Budget: Amaechi in the eye of a storm as Calabar-Lagos rail project triggers spat

By The Rainbow
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On December 22, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari laid the much awaited 2016 Appropriation Bill before a joint session of the National Assembly. The record N6.07 trillion budget, the first by the Buhari administration, was highly anticipated with millions of Nigerians hoping that it would provide the elixir to the floundering economy.

Predicated on an oil benchmark of $38 per barrel, oil production of 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day, and exchange rate of N197 to the dollar, the budget included revenue estimates of 3.86 trillion and a deficit of 2.22 trillion which the executive arm of government proposed would be funded by a combination of domestic and foreign borrowings of N1.84 trillion.

Hinging the budget on increased spending on critical infrastructure projects, the executive increased the capital expenditure portion of the budget from N557 billion in the 2015 budget to N1.8 trillion in the 2016 budget. Effectively, for the first time in years, capital expenditure was to represent 30 per cent of the total budget.

But despite the emphasis on infrastructure, one project that was never included by the executive was the Calabar-Lagos railway project.

Following Buhari's presentation of the budget, the first red flag on the 2016 Appropriation Bill was raised a few weeks later by the Senate. It declared that the bill had disappeared into thin air.

About 48 hours after the alarm raised over the “disappearance” of the budget, Buhari was to write to the National Assembly admitting that the budget had been withdrawn and an amended version presented to the National Assembly for proper legislative work to start on the budget.

Again, the amended version did not have a line item for the Calabar-Lagos railway project.

But work on the amended budget that was submitted by the executive was to run into another hitch. At this juncture it was discovered that the 2016 Appropriation Bill was riddled with embarrassing errors, omissions and padding of the kind never witnessed before in Nigeria.

Given the apparent errors and discrepancies in the budget estimates, the National Assembly gave itself more time to work with the executive arm of government to clean up the budget in order to pass one that could stand the test of time and was implementable.

It was at this stage that the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi decided to include the Calabar-Lagos rail project by presenting a supplementary budget from his ministry to the Senate Committee on Land Transport.

But in his “exuberance” to include this all-important project to the Senate committee, Amaechi, it was discovered, did so without the express approval of President Buhari.

Acting in collusion with the Senate Committee of Land Transport led by Senator Gbenga Ashafa, and possibly its counterpart committee in the House of Representatives, N60 billion was set aside for the Calabar-Lagos rail project, and the proposal sent to the two Committees of Appropriation of the National Assembly.

But the two committees were not prepared to be parties to the inclusion of a supplementary budget that was never included in both the original and amended budgets presented by Buhari to the National Assembly.

Acting in accordance with the powers vested in the National Assembly by the 1999 Constitution on the power of appropriation, the two committees left out the Calabar-Lagos rail project from the 2016 budget, as was the intendment of the executive arm of government.

It was with this knowledge that the Senate yesterday discarded all vestiges of civility, warning the presidency to put paid to its “hide and seek game” with respect to the Appropriation Bill and stop engaging in what it described as “surreptitious campaigns of calumny against the Senate in order to cover up its shortcomings”.

But sensing that it may have worn thin the patience of the National Assembly, the presidency was quick to clarify that Buhari did not reject the budget, stating that reports in this regard were unfounded.

The Senate, in a statement by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, said the executive lacked the moral high ground to sustain its persistent attacks against the National Assembly in view of the flaws which characterised the 2016 budget.

According to him, the National Assembly had to bend over backwards to produce a meaningful document out of the excessively flawed and chaotic versions of the budget proposals submitted to it by the president.

The Senate also accused the presidency of gross incompetence in the preparation of the budget, adding that the document was highly embarrassing and characterised by errors, omissions and inconsistencies, which it said the National Assembly helped it to clean up.

The parliament took exception to what it described as the unwarranted attitude of the presidency to set the public against the National Assembly, stressing that the power of appropriation rests with it.

The Senate also took a swipe at the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, whom it accused of orchestrating the latest allegations with respect to the alleged removal of the Calabar-Lagos rail project from the budget.

It described the minister's antics as reckless, uncalled for and dangerously divisive and asked him to tender an unreserved apology for the allegations or resign.

The statement read: “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 lies 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 had 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 road project was included in the budget. Otherwise, he should resign forthwith.

“Finally, by the provisions of Section 81(4)(a) and (b) of the constitution, the president is allowed to sign the budget and kick-start the implementation of the other areas that constitute over 90 percent of the budget where there is agreement between both arms, even as we engage ourselves to resolve the contentious areas, if there were any.

“We therefore maintain that even these contrived discrepancy is not sufficient excuse not to sign the budget into law.

“We therefore urge President Buhari to sign the 2016 budget without any further delay. For every additional day that the president withholds his assent from the bill, the hardship in the land, which is already becoming intolerable for the masses of our people gets even more complicated.

