF. It is my hope that this will be in the shortest possible time.”
A copy of the letter was also addressed to the Senate President David Mark and read on the floor of the red chamber yesterday.
Jonathan gave no new date, saying only that when lawmakers had agreed on a position, then he would deliver the budget.
Defending the president’s position, the presidency said the delay in presenting the 2014 budget was to ensure strong inter-governmental harmony between the executive and the National Assembly, with a view to avoiding unnecessary acrimony that is usually associated with the budget’s passage.
Special Adviser to the president on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, told State House correspondents that “past discord was blamed on failure of inter-governmental relationship.
“The budget has been ready for over a week now, but since the two arms of the National Assembly are yet to harmonise their positions on the crude oil benchmark in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and the Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP), it was wise for Mr. President to wait until this is done.”
He further said the budget would be presented to the National Assembly after the conclusion of harmonisation, adding that the executive was doing everything possible to avoid such acrimonies and save Nigeria the unnecessary stress of post-budget passage delays caused by disagreements between the executive and the legislature as witnessed during the passage of the 2013 budget.
House spokesman, Hon. Zakari Mohammed, however, said the cancellation of the budget presentation by the president was inexplicable as there were situations in the past where the MTEF was not passed before the budget presentation.
Mohammed, at a press briefing yesterday, recalled that in 2011 the National Assembly did not pass the MTEF before the 2012 budget proposal was laid and that “last year, the House of Representatives passed it while the Senate had not passed it and the president still went ahead with the presentation.”
He absolved the House of any blame in the delay in presenting the 2014 budget, stressing that the time needed for the consideration of the budget has not lapsed.
“It is not out our fault as a House that the budget was not presented because according to the law, we are still within the time frame for considering the MTEF because the law states ‘not later than six months’ and the House received the document on the 17th of September.
“It is not as if the House is not on top of its job, it will still go ahead with its consideration… It will raise a conference committee of the House and Senate and of course, it will take a few days… There’s no definite date for its passage but we will try as much as possible to do it on time,” he added.
However, lawmakers have indicated they wish to raise spending in the budget for next year, ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015, but they have not agreed by how much.
Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, had proposed curbing spending in the 2014 MTEF after the government spent almost $6 billion of oil savings this year to cover budget revenue shortfalls.
A source told Reuters yesterday that lawmakers were unhappy with the low capital expenditure, which they wanted to see increased to boost the economy.
He added that lawmakers were tired of hearing about the need for fiscal prudence when the government was so behind in implementing the 2013 budget.
An internal Senate Committee report on the MTEF obtained by Reuters is scathing about what it says is a lack of progress on infrastructure projects.
“The nation has not moved from the old practice of heavy recurrent and light capital (spending),” it said, complaining about the “the alarming rate of uncompleted projects.
“If these issues are not effectively looked into or controlled, the economic and infrastructure development aspirations of the nation will remain a mirage.”
Also commenting on the implementation of the 2013 budget, Hon. Adams Jagaba, yesterday said the House still had problems with the non-implementation of this year’s budget by the executive.
According to him, the executive has failed in its implementation of the budget by its inability to execute major capital projects.
Jagaba told the Hausa Service of the BBC that of the entire capital projects for which appropriation was made in the 2013 budget, only 30 to 35 per cent were done.
Meanwhile, it was gathered that the president deferred the presentation of the budget to avoid being booed by some legislators.
A principal officer who spoke on the alleged plan to heckle the president, said: “We warned them, the mainstream PDP, then that they should not disrupt the Kawu Baraje-led group when they came visiting.
“What this people want to do now is to ensure they get their own pound of flesh.”
On the president’s inability to show up, he said: “What Mr. President has done is morally wrong because this is the first time a hale and hearty president has failed to perform this traditional rite.
“On the other hand, constitutionally, he is at liberty to send a representative to make the presentation on his behalf.
“This development is a pointer to the fact that the New PDP is still very aggrieved over what the other members did to the Baraje group.”
But Special Adviser to the president on Political Matters, Alhaji Ahmed Gulak, while also addressed State House correspondents on the 2014 budget, debunked claims that the president avoided the National Assembly over alleged plans by some PDP members to embarrass him.
“This is not true. First, the president is not scared of anybody and secondly, the PDP is one strong united party and as such no one can embarrass the president in the National Assembly
“These people are not on the ground. They do not even know how to do political calculations properly. They should stay in their states and develop it and make an impact in their respective states instead of doing things that will not profit them,” Gulak said.
House spokesman, Mohammed, also denied the alleged plan to embarrass the president during the presentation of the budget.