From Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
The anger in the green chamber was palpable during plenary on Wednesday July 5 and it therefore wasn’t surprising that members in adopting a motion moved by Sadiq Ibrahim under matters of privilege, decided on summoning the minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, over his statements on the 2017 budget.
The lawmakers with uncommon speed, nominated Aliyu Madaki a well known critic of the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara and staunch supporter of President Muhammadu Buhari to head the adhoc committee that would grill the minister.
Observers, many of whom were exasperated by another round of bickering between the Executive and the Legislature on how much the National Assembly can tinker with the Appropriation Bill, looked to see exactly how the battle of wit between Fashola and the House would play out, especially during the minister’s appearance.
Fashola had criticised the National Assembly for slashing N21 billion off the N31 billion voted for the Lagos–Ibadan Expressway and cutting off, N5 billion from the Second Niger Bridge.
The National Assembly in response accused the minister of misleading Nigerians. The House also alleged that Fashola requested for the inclusion of an omnibus allocation of N20 billion to the budget of his ministry without details on what it was meant for.
Spokesman of the House, Abdulrazak Namdas, said some of the projects Fashola complained of lawmakers reducing and re-allocating funds allocated to them weren’t prioritised by him, judging by the budget performance of the ministry in 2016.
Namdas further maintained that the National Assembly has the power of appropriation, citing Section, 4, 59, 80 and 81 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
The statement reads in part: “It is very misleading and it’s calculated mischief to simply say that N5 billion was taken from the Budget for 2nd Niger Bridge. The truth is that in the 2016 Budget, N12 billion was appropriated for the 2nd Niger Bridge and not a kobo was spent by the Ministry. The money was returned.
“The Ministry could not provide the committees of the National Assembly with evidence of an agreement on the Public Private Partnership (PPP) or a contract for the 2nd Niger Bridge. The National Assembly, in its wisdom decided to fund other projects from the South East leaving N7 billion for the 2nd Niger Bridge that may yet be unspent.
“The projects include – N2.5 billion extra for Enugu/Onitsha Road, N1 billion more for 9th Mile/Nsukka/Makurdi Road; additional N500m for Oturkpa- Makurdi to take care of evacuation of agricultural produce up to Maiduguri; N1 billion more for Ikot Ekpene-Aba-Owerri Road etc.
“The National Assembly had to intervene to fund some other critical roads that were totally neglected in the Executive Budget proposal. Example is the Abuja- Kaduna – Zaria – Kano Road that had zero allocation from the president’s proposal and no contract even in spite of due process certification. N5 billion was provided in the 2016 Budget. It was not utilised.
“In 2017 Budget, the National Assembly again provided N3 billion for this very critical road that connects many states and where incidents of kidnapping are rife because of bad roads, as we believe that all parts of Nigeria deserve attention or would the minister also claim that this road has no design?”
The House also explained why the National Assembly took money from the Lagos -Ibadan Express Way, saying “on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, leadership meetings of both the Executive and Legislature were held where it was clarified that alternative funding exists for the road through PPP arrangement and the concessionaires had enough money to fund the project. That informed the decision to move some funds to other areas of need and the Minister of Power, Works and Housing is fully aware of this but chose to ignore it. Why spend government money if there is a clear existing funding framework in place and so many ongoing road projects are unfunded?
“On the Mambila Power Project, the minister proposed a whopping N17 Billion for only Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). N17 Billion Naira! The National Assembly felt that N17 Billion for EIA was misplaced and patently unjustifiable! The minister himself even wrote to the National Assembly to move some funds from this sub-heads to other”, the statement read.
Fashola, in his response expressed disappointment that members of the National Assembly lacked proper understanding of appropriation.
Nevertheless, at the public hearing by Madaki’s committee, which didn’t take the House too much time to organise, in fact, the hearing held a day after the National Assembly commenced its annual vacation, the minister didn’t shift much ground.
As is the norm, Fashola was asked to make his presentation, before members of the committee would ask questions, as well as make observations. He didn’t mince words as he reiterated that the interventions made by the National Assembly in the 2017 budget is to blame for suspension of work on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway by the contractors handling the project.
According to him, the contractors on hearing of the reduction made to the allocation for the project wrote the ministry stating that they had to stop work.