“Certainly, as primary representatives of the people we shall not vacate our responsibility and watch the people continue to suffer unduly.”

But before the Senate came out swinging on all cylinders against the executive, it had earlier yesterday stoutly rejected allegations that it expunged the Calabar-Lagos rail project from the budget, insisting that the project was never included in the Appropriation Bill in the first instance.

Briefing the press, the House of Representatives insisted that the rail project in question was not included in the budget estimates presented to the National Assembly by Buhari.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Abdulrazak Namdas explained that the lawmakers could not have worked on any document brought before them for appropriation by any person other than the president.

He said this in allusion to reports that Amaechi presented the Calabar-Lagos rail project budget to the lawmakers during the budget defence process and asked that it be accommodated.

He however clarified that the president could send a list of items he wants in the budget, even without its assent, to the lawmakers.

“The principal officers would look at it,” Namdas said.

Flanked by the media aides to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Turaki Hassan and Mr. Iliyasu Habila, Namdas, who also displayed copies of the budget of the Ministry of Transportation, said report that the project was removed and the funding allocated to the Calabar-Lagos rail project appropriated for the completion of the Lagos-Kano rail project was mischievous and intended to set the southern and northern parts of the country against each other.

“Let's be clear, we do not receive budgets from ministers… it is on record that some people lost their jobs as a result the budget, the executive itself admitted some bureaucrats padded the budget,” he said.

“We are ready to work with the president, and so far there is nothing to suggest that Mr. President has refused to sign, but when it comes, we would take care of it.”

Also speaking to THISDAY on the issue, the Chairman of the Committee on Public Petitions, Hon. Nkem Abonta (Abia PDP) stressed that the National Assembly has the constitutional right to remove or add to budget estimates presented to it by the executive.

“The minister has said he brought it (Calabar-Lagos rail project) during the budget defence, meaning it was not part of the estimates submitted. If we had included it, would it not amount to padding?” he asked.

Abonta advised the president to assent to the budget, and then send a supplementary budget for areas he feels were not properly captured in the 2016 Appropriation Bill.

Abonta also wondered why the National Assembly was being fingered in the controversy surrounding the removal of the rail project.

“They said we removed it, the minister said he brought it, so are there two budgets?” Abonta asked, noting that the president's first outing on budget had shown that he cannot rely on civil servants.

“We are a budget writing legislature, the moment you submit or lay the budget before the National Assembly, it becomes the document of the National Assembly and it has the right to rewrite, remove, adjust or add to the document according to the wishes and aspirations of the people,” Abonta said.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumim in a series of tweets on Sunday had also insisted that the project was not included in the 2016 budget laid before the legislature by the president.

Also yesterday, the Senate accused the executive of crying wolf where there was none, insisting that N80 billion allegedly allocated to Lagos-Calabar rail project was not contained in the 2016 budget.

Similarly, during his briefing, Senator Abdullahi said the document was there for everyone to verify, adding that the budget was passed in the overall interest of Nigeria.

He said: “At the end of the day, we came up with a project in the overall interest of Nigeria. If anything, I want to believe that the National Assembly has been magnanimous and we have been patriotic in the way we approached and handled the 2016 budget.

“You will recall like we said that I have not seen the reactions, we have not seen the details of whatever their comments are on the budget.

“Whatever it is, the Lagos-Calabar rail was not even included in the budget that was submitted to us. It was not there, so how come suddenly we were the ones being asked about the project. I think these are questions that we should ask and I think the Minister of Transportation should address them.

“The document (the budget) is a public document, as all of you have access to it. You can also verify this and like the Senate and House Committee Chairmen on Appropriation said, you should go and verify the document that was with us and bring it out and show us where it was included in the budget.

“I think to my mind, budget is an instrument that should be dear to all Nigerians and it was our duty to ensure that fairness is achieved; that is why the constitution makes it clear that in doing that, we must ensure we must show fairness to every segment of this country.”

However, more information was brought to light monday on what transpired with respect to the Calabar-Lagos rail project, when a senior official in the presidency disclosed that its omission from the budget was caused by the Budget Office.

This came as the Chairman on the Senate Committee on Land Transport, Senator Gbenga Ashafa confirmed yesterday in a press statement that Amaechi did inform the committee of the omission of the Lagos-Calabar rail project and sent a supplementary copy of the ministry's budget to the committee, which contained the said project.

Speaking with THISDAY in Abuja on Monday, the presidency source, who pleaded anonymity, said when the error committed by the Budget Office was discovered, Ameachi quickly forwarded a memo to the Budget Office, drawing its attention to the error and it was quickly corrected.

