- Reps’ dirty fight over budget padding gets messier everyday
By KEMI YESUFU
THESE certainly are not the best of times for the House of Representatives. From dealing with a sex scandal with an international twist, to getting itself entangled in the highly avoidable move which pitched the House against majority of Nigerians, the attempt to amend the 1999 Constitution to include putting presiding officers of the National Assembly under the immunity clause as well as pension for the same set of lawmakers, who many consider already over pampered. And now, the biggest scandal of them all, the weighty allegations of budget padding leveled against four principal officers of the green chambers. Nigerians were indeed astonished, many reacting angrily to allegations by former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation Abdulmumin Jibrin that Speaker Yakubu Dogara and his Deputy Yussuf Lasun padded the 2016 budget with N40 billion for projects to be located in their constituencies, and that of other favoured colleagues. Jibrin was sacked on Wednesday Junly 20, and in his characteristic dramatic manner, addressed the press saying he resigned voluntarily adding that though he was proud of how the National Assembly handled the 2016 Appropriation Bill, he was ready to take responsibility for all the criticisms that trailed the budget. President Muhammdu Buhari had returned the N6.06 trillion budget to the National Assembly just before he travelled to China in April over alarming discrepancies. In response, Jibrin stoutly defended the work done by the parliament. It therefore was even more astonishing that in his statement issued on the day, saying he was was happy to step aside, he turned around to demand that Dogara, Lasun , Majority Whip Alhassan Doguwa and Minority Leader Leo Ogor resign because they allocated N40 billion to themselves in the last budget appropriation. Jibrin’s anger was triggered by the explanation from the Speaker that the leadership of the House had already agreed to sack Jbirin, but his resignation was simply accepted, since his exit as committee Chairman was the most important thing and not how it was achieved.
Jibrin said, “These members of the body of principal officers were not comfortable with my independent disposition and my refusal to cover up their unilateral decision to allocate to themselves 40 billion naira out of the 100 billion allocated to the entire National Assembly. The four of them met and took that decision. In addition to billions of wasteful projects running to over 20 billion they allocated to their constituencies.”
The former chairman who dismissed suggestions that his was not a case of sour grapes went on to petition the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, accusing Dogara and the three other principal officers of hounding him with the police. This was as he called for intervention from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). While Lasun hasn’t made any personal statement, Ogor described the allegations made against him as “fabricated and laughable” and even when he said he would submit himself to whichever choice of internal mechanism the House will use to deal with the matter, he said he hadn’t ruled the option of going to court to clear his name. Doguwa on his part has flatly denied any wrong doing .
Dogara fights back
For fours days, Jibrin went on full blast listing allegations against Dogara, Lasun, Doguwa and Ogor. Chairman House Committee on Media and Publicity, Abdularazak Namdas replied him on behalf the House Leadership. He first described Jibrin’s allegations as “spurious”. And just like word had it that the House leadership planned to allow Jibrin throw all the punches he had in him, before it fully responds, on Tuesday as promised, Abadulrazaq Namdas went all out to say the Speaker sacked Jibrin because he was unfit to chair such an important committee. He said that apart from Jibrin losing credibility among lawmakers, the loss of standing displayed, when twice he was heckled at during plenary, he added that the former chairman brought the House to disrepute by blackmailing heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs ) for money. The ex-chairman was described in unflattering terms by Namdas even as he stressed that Jibrin also attempted to blackmail President Buhari by locating projects in his hometown, Daura.
Namdas said: “He was in the habit of collating, warehousing and manipulating sensitive information to blackmail people sometimes apparently for pecuniary purposes. And by the virtue of his position as Appropriations Chairman, he meets with very high and senior public officers at all levels.
“The Speaker and the Leadership were inundated with complaints by heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) over harassment from the House Appropriations Chairman to engage in conduct and acts unbecoming of their offices.
“The Leadership launched an internal investigation into these allegations and was largely satisfied that action had to be taken to remove him, in the interest of the integrity of the House.
“One clear example is the insertion of Funds for the so called Muhammadu Buhari Film Village in his Constituency in Katsina State without the consent or solicitation of Mr. President. This has brought both Mr. President and the government to disrepute.”
