By Kemi Yesufu
Many heaved sighs of relief when on Wednesday, April 6, the House of Representatives submitted the details of the controversial N6.06 trillion 2016 budget to the Clerk of the National Assembly (CNA), Salisu Maikasuwa for onward transmission to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Observers had thought that finally, the controversies around the 2016 Appropriation Bill was slowly coming to an end and President Buhari would sign the 2016 Appropriation bill into law. Followed by a hoard of reporters who had waited for hours for the outcome of the meeting of the joint Committee of Appropriations, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin walked into the office of the CNA at about 4.54 PM, on the day, with the 1, 800-page document.
Jibrin made a show of the submission, probably to assuage the feelings of the public, majority of who felt extremely disappointed when the president said he hadn’t assented to the budget because he didn’t have its details. The lawmaker had admitted on Wednesday March 30, seven days after the National Assembly passed the 2016 Appropriations Bill, that the National Assembly was yet to transmit the details of the budget to the Executive.
He argued that the president could have gone ahead to sign the budget as a former leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo had done same in the past. But right after a private visit to President Buhari, the former president vehemently denied this. Not a few were bemused that Obasanjo had proven the lawmaker wrong just days after he had confidently asserted that the president wouldn’t have broken the law or tradition by signing the budget, while its details are sent to him shortly after.
Another issue that made Nigerians anxious even after the House’ submission of the budget details was the fact that President Buhari stated that he would not sign the budget until he scrutinized it’s details. This is even as he hinted that he would only append his signature to the budget if it tallies with the version he sent to the National Assembly.
Even with the anxiety over what the outcome of the presidential scrutiny would be, not too many expected an exposition that the National Assembly had tampered with the budget in a way that made it quite unrecognizable to the Executive.
Penultimate Sunday, the country was awash with a rush of negative reactions to stories that Buhari may not assent to the 2016 Appropriation Bill soon as he had noticed that some key infrastructural projects in it were removed by the National Assembly.
The president had before leaving for China, directed that the ministers review the provisions for their respective ministries. However, the ministers soon noticed that some important projects were jettisoned and the monies slated for them, applied elsewhere.
One project which it’s alleged cancellation drew heavy criticism even among lawmakers in both chambers, is the Lagos-Calabar rail project for which the president had earmarked N60 billion. This is even as the National Assembly allegedly approved the Lagos-Kano rail project, which had a proposed budget of N100 billion, and then took N40 billion from the Lagos-Calabar rail project and added it to the Lagos-Kano rail project to make it N140 billion.
Even before southern senators stated that the Lagos-Calabar rail project must be included in the budget, judging by the comments that followed media reports, the belief was that the North was hugely favored to the detriment of the South as the balance of N40 billion was then distributed to projects located in the region, mainly roads – many of which are supposedly located in the constituencies of the Appropriation Committee Chairmen in the Senate and House of Representatives. While Senate’s Danjuma Goje is from Gombe state, Jibrin comes from Kano State. Also Jibrin was accused of allocating about N4 billion worth of projects to his Bebeji/Kiru Federal Constituency.
As the revelations trickled in, commentators adjudged both chairmen to have almost frustrated President Buhari’s move to diversify the economy by taking money away from agriculture to fund rural health facilities and boreholes for which provisions had been made elsewhere.
Suffice to say that the deluge of harsh reactions from the public put the National Assembly on the defensive. Quickly, it denied that it did not remove the Lagos-Calabar Rail Project from the 2016 Budget as such a project was not part of the documents submitted to the National Assembly.
Jibrin was first to respond. In a series of tweets penultimate Sunday, he cited Sections 4, 80 and 81 of the Constitution in stating the powers of National Assembly to appropriate, even as he insisted that the National Assembly was wrongfully accused of padding the budget. The lawmaker maintained that the negative perception of the National Assembly made it easy for the public to believe that a project that wasn’t included in the budget was removed.
He argued that rather than commend the National Assembly for handling what he described as a controversial budget, the Executive was whipping up sentiment to turn the public against lawmakers.
The lawmaker also responded directly to reports that money meant for vaccines and AIDS treatment in the Health ministry budget was reallocated to the Code of Conduct Bureau, saying there was no allocation for vaccines in the first place.
The tweets from Jibrin probably weren’t enough as the House went on the offensive accusing the Executive of attempting to portray the National Assembly as being anti-South by allegedly removing a major project such as the Lagos-Calabar rail.
Penultimate Monday, Speaker Yakubu Dogara also didn’t mince words on his Twitter handle. He squarely dubbed the removal of the rail project a lie.
Speaking with House Correspondents hours after Dogara’s tweets, Chairman of the Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Abdulrazak Namdas reiterated that the Lagos-Calabar coastal rail project was not part of any of the versions of the budget submitted by President Buhari to lawmakers.
Speaking with the Daily Sun on the issue of re-allocating provisions for important health interventions such as the purchase of polio vaccines and drugs for AIDS treatment, chairman House Committee on Health Services, Chike Okafor described the stories as incorrect.
On the allegation that the House Appropriations Committee caused disaffection among heads of Committees by hand picking those who were showed the details of the budget before submission, chairman, House Committee on Public Petitions, Nkem Abonta said the situation has been blown out of proportion.
When the House resumed from its two week Easter break last Tuesday, it was expected that Dogara would go beyond tweeting to speak on the burning issue in the chambers. But he didn’t. Rather than further clarify the position of the House, the Speaker in his welcome address reminded his colleagues on the importance of oversight.
The Speaker also disclosed that the House will soon commence on sectoral debates, adding that the resolutions from the debate would act as guidelines for crafting laws. And with the tone finality that characterised Dogara’s words, it seemed that the House had moved on from the budget. But by the next day, it made a u-turn with the Speaker announcing after an executive session that members agreed to re-examine the document, dropping it’s earlier position that the only option left for President Buhari was to send any omitted project he considers important to the National Assembly as part of the supplementary budget.
Dogara who though wasn’t the choice of the APC for the office of the Speaker but has become more cooperative with the Executive than the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, said in resolving to take another look at the budget, the House bowed to public sentiment. He maintained that an implementable budget would be useful in dealing with the nation’s struggling economy and its negative effects on millions of people.
Daily Sun gathered that during session which lasted for two hours, lawmakers from both the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the major opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) expressed displeasure over the controversy around the budget and the manner the House Appropriations Committee headed by Jibrin handled the confusion over the Lagos-Calabar rail project.
Lawmakers accused Jibrin of making provocative statements on the budget that could have pitched the House against the president. He was also asked to refrain from making comments on the budget.
Interestingly, as at last week Friday, the president who was in China had not written the National Assembly, though it was speculated that Dogara met with Vice-President Yemi Osibajo and the presidency had commenced the submission of sections of the budget it wants to be corrected by the House.
But House Minority Leader, Leo Ogor, who spoke to Daily Sun blamed the federal government for the controversy, describing the inclusion of Lagos-Calabar project as an afterthought.
According to him, the controversy generated by the project which he described as very important could have been avoided if it was included in the budget from the start.
However, Ogor said members had to adopt a bipartisan approach in resolving the issue as the continued delay in signing the budget was causing hardship among majority of the public.