He further disclosed that the tinkering done on the budget for his ministry negatively affected Federal Government’s 3-year plan to build and rehabilitate roads, especially those used to move petroleum products and agricultural produce.
Specifically he said the insertions made by the National Assembly stalled government’s plan to rehabilitate 63 roads in 34 states.
“I did not say legislators have stark and worrisome knowledge of the budget process. What I said was in response to the Spokesperson who responded to my interview, who said I was being untruthful which, was a grave personal allegation against me.
“I did not refer to the entire House, I know most of them, many of them are my friends and I know the sacrifices many of them have made in pursuit of common goal. If you look through the interview (granted an online medium), in no part did I accuse the House as a whole or in specific of any misconduct. I expressed my disagreement to the decision that has been taken with regards to the budget process as it affected my Ministry”, he said.
Insisting that he was compelled to respond to the House spokesman’s allegation on the second Niger Bridge, Fashola said contrary to Namdas’ assertion that money appropriated for the bridge in 2016 was not spent but returned to the treasury, he said the project was not funded in 2016.
He told the committee that the first release was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in the first quarter of 2107 and yet to be cash-backed till date.
“I did not attack the National Assembly because there is no basis for that. It was not my intention to fight the parliament, it was my intention to talk on development matters, but if my statement has caused any discomfort beyond what I intended which was development, I certainly apologize for that.
“I made that very clear before that I’m not fighting the parliament but we disagree and I’ve said disagreement doesn’t mean we should be quarreling with one another. So, my position hasn’t changed on whether or not parliament can intervene in the budget.
“I made my position clear from the interview and here but the point to make is you want development, I say how do we achieve this and in the process of doing that we will disagree”, he stated.
Despite the long explanation, Fashola was asked to either accept to apologise and withdraw his statements or deny the allegation of disparaging the parliament, to which he responded: “I have said that in the process of exchanging or carrying our views, I can say I disagree with you that is not basis for being disagreeable and that does not mean we are fighting.
“I have responded and I said, it was not my intention to disparage this House and if any offense was taken when it was not intended and I apologize for that”.
Also a member of the committee, Edward Pwajok reminded Fashola that as chairman of the House Committee on Media, Namdas spoke on behalf the institution he represents.
Chairman of the committee on his part, admonished the minister that as high a ranking government official, he must be temperate with his words. Indeed after the back and forth between Fashola and the committee on the definition of the word, ‘spokesman’, the minister apologised for his comments, even as he shook hands with members of the committee before leaving.
Suffice to say that many would gladly describe the acceptance of the apology from the minister to the House as announced by Madaki as a first step to reconciliation or probably a full raising of the white flag between the two arms of government.
Signals to the amicable resolution between the Legislature and the Executive first came, when Fashola told State House correspondents that there was no way he could battle the National Assembly as he had many friends whom he had regard for who are members.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, at the time while acting as the President also said at the meeting of Common Wealth legislators held in Abuja, that he didn’t think it wise to fight Dogara or the Senate President, Bukola Saraki.
Experts also feel that with Osinbajo sending a request for approval for virement, read by Speaker Yakubu Dogara, on Thursday July 21, it was time for the National Assembly members to do what they were elected to do, by quickly working on the document.
Osinbajo reminded lawmakers in the letter, that the virement was part of the agreement reached between the presidency and leadership of the National Assembly prior to the signing of the N7.441 trillion, 2017 budget into law. The sum of N46, 004,049,292 is to be vired in projects within the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.
Though the National Assembly is on break, Deputy Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Finance, Austin Chukuwukere disclosed that the committee would soon reconvene to deliberate on the presidency’s request. Chukwukere told journalist in Abuja, that his committee was working on picking a time during the recess when it could meet to work on the document.
Undoubtedly, Nigerians who bear the brunt of dilapidated infrastructure would be watching to see how the Executive and Legislature build on the current momentum to bring to fruition the projections made by Fashola.
The minister days after his appearance at the House unveiled a plan for the construction of 44 federal highways, 63 roads and quick interventions across the country ahead of the rainy season. But he added a caveat that this was subject to appropriation.
According to Fashola-who in one of his press releases, disclosed the promise by the House to ensure that his ministry gets necessary support to deliver, noted that the 63 roads which were listed for intervention were identified during the inspection tour of roads in 34 states, which he led.