Namdas boldly declared that the House would back the EFCC to probe Jibrin’s dealings with MDAs. The House Spokesman said the former chairman would have to face the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, for acts of “gross misconduct”. Suffice to say that Tuesday’s press conference was read by many to be that the battle line has been drawn. For now, Dogara has the upper hand over Jibrin, his former ally, the man who stepped down for him and went ahead to nominate him for the office of Speaker. Aside from the insistence of many lawmakers that Jibrin be removed over the handling of the budget as a major reason the Speaker asked the ex-chairman to go, the new House rules gives Dogara more power. In fact lawmakers confided in Saturday Sun that it wouldn’t be difficult for Dogara to suspend Jibrin with the new House rules and judging by the pervading mood in the House, not many would speak out against it. Though a lot could change and compromise reached before the September 13 resumption date of the National Assembly.
How Jibrin fell out with Lasun
Those in the know say there is no love lost between Jibrin and the Deputy-Speaker. A reliable source who was part of the process, told Saturday Sun that Jibrin fell out with Lasun during budget harmonisation period. But the Deputy Speaker has maintained what can be best described as a studied silence, despite probably being the worst hit by Jibrin’s statements. The former chairman said of the Deputy Speaker : “When the budget harmonization committee headed by Deputy Speaker Yussuf Lasun gave out 80 percent concession across board to the executive demands during the harmonization negotiation, it was agreed that the remaining 20 percent should go to the entire NASS. The Deputy Speaker excused himself that he wanted to go and consult with Mr Speaker. He came back after few hours and in an unprecedented display of greed presented to me a hand written note distributing the remaining 20 percent to only principal officers. 70 percent of the 20 percent was reserved for Mr Speaker and himself, while the remaining 30 percent of the 20 percent goes to other principal officers. I am sure he will recognize the hand writing when he sees it”. Sources close to Lasun said because of his strained relationship with Jibrin, he was one of those who didn’t have any problem with the ex-chairman being asked to go. “The Deputy Speaker didn’t have a pleasant experience working with him as chairman of the harmonisation committee which corrected the grey areas in the budget to come up with the version that was finally assented to by the president. The entire corrections weren’t supposed to take more than three days. But at times, the committee would wait for a whole day just for the former chairman to bring one document” our source said. Saturday Sun further learned that the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are united in the current battle. “Look, Dogara and Lasun are okay. They’re are in this together. I can tell you that even if you go the extreme by saying, which I don’t see happening, that they lose their seats over these allegations , then I would say, they are victims of a flawed system. If people really want to look into how principal officers have gotten more projects to their states and how they enjoy perks and privileges, then we all have to go back to look from the time of Salisu Buhari. We will go to Katsina state, Sokoto State or Ogun State before we get to the current leadership” a senior staff of the National Assembly argued.
Gbajabiamila fingered by Jbirin
Though, Jibrin had dubbed those he is fighting “the quartet,” leaving out a very important personality in the House, Majority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, but he unwittingly or maybe even coyly dragged Gbajabiamila into the scandal as according to certain documents which were released by him, the Majority Leader too was listed among principal officers who were given more projects. In the handwritten document sighted by Saturday Sun, the House Leader is first on the list that includes the Minority Leader, the Majority Whip, Deputy Whip, Deputy Minority Leader, Minority Whip and Deputy Minority Whip. On the piece of paper, ministries were written beside the title, ‘Leader’ such as the ministries of Education, Environment and Solid Minerals. Then there were the agencies, the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) and the Boarder Community Agency. Though no project was listed, a sum total of N321 million was linked to these MDAs. What is quite unsettling for some lawmakers is the House Leader’s choice not to say anything. So far, Gbajabiamila has kept mum, he hasn’t tried to clarify his position or defend the House. Even with this, there are talks that meetings are being held by lawmakers. Suffice to say that if lawmakers are to approach Gbajabiamila for anything, Jibrin might not just be part of such moves as he left the Loyalist Group which backed the House Leader to support Dogara to emerge Speaker. Ironically, many believe that it was the failure to extract a promise from Gbajabiamila that he would be appointed Appropriations Committee chairman that led to Jibrin ditching the House Leader for the Speaker.
