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Reps’ resumption: Defying logic, or in national interest

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The House of Representatives’ decision to resume plenary this morning (Tuesday) generated mixed reactions because of the lingering coronavirus lockdown and the threats posed by the pandemic.  JOSHUA EGBODO reviews what may have necessitated the sudden move

Resumption notice

The resumption communication, addressed to all members of the House by the Clerk, Mr Patrick Giwa, did not state any reason behind the sudden move, it is however widely assumed that it may not be unconnected with the need to urgently review the 2020 appropriation Act, in view of the dwindling price of crude oil in the international market, making it difficult for government to meet its obligations.

There were also speculations that the house may want to look at other ways out of the expected total lockdown of the country, as the president was being awaited on the next move (at the time of putting up this piece), after expiration of the first extension in the affected areas, which expired last midnight.

The house went on break over fear of spread of COVID-19, shortly before President Muhammad Buhari announced a partial lockdown in the country, affecting the nation’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states.

Budget challenged by falling oil prices

Way back in early March, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed made it public that the country would be cutting down its 2020 budget due to sharp decline in crude oil prices, occasioned by global lockdown over spread of COVID-19. The announcement was made after meeting and briefing President Muhammadu Buhari on the economic realities on ground.

According the minister then, a committee would be put in place, to determine the size of the budget cut, and to also revisit the crude oil benchmark price of $57 per barrel as used in the 2020 budget. The panel was later raised to include the minister herself, Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Silva; Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mele Kyari; and the Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele.

At the time, Brent crude, which serves as one of the yardsticks for international crude oil prices, was down in price by about 19.5 percent, standing at $36.43 per barrel, with experts in the industry warning at the time that there may be further downward plunge in prices, and true to the predictions, there was a further dip.

Economic analysts were of the opinion then that in addition to compelling the federal government to reviewing the 2020 budget downward, the fall in crude prices had put a strain on revenue inflows, threatened foreign reserves and set devaluation fears in motion, explaining further that anytime a country cuts down its expenditure, the resultant impact could be good or bad for the economy, and that could also depend on the segment of the budget adjusted.

“In this regard, the Budget Office is currently working on a revised 2020 – 2022 Medium-Term Expenditure Framework / Fiscal Strategy Paper (‘MTEF/FSP’), as well as an Amendment to the 2020 Appropriation Act”, the Minister stated at a later date while announcing government’s COVID-9 stimulus plans, adding that non-oil revenue projections in the budget, would for obvious reasons be also reviewed downward.

Consultations 

The power of budget and appropriation is constitutionally vested on the National Assembly, so immediately after the new plan was voiced by the Minister of Fianance, consultations began with leadership of the national parliament.

On Wednesday April 8, the minister of finance and national planning, alongside his subordinates in the economic team, was reported to be in consultation meeting with leadership of the National Assembly on how to review the 2020 budget.

Budget slashed 

It came clearer later, after the adjustment panel of the federal government came out with its report, and proposal, that the 2020 budget had been cut by over N320 billion, leaving the new aggregate expenditure for the fiscal year at N10.27 trillion against the N10.59 trillion earlier passed by the National Assembly, with the federal government explaining that this was based on the current global economic realities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as recent crisis in the oil market.

According to reports then, the adjusted budget was immediately transmitted to the National Assembly for approval, fuelling speculations that the parliament may reconvene to okay the new budget in order to avoid any further economic challenge.

The new proposal had the crude oil price benchmark reduced from $57 per barrel to $30 per barrel, while projected oil production target drooped from 2.18 million barrels per day as contained in the 2020 Appropriation Act, to 1.70 million barrels per day.

Earlier revenue projection for the 2020 fiscal year was also reduced by N3.3 trillion (about 39 percent), from N8.41 trillion as initially passed, to N5.08 trillion, while the exchange rate was rather increased from N305 to N360 to a dollar. This, the team explained was based on the devaluation of the naira by the CBN.

With the proposed adjustments, statutory transfers (a category into were cut by N152.67 billion, from N560.47 billion to N407.8 billion, Capital expenditure reduced by N155 billion from N2.78 trillion to N2.62 trillion, and  recurrent expenditure dropped by N25 billion from N4.49 billion to N4.46 billion. Also, the fiscal deficit was increased from N2.2 trillion to N5.18 trillion, a development understandably occasioned by the expected shortfall in revenue inflows, and executed to be financed through fresh borrowing of N4.43 trillion as against the initial borrowing plan of N1.59 trillion

Reason for Reps’ move?

With the adjustments already done as expected of the executive arm of the federal government, the two chambers of the National Assembly, to which the next responsibility have naturally shifted, were expected to consider and pass the proposals at their respective plenaries. Emergency sessions were expected then, but these were not to be as the expected resumption of both chambers were postponed in line with government’s extension of the initial lockdown order.

Some pundits were therefore eager to draw the conclusion that the sudden move by the House of Representatives to reconvene this morning must be for one big reason, the budget consideration, and other possible sundry issues requiring the parliament’s urgent intervention.

Public concerns

As earlier stated, the decision of the House has raised a lot of public concerns, and this is understandable in view of the daily increase in the number of confirmed cases of the COVID-19 across the country, including the FCT which is host to the National Assembly.

Many were of the opinion that a teleconferencing option should have been adopted as is the global practice at the moment, rather than having to gather 360 members in the chamber, even as the turnout may not be 100 percent.

It appeared however that the House was not be oblivious of such concerns, as well as the dangers inherent. Its Clerk, Mr. Giwa in the resumption communication dated Sunday 26 April, 2020 stated clearly that “The Covid-19 Guidelines approved by the Federal Government and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and additional Guidelines developed by the House will be sent to Members’ pigeon holes for collection on resumption.

“Staff and Members’ Aides are to work from home and will be notified when needed in the office for any special assignment”.

National interest, or defying logic

At the moment, it is not clear whether the House would continue in its full regular business for long, or deliver on the matters it considered urgent, and proceed on another break. The bottom line however, is that the move has sparked debate on whether the House’s action was a demonstration of national interest and patriotism, or sheer defiance of logical considerations. It is highly expected of the Speaker, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila to explain this as the session commented this morning. 

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