Reps and the budget padding blues

The House of Representatives is in the eye of the storm in respect of the budget padding allegations ignited by former chairman of the Appropriation Committee, Honourable Abdulmumin Jibrin. Is it all a hoax or a corruption war? Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, attempts some answers.

A day before the National Assembly proceeded on the annual recess, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Yakubu Dogara, dropped a bombshell on the floor of the green chamber. He announced the removal of the chairman of House Committee on Appropriation, Honourable Abdulmumin Jibril, whom he said had approached him earlier in the day to tender a verbal resignation, after the leadership of the House had decided to sack him. There was no doubting the fact that the decision would claim some further casualties. And the events afterwards did not disappoint.

The position of chairman of Appropriation Committee either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives is one that comes with so much influence. The Appropriation committee, being the one that oversights all the standing committees in the appropriation process is a big one. The chairman in some sense is seen as alternate presiding officer and is respected as such. He is usually the alter ego of the presiding officers, as the parliament’s power of appropriation is considered its most potent weapon.

Hon. Jibril played a major role in the emergence of Speaker Dogara. So his emergence as Appropriation Committee chairman did not come as a surprise to his colleagues. Right now, the centre is no longer holding between the Speaker and his ally as the public space has, in the past two weeks, been dominated by so much bad blood coming out of the two camps.

Jibril has accused the House leadership, especially the quartet of Speaker Yakubu Dogara, his deputy, Lasun Yusuf, House Whip, Alhassan Doguwa  and Minority Leader, Leo Ogor, of hijacking the budget process and doctoring the Budget document to the tune of over N400 billion.

It was a strange allegation that many had initially taken with a pinch of salt. Many who listened to Jibril’s submissions initially came with the mindset of why it took him so long.  Many were quick to link the hell being raised to Jibril’s anger to the loss of the plum committee job. But the Kano lawmaker moved quickly to dominate the media space. He launched several attacks on the social and traditional media, with daily press statements, which revealed parts of the budget padding deals.

With a bit of razzmatazz, with which he was introduced to the Speakership race in 2015, Jibril soon gained attention. What was initially dismissed as “bad belle” soon started gaining attention of both the political and economically minded and it soon became a matter of national importance. As of the last count, the APC had to wade in by calling on Jibrin to stop further commens, but this was only after he had forwarded petitions to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the police and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC). The police have indeed waded into the matter with invitations extended to the leadership of the House.


Jibril’s allegations

The allegations by Hon. Jibril go deep into the workings of the House. Some carry elements of deep personal animosity against the Speaker and the named principal officers, while others tend to showcase the Kano legislator as an anti-corruption crusader. Besides alleging that the 2016 appropriation process was hijacked by the four principal officers, he also alleged favouritism by the Speaker against certain committee chairmen in the House. His four main complaints include:

“ONE: During the budget period, when they discovered that I was not the kind of a person they could use to perpetrate their illegality, Mr. Speaker and the three other principal officers took away the entire Appropriation Committee secretariat to a secret location where all sort of insertions were made into the budget. The blackmail has always been—“Abdul, people will laugh at you if anything goes wrong between you and Dogara, because of the lead role you played and the many toes you stepped on to get him elected. It’s been a painful experience.

“Again the secretariat was taken away from me on Speaker Dogara’s instruction for the second time to a location I don’t know and all sort of insertions into the budgets were made and returned to me for signature…

“TWO: When the budget harmonisation committee headed by Deputy Speaker Yusuf gave out 80 per cent concession across board to the executive demands during the harmonisation negotiation, it was agreed that the remaining 20 per cent 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 a few hours and in an unprecedented display of greed, presented to me a handwritten note distributing the remaining 20 per cent to only principal officers. 70 per cent of the 20 per cent was reserved for Mr. Speaker and himself [Deputy Speaker] while the remaining 30 per cent of the 20 per cent went to other principal officers. I am sure he will recognise the hand writing when he sees it. My colleagues didn’t know all of these.

THREE:  Mr. Speaker also directed me to create what I advised him would be a controversial line item under service wide vote to introduce about N20 billion project using the name of NASS. He directed me to see a highly-placed PDP member, which I did and collected the documents. I advised him repeatedly against it but he kept pressuring me until I bluntly told him I would not!

“FOUR: When the Appropriation Committee received all the budget reports from standing committees, an analysis was conducted. We discovered that only about 10 chairmen out of the 96 Standing Committees of the House introduced about 2,000 projects without the knowledge of their committee members amounting to about N284, 000, 000, 000 (Two hundred and eighty-four billion naira). I was alarmed. But I was cautious, because at our pre-budget meeting with the committee chairmen, I was clearly warned not to touch their budgets. I reported the matter to the speaker. He did nothing about it, obviously because he was working behind the scene with the committee chairmen.

“That was the beginning of the whole budget problem from the side of the House and the whole exercise had to go through several versions before it was passed,” Jibrin’s allegations had stated.

He further submitted that Dogara had derailed and kept on with an unmatched ego and “surely leading the House to the biggest scandal it may ever experience,” adding that “he has failed to live above the fog in public duty and private thinking.”

He contended that his allegations are against the four principal officers and not the entire House of Representatives. But the House had largely attempted to shield the Speaker from a direct confrontation with Jibrin by ensuring that those who joined issues with Jibrin did so on behalf of the House. Political watchers of the development stated that the logic behind this move “is simple,” noting that it would be suicidal to allow the Speaker and the four principal officers get isolated since the belief is that whatever they did was done on behalf of the House.”


