It took forever before the Presidency presented the 2016 Appropriation Bill, aptly referred to as the Budget. This was after the generality of the public has demonstrated privately and publicly. However, in December 2015, the budget was finally presented to the National Assembly, and there begins the saga that has characterized the promulgation and passage of the 2016 Appropriation Bill.
On the said day, the President presented a N6.08 trillion budget before a joint session of the National Assembly. In his address to the lawmakers and Nigerians, he predicted a capital expenditure of N1.8trn, which is 30% of the total budget. President Buhari also announced that his administration would implement social welfare programmes to ease the suffering of “the poorest of the poor,” and that 500,000 graduate teachers would receive the jobs to teach in primary schools across Nigeria. This singular act gave Nigerians a flicker of hope to at least believe that the much touted change may soon begin to wear a human face.
However, events took a dramatic turn when the media were inundated with stories that the original version of the President’s budget has suddenly grown wings and disappeared. The incident created more comedy than reality as blames were traded from every quarter. The saga which most Nigerians thought has ended with the budget presentation just refreshed.
In reaction, some opposition senators accused the government of being behind the disappearance, but the President’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, denied the allegation, saying: “Once the budget is submitted, it ceases to be our property.”
As accusation and counter accusations continued to make the rounds, the public was surprised to hear from the Senate that the elusive budget has been found, in fact that it was never lost.
Ali Ndume, the Senate leader, denied that the budget was missing as Bukola Saraki, the Senate President visited the President based on how the passage of the budget can be fast-tracked. He said: “The budget cannot be missing. One copy can be laid; it is a symbolic copy. The budget will be in custody of both chambers, it cannot be stolen, and it cannot be missing. Once the budget is laid in the National Assembly, it has become the property of the National Assembly.
“What is before the Senate is proposal, once the President signed it, it cannot be amended, we can turn the budget upside down, it cannot be missing, if it is online you can produce the budget how can it be missing,” he said.
Doubts about the so called missing budget became more pungent when Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe representing Abia South, demanded explanation from Bukola Saraki, the Senate President to Nigerians.
As the saga unfolds, an anonymous Nigerian, who seems to have spoken the minds of generality of Nigerians said: “Not surprised. We have been used to hearing news of billions of dollars missing. News of a mere budget sheet getting missing shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Nigeria is a joke!”
As events unfold, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, said the copy of the N6, 08 trillion budget made available to the Senate was different from the original copy presented by Buhari in December last year. Saraki later explained that the Senate had in its possession two versions of the 2016 Appropriation Bill: one from the President and the other with some “adjustments” from Ita Enang. This scenario made the President’s aid a culprit in the whole saga. He however, failed to comment, describing the entire issue as ‘sensitive’.
In his version, a former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Prof. Charles Soludo, revealed that the budget presented by the Buhari administration is one and the same presented by the former administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
Unconfirmed sources also alleged that the missing budget saga is a furtherance of the Senate/APC debacle which came up as a result of the misunderstanding between the two parties over the leadership of the House. Sources said that the Presidency is still brewing bad blood against the Senate President while the Senate President is scheming to discredit the administration. Both titans, the source continued, are locked in a battle of the winner takes it all.
But like a bolt out of the blues, the whole nation was to wake one morning to hear one more time that the ‘missing budget’ has been found. In fact, a section of the administration claimed it was never missing, and that the whole thing was a hoax orchestrated by mischief makers.
“You can imagine what the politicians take us for. For them to come out one second and claim that a document like the budget is missing, and returning shortly after to say there was nothing like that means that they don’t take us serious. It is really something else, and nobody can say anything,” complained a career consultant, Mr. Nwaocha Dike.
However, the fact that somebody has some questions to answer, or rather that someone somewhere was culpable regarding the whole was made clear when in a swift reaction President Mohammadu Buhari carried out a sweeping attack at the Budget Office, sacking the Director-General in the bargain. This singular effort proved to the whole nation that someone somewhere exhibited some abracadabra concerning the budget document.
With the return of the document back to the National Assembly, the real ‘government magic’ started. The members of the House were said to have started the unnecessary amendment of the budget, adding, removing and manipulating figures. Sources from NASS also alleged that most legislators were enticed to tamper with budget figures by some ministries, departments and agencies.
And after what looked like ‘thy kingdom come’, the members of the National Assembly passed the elusive budget, bringing to a halt events that lasted over four months or so some thought, until the document went back to the President for assent. And the saga resumes!
The new phase of the saga pitched the Legislature and the Executive in a battle of wits. While the Executive accused the Legislature of manipulation, the Legislature on their part, accused the Executive of two-timing. It was reported that President Muhammadu Buhari was stopped by ministers from signing the 2016 Appropriation Bill because of its “mutilation” by lawmakers. The lawmakers were accused of removing crucial capital projects from the document and inserting some items not originally included.
The Executive has pointed out that the Legislature, in passing the budget, removed a particular item which borders on the construction of Lagos – Calabar Rail line. The removal or rather omission, is the nation was made to believe, was prompted by the fact that the said item was smuggled in much later after the presentation and defence of the budget proposal.
The Minister in charge of the Ministry in question, Mr. Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi of the Transport Ministry, stoutly defended the fact that the item was in the budget right from the beginning, saying that he is unaware of the reasons behind its removal.
The accusation prompted the House of Representatives Appropriation Committee Chairman Abdulmumin Jibrin (APC Kano) to react angrily denouncing the executive for the report. He exonerated the lawmakers from any wrong doing.
“The Lagos-Calabar Rail was never included (in the budget estimates). How could NASS (National Assembly) have removed what was not there? But the nation is being misled.
“All they and those spreading the false information needed to have done was check the initial document sent by the Executive.