The source added: “Minister Ameachi did not stop there, he followed it up with several meetings with Senator Gbenga Ashafa and during the defence of the budget, Amaechi informed the committee of the omission of the Lagos-Calabar rail modernisation project and indeed sent a supplementary copy of the ministry's budget to the committee, which contained the said project.

“I can tell you that it was the House of Representatives that removed it for obvious reasons. The ministry was harassed by the House members during the defence of the budget, demanding for one thing or the other. If Hon. Abdulmumim said the Lagos-Calabar Rail project was not in the original budget, let him also show you where N92 billion was provided for the Lagos-Kano rail project in the original budget that he is making reference to?

“On the rehabilitation of some airports, the Ministry of Transportation did make provision for them in the budget we submitted, and the National Assembly on its own appropriated N4 billion to this. They are just lying. And we challenged them to produce the report the Senate Committee on Land Transport sent to the Ministry of Transportation.”

Senator Ashafa also confirmed that Amaechi did inform the committee of the omission of the Lagos-Calabar rail project and the omission was subsequently corrected.

According to the senator, “I have carefully followed the news making the rounds in relation to the budget presented to the National Assembly and what was defended by the Ministry of Transportation before the Senate Committee on Land Transport which I have the privilege of chairing.

“The focal point of controversy seems to be the Lagos-Calabar railway modernisation project and the completion of the Idu-Kaduna rail line.

“I confirm that the Lagos-Calabar rail line was not in the original document that was presented to the National Assembly by the executive.

“However, subsequently, during the budget defence session before the Senate Committee on Land Transport, the Minister for Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, did inform the committee of the omission of the Lagos-Calabar rail project and indeed sent a supplementary copy of the ministry's budget to the committee which contained the said project.”

The senator added that the minister had noted during the defence of the budget that the amount needed for the counterpart funding for both the Lagos to Kano and Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation projects was in the sum of N120 billion, being N60 billion per project.

Senator Ashafa said while the committee did not completely agree with all the changes made in the subsequent document, being fully aware of the critical importance of the rail sector to the development of the country, members of the Senate Committee on Land Transport keyed into the laudable (Lagos-Calabar rail modernisation) project and found ways of appropriating funds for the project without exceeding the envelope provided for the ministry.

“In so doing, the committee observed that the Lagos-Kano rail rehabilitation project had been allocated the sum of N52 billion as against the sum of N60 billion, which the minister requested as counterpart funding while no allocation whatsoever was made for the Lagos-Calabar rail line,” the Senator further stated.

“Hence, the sum of N54 billion that was discovered by the Senate Committee on Land Transport to be floating in the budget of the Ministry of Transportation as presented by the executive was injected into augmenting the funds needed for counterpart funding of both projects (Lagos-Kano and Lagos-Calabar Rail modernisation), as at the time the committee defended its report before the Senate Committee on Appropriation,” he said.

He stated that the Lagos-Calabar rail modernisation project was therefore included in the Senate Committee on Land Transport's recommendation to the Senate Committee on Appropriation.

On the Idu-Kaduna rail completion project, Senator Ashafa said his committee did not alter what was provided in the budget as sent by the executive, being approximately N18 billion, adding that he was equally surprised to read in newspapers that the amount allocated to the said project was reduced by N8 billion.

He said while he would have preferred to wait till next Tuesday, when the National Assembly reconvenes in order to have the benefit of viewing the details of the budget that was conveyed to the executive as passed, he was compelled to place the facts in a proper perspective as it relates to the activities of his committee.

“Without prejudice to the considerations and powers of the Senate Committee on Appropriation with regard to the appropriation process, the foregoing is the true reflection of what transpired at the committee level with respect to the Land Transport sector with the Ministry of Transport,” he further stated.

But as more light was thrown on the 2016 budget, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, stated yesterday that Buhari did not reject the budget as erroneously reported.

Enang told newsmen in Abuja that media reports alleging that the budget had been rejected were untrue, explaining that what Buhari did before travelling to China was to send the budget to the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government in order to get feedback that would inform his assent.

“The president received the budget and convened an emergency Federal Executive Council meeting.

“He gave each of the ministers, departments and agencies the opportunity to look at the details as submitted by the National Assembly.

“This is to enable him get opinion on the state of the budget to enable him take a decision.

“The exercise was conducted on Friday and it is ongoing by the different ministers and agencies,” he clarified.

Enang said Buhari was not in violation of the constitutional timeframe within which he is required to assent to the budget, adding that it should not be assumed that the budget had been rejected.

“The constitutional timeframe for Mr. President's receipt and consideration of the budget began on Friday last week. The question has not arisen as to returning it or otherwise.

“But I want to say the best way we as liaison officers are handling this matter is to speak less and work more, creating interactions.

“So we will have more interactions, consultations and engagements. There is nothing for the country to worry about, because we do not want to have a crisis between the executive and the legislature, and it would not arise; this is one government,” he said.

This Day