By Fred Itua, Abuja
THE Senate is finally establishing its strong footing. Though belated, it has however started sending strong signals to the right quarters that it is an independent arm and does not need close marking by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Since it resumed from its annual recess, the Senate has taken some bold steps and made loud statements. Pundits who have keenly followed the metamorphosis of the Red Chamber since it was inaugurated on the 9th of June, 2015, are divided on what it portends for the nation’s political space.
A timid and tamed Senate which incurred frequent abuses from a cross section of Nigerians, is calling the presidency’s bluff. Despite the pending trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over alleged under-declaration of assets when he held sway as governor of Kwara state between 2003 and 2011, lawmakers are beginning to challenge requests and memos from the presidency which hitherto were passed without any hitches.
In 2015, the Senate had two golden opportunities to take its pound of flesh from the presidency, but looked the other way. First, it seamlessly approved the 36 Ministerial list, despite strong opposition from some state governments.
Again, it passed the 2016 budget without any serious fight before the famous padding scandal inundated the exercise. It also approved budgets of various departments and agencies of government. For long, the Senate tried in vain to curry the favour of the presidency just to drop the CCT trial of Saraki.
The servant-master relationship is now history. Lawmakers, drawn from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), have returned to the trenches, with a common goal to scrutinize and when necessary, defeat any request from the executive arm of government.
The Senate took its first pound of flesh in July when President Buhari forwarded the name of the controversial chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ibrahim Magu to it for screening and confirmation. The letter which was sent to the Upper Legislative Chamber in June, was eventually read in July.
Since then, the leadership of the Senate has been silent on the confirmation of Magu. The committee saddled with the responsibility of vetting Magu has not submitted its report. Frequent visits by Magu to the Senate and intense lobbying on his behalf by the presidential liason officer, Senator Ita Enang have not swayed lawmakers.
For Magu, its still a long walk to freedom. Magu’s problem is being further compounded by his alleged role in the ongoing trial of Saraki. It is believed that the EFCC under Magu’s watch is furnishing the Federal Government with materials used in the prosecution of the Senate President. Pundits believe that his confirmation maybe tied to the acquittal of Saraki by the CCT.
In the same July, President Buhari forwarded names of 47 career ambassadorial nominees to the Senate for screening and confirmation. The list was greeted with criticisms and outcry from Senators who protested the exclusion of their states from the list. Though the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs has concluded the screening exercise, the final report has not been laid on the floor for debate.
Again, the non-confirmation of the nominees by the Senate, is seen by some observers as another power game between the presidency and the Senate. The battle of supremacy is not primarily between President Buhari and Saraki, but between the Senate and the Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Babachir David Lawal.
The SGF is playing a key role in the travails of Saraki. At various instances, he has called for the resignation of Saraki and Ekweremadu over their alleged involvement in the forgery of Senate Standing Rules in 2015. Again, the SGF openly told lawmakers that their 2016 constituency projects captured in the budget will not be funded by the Federal Government. His perceived sins against the Senate are endless.
The last two events since September are clear pointers to the rough ride which lies ahead for the presidency, vis-a-vis, the executive arm of government.
Since 1999, the executive and the legislature have both been at loggerheads over the manner the yearly budget is being handled. The controversy has also claimed casualties from both the legislature and the executive. Fabian Osuji, Minister of Education was sacked in 2005 when he was accused of bribing members of the National Assembly to pass a favourable budget for his Ministry. The then Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara was also compelled to step down following his alleged role in the imbroglio.
During the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan, the House of Representatives and the executive had a frosty relationship over the same budget palaver. The then Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the leadership of the House of Representatives, headed by Aminu Tambuwal never agreed on the modus operandi adopted by the executive.
The same controversy delayed the early passage of the 2016 budget. A budget that was laid before both chambers of the National Assembly in December of 2016, was passed into law in April. For months, the executive and the legislature were locked in a battle of supremacy.
This time, the early warning signs ahead of the presentation of the 2017 budget is coming from the leadership of the Senate. Leader of the Senate, Senator Ali Ndume on the 19th of October, 2016, wrote a letter to the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Udoma Udo Udoma, summoning him to appear before the leadership of the Red Chamber and explain certain grey areas in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and the Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) sent to lawmakers by President Muhammadu Buhari on the 30th of September, 2016.
With the summoning of the Minister, the Senate has put on hold, the proposed debate of MTEF and FSP which ought to have kicked off last Tuesday. President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, had a fortnight, told lawmakers that the Upper Legislative Chamber was to commence debate on the MTEF/FSP in order to ensure it is given speedy passage in line with its economic revival agenda.
The MTEF and FSP provide the framework for the 2017 budget. The initial proposed early listing of the MTEF/FSP for debate in Senate was to fast-rack its consideration and passage so as to pave way for President Muhammadu Buhari to present the 2017 Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly.