“The Executive seems to favour a top-down approach. But this is not enough reason to mislead Nigerians on the role of NASS on the budget.
“This is unfortunate as it is quite clear to all and sundry that 2016 Budget and all its headaches and controversies didn’t emanate from NASS.
“Take the budget of the Ministry of Transportation, which was overshot by N54 billion. That is, by the time you add up the items on the ministry’s budget, you would still have a gap of N54 billion. The money was lying there without being allocated. NASS has a responsibility, and it did the right thing. We added N39.7 billion (from the unallocated N54 billion) to the Lagos-Kano Rail project. This will help complete the project once and for all.”
Jibrin noted that N10 billion of the unallocated fund was added to aviation sector’s budget to provide airport navigation system and security apparatus. The balance, he said, was allocated to Baro Ports for its completion and equipping. “Baro Port is strategic to our economic development,” he tweeted.
The House Appropriation Committee chairman said the National Assembly found the budget of Ministry of Health as most controversial, criticising Minister Isaac Adewole for denying the ministry’s budget after it was represented by the executive.
He also accused the executive of discarding the input made to the 2016 Budget by the National Assembly, saying: “Some of our input, including special intervention for rural agriculture, payment of pension arrears, Rural Community Light project, special intervention for the Solid Mineral sector, special programmes for women, payment of debt owed local contractors, and another N50 billion for special training on Entrepreneurship for students of tertiary institutions pre-graduation, were discarded.
With the President trusting his Ministers as against the Legislatures, he failed to give assent to the document, and left for China to the chagrin and frustration of the Legislature. This, he did without a word on the issue under discussion.
In utter disappointment, the Senate issued a final warning to the Presidency on its dealings with the legislative branch of government, affirming that it would no longer tolerate the presidency blaming the legislature for its failures. The assertion which was a direct fallout from brickbats over the removal of the Calabar – Lagos rail project from the final budget, came as Presidency officials affirmed that the rail project was in the budget, but removed by the committees of Appropriation in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The claim which was stoutly rebuffed by the Senate and the House was, however, backed by Chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transport, Senator Gbenga Ashafa, who said the coastal rail project was in the budget report presented by his committee to the Senator Danjuma Goje-led committee on appropriation.
The Senate, in a show to save face, sternly urged President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the budget bill and not distract Nigerians from what it claimed were acts of blackmail on the part of the executive arm. The statement singled out Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi for blame, asking him to apologise for seeking to pitch one section of the country against the other and asked him to resign if he cannot show evidence of the inclusion of the projects in the original budget as presented by the President.
The statement issued by Senate spokesman, Senator Abdullahi read in part: “While the executive is mandated to prepare and lay before the National Assembly a proposed budget detailing projects to be executed, it should be made clear that the responsibility and power of appropriation lie with the National Assembly. If the presidency expects us to return the budget proposal to them without any adjustments, then some people must be living in a different era and probably have not come to terms with democracy. “We make bold to say, however, that the said Lagos-Calabar rail project was not included in the budget proposal presented to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari, and we challenge anyone who has any evidence to the contrary to present such to Nigerians.
“Since the beginning of the 2016 budget process, it is clear that the National Assembly has suffered all manners of falsehood, deliberate distortion of facts, and outright blackmail, deliberately aimed at poisoning the minds of the people against the institution of the National Assembly. We have endured this with equanimity in the overall interest of Nigerians. Even when the original submission was surreptitiously swapped and we ended up having two versions of the budget, which was almost incomprehensible and heavily padded in a manner that betrays lack of coordination and gross incompetence, we refused to play to the gallery and instead helped the Executive to manage the hugely embarrassing situation it has brought upon itself; but enough is enough.
“This latest antics of this particular minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, is reckless, uncalled for and dangerously divisive. Apart from setting the people of the southern part of the country against their northern compatriots, it potentially sets the people against their lawmakers from the concerned constituencies and sets the lawmakers against themselves. This manner of reprehensible mischief has no place in a democracy. We hereby demand from Mr. Amaechi a publicly tendered apology if he is not able to show evidence that the Lagos-Calabar rail project was included in the budget. Otherwise, he should resign forthwith.”
In a swift reaction, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Transport, Gbenga Ashafa, who many believed is in sympathy with The Transport Minister against his colleagues in the Senate stated thus:
“Without prejudice to the considerations and powers of the Senate Committee on Appropriations with regard to the appropriations process, the foregoing is the true reflection of what transpired at the committee level with respect to the Land Transport sector of the Ministry of Transport,” Ashafa said.
It is also postulated that besides geopolitical interests, the removal of the Lagos – Calabar rail project from Budget 2016 was done partly to spite Amaechi supposedly for distancing himself from his former colleagues in the Senate, notably Senators Bukola Saraki and Danjuma Goje.
“Amaechi was told by associates in the Senate that Goje was not happy with him and that he had teamed up with the Buhari people against his former colleagues in the Governors’ Forum,” Ashafa added.
However, Amaechi has agreed that he only defended the Lagos rail project during the Committee meeting, and not before the General NASS sitting. In another development, analysts have accused the legislators of scheming to pull the carpet under the President’s feet and ridicule him as the removal was done just as the President was going to China to negotiate loan for the takeoff of projects, of which the Lagos-Calabar Rail is one.
But of more worrisome, is the battle among the senators where Gbenga Ashafa is defending the Executives while Abdulmumuni Jibril is speaking on behalf of the Assembly members. From the submission of both men, it is obvious that there is a case being made for regions of interest.
However, as President Buhari continues to withdraw his assent, the Speaker of the House has called for a review of the budget to ascertain where things went wrong. This is as Nigerians continue to wait for the proposed ‘change’.
As the budget saga continues, the elephants continue to fight, and the proverbial grass continues to suffer.