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Blocking the Budget: Nigeria's Opposition Flexes its Newfound Muscles

The current impasse in the National Assembly could be a sign of things to come. And in more ways than one.
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Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking at the IMF in 2013. Photograph by IMF Photo/Cliff Owen.

Last month, with Nigeria's 2014 budget under consideration in the Senate and House of Representatives, the growing opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) flexed its political muscles by declaring that it would "block all legislative proposals, including the 2014 Budget.”

The APC urged its representatives to stand firm until the "rule of law" is restored in Rivers state − whose governor fell out with the president last year before defecting to the APC − and complained about the lack of consultation that went into the drafting of the budget and clarity in the figures.

The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) responded by crying foul and accusing the APC, somewhat hyperbolically, of a "devilish plot to undermine the nation's security system...and cripple the economy."

The blocking of the budget − an unprecedented occurrence in Nigeria where the ruling party has been heavily dominant since the return to electoral rule in 1999 − is the APC's most confrontational legislative move to date and possibly a sign of things to come in Nigeria's increasingly volatile and unpredictable political landscape. President Goodluck Jonathan has seen his authority challenged from many fronts recently, and last year, a spate of defections saw five state governors and dozens of lawmakers decamp from the PDP to the APC.

The APC itself is a new party. It formed a year ago when several opposition parties merged, and with former PDP members swelling its ranks, it looks to be the first genuine challenger to the PDP's 15-year reign. With the 2015 elections on the horizon, the political field is more open than it ever has been and the budget looks to be a major battleground.

Politics of numbers

The budget, which is usually presented by the president, was tabled before the National Assembly by the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on 19 December. The president’s absence points to the fractious relationship between the executive and the legislators.

“President Jonathan has been extremely cautious when dealing with both arms of the National Assembly and perhaps hoped by sending out the minister of the economy it would somehow douse tensions and remove him from the firing line,” Abubakar Mohammed, Professor in Political Science at Ahmadu Bello University, told Think Africa Press.

Okonjo-Iweala presented the 2014 ‘Budget for Jobs and Inclusive Growth’ as one geared towards supporting a push in agriculture, kick-starting the housing sector, creating more jobs in manufacturing, and boosting industries in the mineral sector. But Okonjo-Iweala has become a lightening rod for criticism with politicians from both the APC and PDP criticising the level of consulation for, manner of communication about, and figures within, the proposed budget.

For example, George Akume, Senate Minority Leader and member of the APC, complained that key documents that would help lawmakers contribute to the budget debate − such as the revenue and expenditure profiles and figures on the 2013 budget performance − were missing. Meanwhile APC Senator Bukola Saraki argued that the budget contains questionable assumptions about oil output, oil price, how and which agencies account for oil revenue and the currency's exchange rate, and contains a rate of capital investment far too low to diversify the Nigerian economy away from its dependence on oil.

PDP Senate President, David Mark, responded to these criticisms by urging politicians to put the interests of the country above those of their political party, advising disgruntled lawmakers "to use a national magnifying glass to view [the budget]."

But perhaps unlike when the PDP held a comprehensive majority in the National Assembly, exhortations such as this could have little effect. The PDP lost its majority in the House of Representatives last year when 37 lawmakers defected, while its majority in the senate significantly slimmed when 11 senators did the same. Moves were made to try to deliberately omit the 2014 budget from house proceedings last week, while it fared little better in the senate as APC senators promised to stall the budget until a thorough analysis of and debate on the bill is carried out.

The APC has been accused by some of holding the country ransom and endangering the Nigerian economy, but Samir Gadio, Emerging Markets Strategist at Standard Bank, believes these claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

"International investors are unlikely to be particularly concerned about delays in the approval of the 2014 budget," he says. "After all, the adoption of the budget has always been a complex and multi-month process in the past, even when the PDP had a larger majority in parliament. The impact on the economy will also be muted since the authorities will run fiscal policy based on the assumptions of the 2013 budget in the meantime. In any case, there has been consistent disconnect between the scope of the budget and the effective fiscal stance at the federally consolidated level."

Feyi Fawehinmi, an accountant and political commentator, adds that “the law allows the government to spend up to half of the budget while it is waiting for it to be approved. So in theory we still have some room to wriggle before things get dangerous."

Tables turning?

The National Assembly is well within its rights to subject the proposed budget to this level of scrutiny. The impasse is one of many tests the country will face in the run up to the 2015 elections, and how it develops could give a good indication of what the Nigerian political scene will be like in what has become a two-party system.

The APC has announced its newfound authority in Nigerian politics by telling its members to block all legislation, although this doesn't mean all government activity will grind to a halt. One of the specific moves the APC directed its National Assembly members to oppose was the confirmation of the newly-appointed service chiefs, yet on 31 January, the Senate unanimously confirmed the president's choices.

That development suggests that the space for negotiation is still open, and Ike Okonta, Coordinating Fellow of the New Centre for Social Research, Abuja, suggests, “The government should appeal to APC leaders and make them realise that the budget is crucial to national progress.”

For now, the debate rumbles on, as genuine attempts at greater scrutiny of the government and improving Nigeria's development path rub up − some times uncomfortably − with political considerations. The outcome of the budget impasse is crucial for Nigeria's democratic development. Not only because it will be an indicator of the balance of political forces, but also because it will demonstrate just how much transparency the legislature can win from the executive. In the long run, the latter may prove more meaningful.

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