Wednesday

Senate in rowdy session, vows not to revisit budget

The Senate, after a rowdy closed session on Tuesday, said it would not revisit the 2016 budget it had passed, asking President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the document as transmitted to him.

The Senate spokesperson, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, who stated this while addressing journalists on what transpired at the closed session, said Buhari was free to send a supplementary budget to the National Assembly after signing the document.


But while the Senate was insisting on Buhari signing the budget, there were indications that the House of Representatives was awaiting the President’s explanations for not assenting to the 2016 Appropriation Bill as passed by the National Assembly.

The House, it was gathered, had yet to take a position on whether the National Assembly should veto the bill or not, if Buhari declines to sign the budget.

The Senate spokesman said the upper chamber, during the closed session, resolved not to revisit the issue of the budget which had already been passed.

He said, “The Senate resolved at the close session that we have completed work on the 2016 budget and would not go back on what had been passed.”

The PUNCH had, on Monday, exclusively reported that the President had shunned an offer by the National Assembly that he should sign the budget as passed before sending a supplementary appropriation bill.

A top government official had, on Monday, explained why the President would not sign the budget in its present state.

“It is dangerous for the President to sign now and negotiate later. The lawmakers may turn round later to accuse him of non-implementation of the budget and begin the process of removing him from office,” he had said.

But the Senate spokesman stated that the lawmakers had agreed that Buhari should sign the document and then send a supplementary budget, which would include projects not appropriately captured by the legislature.

Abdullahi stated that contrary to reports in the media, there were no controversies on the budget, adding that the Senate was not threatening any arm of government or  individual.

He stated, “We went into an executive session, which is the normal practice to welcome one another and discuss the burning issues on the ground, in this case, the issue of the 2016 budget and the smooth working of the Senate and the National Assembly.

“The constitution has taken note of this kind of scenario where you may have omissions or shortfalls of allocations and the constitution is very clear on what you need to do, which is to sign the budget and then submit a supplementary appropriation.

“I want to assure you that the Senate is not unmindful of the cries of Nigerians that we said, for example, that the Calabar-Lagos rail project was not in the budget does not in any way, undermine the fact that it is a very  important project for this nation to embark on.

“So, the National Assembly, the Senate, is open. If the executive brings a supplementary appropriation with respect to this and any other issue that its feels very strongly about, we are ready and willing to consider such but the most important point to note is that we want to remain guided by the provisions of the constitution.”

According to him, there is the need to address the issue of budget in time so that the government can deliver the dividends of democracy such as youth employment, the empowerment of women and the social intervention programmes.

When The PUNCH asked him what the upper chamber would do if Buhari insisted on not signing the budget, he stated, “The Senate will take appropriate action, if the President fails to sign the budget. I cannot say what the decision of the Senate will be on an issue that has not been discussed.”

At the closed session on Tuesday, senators shouted on one another while discussing the public outcry that had greeted the transmission of the 2016 budget details to the executive by the Appropriation Committees of both chambers of the National Assembly last week.

One of our correspondents learnt that trouble started when the federal lawmakers were reviewing the various issues that were generated as a result of the action during the one hour executive session.

A Senator, who confided in one of our correspondents, said the loyalists of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, drew the attention of the lawmakers to a statement signed by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Land Transport, Gbenga Ashafa, on the Calabar-Lagos rail project.

They allegedly accused Ashafa of issuing a statement, which contradicted the position of the appropriation committee on the project when he was not a member of the media committee.

It was learnt that they asked the Senate leadership to caution Ashafa against issuing such a statement in the future.

Those who supported the position of the Lagos East Senator were said to have instantly objected to the request of the pro-appropriation committee senators.

The pro-Ashafa lawmakers were said to have faulted the statement by the Senate spokesperson, claiming that the language he used was “unparliamentary” and could not have represented, in any way, the position of a revered institution like the Senate.

The Senate President was said to have calmed the frayed nerves by asking the Senators to align with the position of the appropriation committee on the issue and that only the spokesman should henceforth speak officially to journalists on the budget issue.

Saraki was said to have cautioned Abdullahi and asked him to henceforth carry members of his media committee along whenever he wanted to issue statements on sensitive issues on behalf of the Senate.

Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives are unsure of what further actions to take on the 2016 budget until they have received the President’s reasons for refusing to sign the fiscal bill.

Findings on Tuesday showed that members resolved to be notified of the President’s reasons to decide whether to accept them or override his veto.

The House had, on Monday, specifically advised Buhari to return the controversial N6.06tn budget, clearly stating the reasons he would not sign it.

One senior official told The PUNCH that members were already waiting for the return of the document.

The official stated, “You don’t ask me what the House will do to the budget because we have not heard from the President.

“He has not told us his reasons formally as required by Section 59 of the 1999 Constitution.

“When returning the budget, there will usually be a covering letter, detailing his reasons. Until we see the reasons, it is difficult to say which way to go.”

There were contradictory claims on where the budget was on Tuesday, with a source saying it had been returned to the National Assembly while another one stated that it was still with the executive.

But the Leader of the House, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, in a terse response, said he was not aware if the budget had been returned to the National Assembly.

“I am not aware of this. Not as of the time I left the building,” he told The PUNCH.

As of 9pm on Tuesday, many members said Buhari had yet to return the budget.

Another principal officer said, “I have not seen the budget; he has not returned it to my knowledge.

“But, if he has indeed forwarded it, it may still be in transit, which means the speaker can get it tomorrow morning and read the covering letter to members on the floor on Wednesday (today).”

The Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Abdulrazak Namdas, claimed that he was in touch with the office of the Speaker, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, which had no information on the return of the budget.

“Nothing like that yet; the budget has not been returned. We have not seen it,” Namdas added.

A source at the speaker’s office told The PUNCH that returning the budget did not require much energy.

“A despatch from the Presidency can get to the National Assembly within minutes.

“This means that a letter can even get to the National Assembly between 7am and 10am tomorrow (Wednesday) and still be read to members by 11am,” the source said.

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, said, “The question of the President returning the budget to the National Assembly has not arisen. He is still taking his time to study the details. The days allowed for him to do this by law have not elapsed.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Government on Tuesday insisted that the Calabar-Lagos rail project was part of the 2016 budget submitted by the executive to the National Assembly.

The Minister of Budget and National Planning, Mr Udo Udoma, made the clarification in a statement by his Media Adviser, Mr James Akpandem.

The minister, in the statement, admitted that while the Budget Office made some errors while preparing the 2016 budget, these errors were corrected by the ministry before they were submitted to the relevant committees of the National Assembly.

The statement read in part, “However, it will be recalled that the Budget Office made a number of errors in the initial proposals of a number of ministries. These errors were all corrected by the Ministry of Budget and National Planning and the corrected versions were submitted to the relevant committees of the National Assembly.

“This included that of the Ministry of Transportation.  The amended Ministry of Transportation budget was accepted by the relevant committees and that was the version defended by the Minister of Transportation and his team.”
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