PDP lawmakers back Ogor, Dogara
Ogor as Minority Leader has proven to be effective and this probably is the secret to his colleagues often showing him loyalty. With the main opposition getting an unprecedented 45 Committees to chair and the Minority Leader staying easily accessible to members of his Caucus, Ogor’s position hasn’t been threatened by this scandal. At worst, the lawmakers elected under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who are unhappy with the House being embroiled in the budget controversy have chosen not to speak publicly. Another factor is that PDP has in its midst, ranking members who understand that principal officers have since the return of democracy used their positions to corner more constituency projects for themselves. Besides, PDP lawmakers have remained the major support base for Dogara and for now, there seems to be no cracks in their working relationship with the Speaker.
A ranking member from the PDP who pleaded for anonymity told Saturday Sun that Ogor enjoys the backing of members from the main opposition party, saying, “If we have to pass a vote of confidence on Leo, we will. We don’t have any problems with him. The PDP caucus cannot be shaken because someone can so brazenly accuse his colleagues of things he might not be less guilt of”.
It’s too early to predict how this scandal will pan out and how firmly lawmakers would stand should the EFCC step into the matter. But a member, Lynda Ikpeazu has argued that the budget sent to the National Assembly is a proposal which lawmakers have to make inputs into. The lawmaker who is a member of the Appropriations Committee opined it was simply unrealistic and undemocratic to expect parliament to return the budget proposal without making inputs. She also denied that the committee was taken to secret locations where insertions were illegally made into the budget as alleged by Jibrin.
She said: “The Appropriations Committee didn’t take the budget to any secret place. For the appropriations process, as stated in the constitution the executive sends an estimate and it becomes the responsibility of the National Assembly to look at the estimate to see if it best reflects the interest of Nigerian people. When we look at the estimates and we feel that there are constituencies that have received enough federal presence, we could make amends. So the issue of inserting projects becomes a non-issue”. Also speaking on the controversy, another lawmaker, Johnson Agbonayinman said it was an avoidable one. “I don’t want the leadership of the House to be distracted. I don’t want anyone to blackmail the leadership of the House. No human organisation is 100 percent perfectly run, the same thing with the House. The House doesn’t need any distraction, there is so much hardship in the land, we should concentrate on making life easier for our people”, he said.
Transparency Group wants scandal investigated by EFCC
But dissenting with those supporting the Speaker, a group of lawmakers under the auspices of the ‘Transparency Group’ have demanded that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) investigate Dogara, Lasun and others accused of padding the budget. The lawmakers at told the press on Wednesday that Dogara, Lasun, Doguwa and Ogor and Jibrin must be investigated by relevant “external” government agencies.
Musa Soba (Kaduna-APC) claimed on behalf of the group that about 113 signatures of lawmakers from the six geopolitical zones and across party lines was collected before the Sallah break with the view of compelling the Speaker to explain noticed discrepancies in the budget. Other lawmakers at the briefing who identified themselves as the publicity committee of the new group, includes: Abubakar Chika (Niger- APC), Baballe Bashir (Kano-APC), Bala Ikora (Kaduna-APC) and Lawal Yahaha (Bauchi-APC).
“We call for an external investigation into the matter with the view of us finding out if our principal officers are guilty or not. For this group, we say the budget was padded and as such the budget being a document that belongs to all Nigerians, it is no longer an internal affair”, Sabo said.
Soba who said it had become necessary to inform Nigerians that the Chairman House Committee on Media Abdulrazak Namdas wasn’t speaking on behalf of members, called on the Speaker to desist from making Jibrin’s allegations look like a problem of the House.
He maintained that henceforth, both the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Whip and the Minority Leader should confront the allegations made against themselves as individuals.
