|Mamburry Njie, Finance Minister|
Last week, Gambia’s National Assembly went out on a limb by voting down a supplementary budget request from the finance minister in the amount of D1.2 billion. The request came approximately three weeks before the end of the 2018 fiscal year which, in addition to the large amount of the request, is estimated to be in the region of 6% of the current 2018 budget, drew the attention of a number of parliamentarians.
The combination of these factors riled up members of parliament, resulted in the defeat of the motion to approve the Supplementary Appropriation Bill which, according to sources, was a historic first, a rarity that could have contributed to the frustration as well as the animated agitation the finance minister.
The decision to vote down the request, hailed as a courageous act of defiance from the norm, was short-lived and subsequently reversed a few days later through a parliamentary maneuver engineered, according to sources, at the State House and employed by the Finance Minister. The move was tacitly endorsed by the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker – both members of the UDP and both nominated by President Barrow – and a collection of rogue parliamentarians from the majority party and nominated members from other parties.
Although no evidence exists to confirm that parliamentarians who changed their positions and voted for the motion the second time around were in cahoots with State House, it did not deter some from making such allegation. The closeness of the vote – 16 parliamentarians for and 16 against – required a tie-breaker from the Speaker for the motion to pass – a vote that activists deemed unconstitutional and who publicly promised to challenge it in court.
The dramatic reversal of a short-lived victory by parliamentarians, who thought they had succeeded in holding the line on runaway spending, sent shockwaves across the National Assembly and, among social media activists. Tempers rose and passions erupted, resulting in some parliamentarians demanding the resignation of the finance minister who furiously declined to accede to the parliamentarian’s demand.
Supplementary budget requests are an integral part of the budget process and a very useful tool at that. However, during the 22-year dictatorial regime of Yaya Jammeh, the procedure has been abused, facilitated in part for lack of a strong and independent legislative arm of government. The National Assembly under Jammeh was referred to as the “rubber stamp parliament”- a well-earned label. Members approved whatever was brought before them. That era appears to have elapsed.
Supplementary appropriations were routinely submitted on multiple occasions in a single fiscal year with the Office of the President and the Defense Ministry of which the president is the minister were the main beneficiaries at the expense of social sector ministries and agriculture. The practise helped fuel the domestic borrowing, contributing in no small measure to the overall debt to GDP ratio that has risen from 120% under Jammeh to 130% since the transition government under Adama Barrow took charge of the affairs of the state.
Fiscal discipline has become the mantra of the government but most of its actions point in the wrong direction and the Gambian people are expecting the National Assembly to play the role of the adult in the room. Members tried playing that role and almost succeeded by forcing government to reduce its initial request by approximately half – a reduction in both the amount and line items (or sub-heads) – suggesting that the initial request of D1.2 billion was a highly questionable sum, to put it mildly. The experience also will serve as a warning to the executive branch that the National Assembly is ready and willing to take its oversight responsibility seriously.