Some of the fiscal projections in the 2017 – 2019 MTEF/FSP which lawmakers had dwell on, the proposed 2017 crude oil benchmark of $42.5 per barrel, up from $30 in the 2016 budget and the estimated N7.775 trillion as revenue to be generated from the oil resources considering the $42.5 per barrel benchmark and an estimated 2.2 million barrel per day oil production.
In the letter of summon sent to the Minister, the Senate is requesting for the draft copy of the Medium Term Development Plan, upon which the 2017-2019 MTEF is founded. It is also seeking a comprehensive report on the implementation of the 2016 budget as at 30th of September, 2016.
“All fiscal rates, taxes, charges used to derive the projected revenue in the 2017-2019 MTEF. A report on the structure/composition of the debt, funding, sources, how the borrowed funds are to be spent, as well as repayment plan and schedule,” Ndume on behalf of the Senate leadership, demanded in the letter.
Ndume’s letter reads in full: “Following the letter from his Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, dated 30th o September, 2016, forwarding the 2017-2019 MTEF and FSP, the Senate has begun work on the consideration of the document.
“Preliminary review suggests that the thrust of 2017-2019 MTEF and FSP, which is to reflate the economy out of recession to a sustainable and inclusive growth path, is based on the aspirations of this present administration as being articulated in the 2016-2019 Medium Term Development Plan.
“In addition, it is envisaged that the reflation of the economy will be achieved through increased capital spending in target sectors which will be financed through a stronger non-oil revenue drive, as well as increased borrowing.
“To enable the Senate objectively review the MTEF from a holistic fiscal perspective, we deem it necessary to invite you to a meeting to brief the leadership of the Senate on Tuesday, 1st November, 2016 at the National Assembly by 2pm.”
Again, the Senate, without mincing words, rejected Buhari’s 2016-2018 External Borrowing Rolling Plan request of N29.96 billion. Though lawmakers were silent on two key issues, findings by our correspondent, revealed that the Senate rejected the President’s request because of the non-attachment of the breakdown of the $29.9 billion external borrowing plan to the letter sent to the Senate.
The second reason, it was gathered, was based on the refusal of President Buhari to send Federal Government’s 2016-2018 borrowing plan contained in the last paragraph of the letter.
“The President in the letter said there was an attachment containing the breakdown of the external loan request. But there is no attachment. President Buhari did not attach the breakdown. There is no way we can consider such a request.
“Secondly, the president has not sent Federal Government’s 2016-2018 borrowing plan to the Senate. That ought to have been sent first for consideration and passage before this request. If we consider this request, how do we do that? These are the obvious reasons. There is no political undertone here,” a lawmaker told our correspondent.
Part of the first paragraph under dispute reads: “I wish to refer to the above subject and to submit the attached draft of Federal Government 2016-2018 External Borrowing (Rolling) Plan for consideration and early approval by the National Assembly to ensure prompt implementation of the projects…”
The last paragraph under dispute reads: “…it has become inevitable to request for the National Assembly leadership approval pending the consideration and approval of the 2016-2118 borrowing plan by the National Assembly to enable us disburse these funds immediately.”
Making further clarification on the rejection, Leader of the Senate, Ndume told Senate correspondents: “I was shocked. I think it was defeated on technical grounds. I will try and reintroduce it again. We must not throw the baby and the bad water away. It ought to have been referred to the relevant committee, but because of the omission of some things, it was rejected.
“We expect them to include the things. There is nothing to worry about. We will do what is right. We will look at it on the basis of merit. We will do this as the best way we can. Those things that are necessary will be included.”
Reacting to the rejection, the Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters (Senate) to the President, Senator Ita Enang, said concerns raised will be addressed.
He added that the loan request will be represented to the Senate. According to him, the Economic Team of President Buhari was already working to put everything in place.
Enang said: “We are not disputing with the distinguished Senate. There are certain information and details which will enable them to consider in detail and appropriately the request of Mr. President as contained in the plan.
“So, we are collating that information. The Budget Office of the Federation, the Debt Management Office, the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Minister of Finance and the Economic Team are collating the information so that they can be submitted to the Senate to enable them take the appropriate decision.
“We would be engaging the Senate. We will not be disputing with them, but we will be engaging with them. When we present a matter before the legislature, is for them to consider and as they have considered, more information is needed. They are entitled to that information.”
The fate of 46 non-career ambassadorial nominees recently forwarded by Buhari to the Senate may also suffer a fatal blow. A pointer to this played out on Tuesday. If Saraki had not vetoed his colleagues, the consideration of the ambassadorial nominees’ list would have suffered the same fate with the loan request.
It is however too early to predict what will play out in the weeks, months and years to come. Whether or not the executive and legislative arms will call for truce and relate as equal partners is unknown yet. For now, it’s a far cry from Uhuru.