Dogara promises no more undue insertions in budgets
Judging by comments in the public space and calls from Civil Society Organisations and Non Governmental Organisations for a thorough investigation into the allegations of budget padding by the anti-graft agencies, a major change might have occurred courtesy of this scandal. A source at the executive session held on June 15 who spoke with Saturday Sun on the condition of anonymity said the Speaker took time to explain to his colleagues, some of the interventions he made into the budget and it became clearer to them that he bent over backwards to help some of his supporters. “The Speaker explained some of the things he did to help other lawmakers. Though those in the chambers understood the mindset behind what he did, they said they didn’t want that kind of intervention moving forward and he agreed to it. So it’s almost a done deal that from the 2017 Appropriations, there has to be a marked difference on how things are done,” he disclosed.
Not over yet
As if to buttress that the fight has just begun, Jibrin, a day after the House gave a detailed response to his allegations with a threat from Dogara to sue him for libel, went all out again to level fresh allegations against Dogara on Thursday. He gave reasons why he had to wait till now to speak out.
Mr. Jibrin started releasing details of alleged budget fraud involving Mr. Dogara and three other principal officers, Lasun Yusuf, Alhassan Doguwa and Leo Ogor, last week. It came after he was removed as chairman of the appropriation committee.
According to him “For those who keep saying why now, (they) should realize that for every situation like this to occur, there must be a trigger however it looks!
“I woke up mid night yesterday to pray and suddenly realized I have become an accidental activist. This is noble and there is no going back!
“I am a product of the establishment but something in me has never been comfortable. I’m so glad that by September 9th my 40th birthday everybody would have known where I stand for the rest of my life; rural agriculture and fight against corruption especially in the NASS.”
In his statement on Thursday, he said he would continue to make daily allegation of fraud and abuse of office against Mr. Dogara and his “senior cabal” until “law catches up with them”.
He raised another allegation that Mr. Dogara diverted a federal water project to his farm in Nasarawa State. He raised 20 questions of corruption against the Speaker on Wednesday, same day he dismissed the threat of court action from the speaker.
Fear grips Heads of MDAs over probe
The decision of the Federal Government to launch a full-scale investigation into allegations of budget padding by some members of the House of Representatives is already creating tension in some Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs. This has also led to panic among various heads of MDAs who might have connived with the lawmakers to pad their budget estimates.
One of the chief executives who gave Saturday Sun an insight into what might be going on in the minds of his colleagues said “everyone is tensed and scared already because I doubt if there is any ministry or agency where there is no adjustment by NASS in their budget estimates.” The source further said that “given that the culture of budget padding in Nigeria is as old as the current democratic dispensation, there has been a deep working relationship among the beaurocrats in the executive and legislative arms of government on the one hand and between the beaurocrats and the lawmakers on the other hand. So, it is something that is deep and entrenched, and I doubt if any ministry or agency can escape a thorough and unbiased probe because if the head of an agency is not involved, his directors and other officials can work with their colleagues in NASS or the lawmakers themselves to insert figures.”
A minister who also spoke with Saturday Sun on the development on the condition that he would not be quoted confirmed that indeed, one of the chief executives of the agencies under his ministry may be one of those, preliminary investigations have indicted. “I’m not going to speak on it because we warned them (Heads of Agencies) not to approach or connive with any lawmaker during the budget preparation but they seemed adamant”, the minister added.
A top official of one of the anti-graft agencies, which may be drafted in for further investigation, and prosecution of lawmakers and other officials indicted in the ongoing probe told Saturday Sun that a number of agencies had already been indicted in a covert investigation already carried out. Some of the agencies are said to be those under the Ministries of Information and Culture, Agriculture, Health, Power, Works and Housing, as well as Transportation, among others.
Meanwhile, the probe panel set up by the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF Abubakar Malami, SAN, to probe how N481 billion was added to the budget has already begun work. Confirming that the probe team headed by an Assistant Inspector General of Police, AIG, Malami said the Federal Government was doing that to stamp out corrupt tendencies in its budget process in order to achieve success, and to ensure that the masterminds were brought to book to serve as a deterrent to would-be corrupt officials in public office.
Malami said that the panel would determine the criminal roles played by those involved in the action and how much money was hidden and the agencies of government involved in the budget scam.
His words: “The Federal Government is interested in fishing out and punishing those heads of parastatals who allowed themselves to be used by influential persons in the executive and legislative arms of government by importing non-existing projects into successive budgets and allegedly making away with large sums of money budgeted for them.