The House fights back

But the House in its official response to Jibrin insisted that his statements and allegations were afterthoughts and were informed by his bitterness at being removed as Appropriation Committee chair.

The House, in a statement by its spokesman, Abdulrazak Namdas, accused Jibrin of making unsubstantiated claims. The statement indicated that Jibrin was sacked as chairman of Appropriations Committee in accordance with the decision of the leadership of the chamber, adding that his removal had nothing to do with his opposition to the proposed immunity clause for presiding officers.

The statement read: “Our attention has been down to media statements made by the former Chairman of House Appropriation Committee, Hon. Abdulmumuni Jibrin, wherein he made wild allegations against the House of Representatives and its leaders.

“We wish to say that it is the prerogative of the Selection Committee of the House to appoint and remove committee chairmen. That power has been so exercised in the case of Honourable Abdulmumin Jibrin as chairman of Appropriation Committee. Most of the allegations on the 2016 budget process and his opposition to immunity of presiding officers are non-issues and mere afterthought manufactured simply because the House relieved him of his position.

“If he had all these ‘facts’ before, why didn’t he make them public? Why is he doing that now? Honourable Abdulmumin Jibrin, like any other member of the House, knows that there are conventions and precedents as it relates to budgets and projects for principal officers of the National Assembly. Why is he making it an issue now? In any case, he is entitled to his opinion as a Nigerian and as a legislator while acting within the laws of Nigeria and rules of the House.

The House had noted that Jibrin’s allegations were a distraction to the House, stating that “he should not distract the House from giving legislative support on important issues facing the government concerning the revival of the economy, insecurity in the country, pursuit of anti-corruption measures, poverty alleviation, infrastructural development and so on. Nigerians are simply not ready to waste their time on personal issues and personal egos of our leaders. We should face the urgent tasks before us for which we were elected.”

Minority Leader of the House, Hon. Leo Ogor, had also described Jibrin’s allegations as “inconsequential,” adding that the Kano legislature was crying foul because he was denied of the plum job.

He said: “You can read the lines; he has actually lost his committee and I believe that is the issue. Why didn’t he make available these allegations all along? This is the question you need to answer. How come he was the one that addressed the issue of this budget on a television station and accused the Presidency and the executive in respect of issues that border on the budget. Today, he is singing a different tune and I think he is good at singing different tunes anyway.”


The padding controversy

Though the APC said on Thursday that the parties to the brickbats should suspend the battle, Jibrin’s allegations are already in the marketplace. There is the issue of “padding,” “insertions” or “reckless insertions” already being chewed from different sides. The questions Jibrin’s agitation has thrown up include; was the 2016 budget padded? By who and at what point? Can the police, EFCC or DSS investigate padding and how do you justify the offence of padding against a lawmaker?

Sections 80, 81, 82 and 83 of the 1999 Constitution as amended set out the powers of the National Assembly over public funds. Through those sections, the parliament is empowered to appropriate funds for the smooth running of the government. With a combination of the Appropriation Laws and the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the National Assembly designs procedures by which public funds are to be approved.

It thus means that it is only through procedures designed by the National Assembly with strict adherence to the constitution that the appropriation process can emerge.

But with Jibrin and other commentators having defined “padding” as illegal or reckless insertions into a document without authorisation, it means that budget padding can only take place outside the glare of the House plenary.

Constitutional lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome , who appeared on a Channels Television programme on Friday, said that padding is a technical word that is difficult to concretise. He said that since the National Assembly has the power of the purse, it cannot be accused of padding a budget during the processes leading to the approval of the budget estimates. During that process, figures are to be bandied around. There would be horse-trading and discussions at the legislative and executive levels. The compromise figures would eventually get inserted into the budget document.

According to Ozekhome, only the agreed figures make it to the House plenary where the final estimates are approved and passed as the national budget.

The lawyer, however, insisted that any insertion of figures not agreed to during the process of appropriation or not seen at the approval stage in the plenary can be described as forgery, padding or criminal insertions. Of a truth, the process instituted by the National Assembly since the restart of democratic rule includes; the president initiating and submitting budget estimates, the Assembly receiving the budget and committing the same to the Standing Committees after the Second Reading, which features the debates on general principles of the budget document. The committees serve as sub-committees of the Appropriations Committee at that stage. After all, the committees have met with the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) under their oversight during budget defence sessions, they appear before the Committee on Appropriations to defend the submissions and figures are collated for presentation to the chamber for the third and final reading, where the document is passed. After the passage, the Senate President and the Speaker may have to set up a harmonisation committee, called the Conference Committee to harmonise the disjointed figures and produce a clean copy of the budget for presentation to the Clerk to the National Assembly, who will further present the same to the legal department of the Assembly before he forwards it for presidential assent.

According to Acts Authentication Act, only the signature of the president of the country and the Clerk to the National Assembly are to appear at the end of a bill to signify its passage into law.

So, the question being asked by those informed in the workings of the National Assembly, answers to which have been considered necessary at this period, are; at which stage in this winding process can anyone say padding, insertion or forgery has taken place? That is the question Jibril and members of the Integrity Group in the House are inviting the police, EFCC and ICPC to interrogate. However, considering the way the 2016 budget got passed for presidential assent, the security outfits could have a huge task on their hands, analysts have argued. This, they said, was in view of the fact that the 2016 budget is the first to be subjected to an extraordinary committee of the National Assembly and the Budget Office, which further sat to review the document after its passage, it could be difficult to ascertain at what stage “insertions” or “padding” actually crept in.