By Madi Jobarteh
The fourth and final ordinary session of the National Assembly for 2017 opened on Monday 27 November to run up to 28 December.
This particular session is very significant to the lives of citizens because of the number and kinds of bills that are tabled before the parliament. For that matter it is important that citizens engage their parliamentarians to ensure that they take the right decisions in the supreme interest of the Gambian people. It is also necessary that citizens go to the parliament to witness the discussions.
In this session parliamentarians will receive the national budget as well as the Constitutional Review Commission Bill, the National Human Rights Commission Bill and the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission Bill among other bills and decisions to take.
Of particular concern to me is the process by which the national budget is prepared and approved. Specifically, Section 152 of the Constitution provides that the Minister of Finance under the direction of the president will present, at least 30 days before the end of the financial year, annual estimates of revenue and expenditure before the National Assembly, which requires at most 21 days to approve the estimates.
For example the current estimates were placed before the parliament on November 27 for debate until December 7 for adoption. Then on December 15 the Appropriation Bill will be placed before the parliament in the form of a Budget Speech, which will be subjected to debate until December 19 for consideration. When this bill is approved it means money is now available to the Government to spend by
1 January 2018.
Given the importance and complexity of a budget, coupled with the fact that most parliamentarians are not financial or budget experts, it therefore means the timeframe provided by the constitution does not ensure effective oversight by the parliament. In practice lawmakers have limited time to critically review the estimates and approve. Thus this creates weaknesses in the whole fiscal transparency and accountability process.
The budget is the tool or resource that a Government uses to implement the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land where the rights and needs of citizens are spelt out so that the same constitution places an obligation on the Government to fulfil those rights and needs based on the budget. Hence the budget is the most important law after the constitution in any society.
In that regard if that budget is to be discussed it must be done in the most transparent and participatory manner with enough time and space. This means that one should have expected the constitution to state that the estimates should have been placed before parliament at least three months before the end of the year. This would have enabled parliamentarians to properly and adequately study the estimates in order to make informed decisions.
In studying the budget estimates it is important that parliamentarians to have conducted evaluations to determine how the previous budget was spent. For example they need to know if budget allocations did in fact reach or provide facilities, goods and services for which allocations were made. In order words parliamentarians must not just approve the budget just because the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs made a good presentation. There must be severe scrutiny to see how the budget had and will change lives and livelihoods of the people.
The constitution must also provide that the estimates are publicly available in all administrative regions before parliament debates and approves it so that citizens can see what are the revenue sources and expenditure areas of the government. In that way citizens would know whether their issues, needs and concerns are being catered for in order to ensure quality living standards. With such information, citizens can now engage their parliamentarians to ensure that they directly respond to the needs of electorates. This approach enhances transparency, accountability and efficiency hence good governance and sustainable development.
I hope that in the new constitution, we will have provisions that will address these issues so that the Gambia could have a more transparent, participatory and accountable budgeting process. Without a proper budgeting process, the Gambia cannot ensure fiscal disciple, combat corruption and ensure citizens enjoy widespread and efficient delivery of social services. This means we cannot defeat poverty or create wealth.
It is because of these issues that all citizens must therefore become interested in this parliamentary session by engaging their NAMs as well as attending parliamentary sessions to follow the debates and decisions. Citizens must hold the parliament to account by making them know that the life and death of Gambians are squarely in their hands.
If parliamentarians fail to effectively scrutinise the estimates to ensure that budgetary allocations are reasonable and sent to the right sectors, then they would have only served in perpetuating corruption and poverty. Wrong allocations to wrong sectors means waste of public resources, corruption and continued poverty and underdevelopment of the Gambia. Thus parliamentarians must scrutinise each and every budget line, amount and sector to ensure the right allocation is done. For The Gambia, our homeland!