“You will recall that over time, there has been this criminal conspiracy among some levels of government resulting in budget padding by many of the parastatals and the money diverted and shared by some powerful individuals to the detriment of majority of Nigerians, who have been denied vital services. The present administration has taken note of the painful antics of a few powerful elements and we have decided to fish them out and punish them for others to see that corruption is not in the interest of anybody in Nigeria.”
Factors festering feud
Investigations by Saturday Sun indicate that the allocations for constituency projects, ranks highest among the factors that has influenced the choice between Dogara and Jibrin. Lawmakers, a number of who borrowed huge sums for their campaigns are cash-strapped and would have exploited the opportunities presented by constituency projects. Also, majority of lawmakers are first timers who need projects and intervention programmes to campaign for a second term. Other factors that could sway support either way include party affiliation, personal relationship with either of the Speaker or Jibrin, geo-political and ethno-religious considerations.
Again old wounds don’t seem to have healed because despite a number of realignments, members, many of them elected under the APC, who belonged to the Loyalists Group that backed House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila are in the vanguard of calling for external investigations on the budget scandal. This is as lawmakers of the APC and the main opposition, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that were part of the Consolidation Group which supported Dogara are kicking against anti-graft agencies wading into the controversy.
The opposing groups in the House are fully aware that winning the argument on the legality of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) investigating allegations of budget padding is key to their survival.
Those standing behind the Speaker argue that the powers of the National Assembly on appropriation are clearly spelt out in Sections 4, 59 and 80 (4) of the 1999 Constitution. They also say Section 4, empowers the National Assembly to make laws for good governance of the federation while Section 59 confers on the Legislature, the final say on the budget. Therefore, contributions made on the budget cannot be tagged as padding.
Those who expressed the opinion that the budget was padded said that it was done illegally. One of them is Lawal Yahaha (Bauchi-APC), who said “We the members of the National Assembly are not illiterates. Please check the meaning of padding in the dictionary and tell me if the 2016 budget was not padded”.
House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila is yet to make a public statement on the budget controversy, but he remains the lawmaker many say stands to benefit from the current controversy, though his reputation suffered a major dent with the documents released by Jibrin showing N1.8 billion to his name.
The odds favour Dogara
Though there is tension in the House especially among the leadership who are rattled by Jibrin’s attacks, the end of the fight is nowhere in sight. This is because Dogara and Jibrin are known to be dogged fighters. It is expected that they will slug it out in the court, but within the House, a few things stand in favour of the Speaker. First is that he has more friends than his accuser, Jibrin.
A member of the newly formed Transparency Group in the House, which asked for external investigation into the allegations of budget padding, told this reporter that founders of his group don’t support Jibrin. They are only latching on to his recent allegations to challenge the House leadership. “When he (Jibrin) came to us for votes as candidate for the office of Speaker, we didn’t support him. Even when he came back to talk to us to vote for Dogara, we still didn’t agree to follow him. So, he is just the man that blew up the matter and we are joining in to ask for a thorough investigation” the source said.
Secondly Jibrin’s call for the House to re-convene is a tall order as those he dubbed, the quartet are part of the 10 man House leadership which takes decision on the recall of members from their annual break. Besides, the lawmakers who looked forward to the holidays don’t sound keen on returning.
When the House resumes, there could be rowdy sessions over the budget scandal. Despite this, many believe that it is quite difficult to change the leadership of the House because Dogara will get the support of eight other principal officers. Although highly unlikely, if there is any need for voting for impeachment, the Speaker potentially has 192 votes made up of chairmen and vice-chairmen of Standing Committees. 240 votes are needed to remove the Speaker and he is more likely to sway people to his side as he has more bargaining chips.
Some lawmakers who spoke to Saturday Sun said there are those who will easily back the move to suspend Jibrin, but it might not fall through even with the notion that the new House rules give the Speaker sweeping powers.
Most of the aggrieved lawmakers who feel they have been shortchanged due to much lower allocations to their constituency projects may stand against Jibrin’s suspension to send a clear message to the Speaker.