The Senate, yesterday, gave what it described as 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, yesterday, 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, last night, in a sternly worded statement 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.
Senate’s final warning
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.
“Finally, by the provision 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 per cent 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 discrepancies are 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.”
The statement followed an earlier press conference where the Senate spokesman also claimed ignorance of the presence of the projects in the budget presented by the president.
House spokesman, Namdas at a press conference also, yesterday, accused Amaechi of bringing the Calabar – Lagos rail project to the National Assembly through the back door.
According to him, the report that the project was removed, and its budget appropriated for the completion of the Lagos-Kano rail project was misleading and intended to set the Southern and Northern parts of the country against each other.
Meanwhile, fresh insights into how political infighting in the All Progressives Congress, APC, and ego by senior officials of the National Assembly led to the extraction of the Lagos – Calabar rail project and other key infrastructure projects of the administration from budget 2016 have been unveiled.
At the centre of the controversy, yesterday, were the chairmen of Senate and House of Representatives committees on Appropriation, Senator Danjuma Goje and Abdulmumin Jibrin. The reports of the two committees on Land Transport, Vanguard learned, contained proposals for the Lagos – Calabar and Kaduna – Idu rail projects which were both removed by the committees of appropriation in both chambers. Vanguard is in possession of a text message purportedly sent to committee chairmen in the House of Representatives by Jibrin, asking them to defend whatever controversy could arise from the action in the media.
Presidency officials were peeved by the fact that the legislature had seemingly removed the carpet from under President Muhammadu Buhari’s feet, given the fact that the action was done just as he was about leaving for China to negotiate foreign assistance necessary to fast-track the projects.
Senate spokesman, Abdullahi Sabi and his House of Reps counterpart, Abdulrazak Namdas, yesterday, rebuffed assertions that the Calabar – Lagos rail project was removed, saying in separate fora to journalists that the item was not in the initial proposal submitted by the president.
They also alleged that the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi only brought it to the attention of the legislators after the president’s presentation.
Lagos-Calabar rail project in budget — Ashafa
Meanwhile, the Senate Committee Chairman on Land Transportation, Senator Gbenga Ashafa, maintained that the railway project was accommodated in the budget but was surprised that it was removed.
Senator Ashafa said: “I confirm that the Lagos to Calabar rail line was not in the original document that was presented to the National Assembly by the Executive. However, subsequently at the budget defence session before the Senate Committee on Land Transport, the Minister for Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, did inform the committee of the omission of the Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation project and indeed sent a supplementary copy of the ministry’s budget to the committee which contained the said project.
The Minister noted that the amount needed for the counterpart funding for both the Lagos to Kano and Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation projects was N120 billion, being N60 billion per project. “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 our dear country, distinguished members of the Senate Committee on Land transport keyed into the laudable (Lagos to Calabar, rail modernisation) project and found ways of appropriating funds for the project without exceeding the envelope provided for the ministry, he said.
Ashafa continued: “In so doing, the committee observed that the Lagos to Kano rail rehabilitation project had been allocated the sum of N52 billion as against the sum of N60 billion which the Hon. Minister requested as counterpart funding while no allocation whatsoever was made for the Lagos to Calabar rail line.
“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 to Kano and Lagos to Calabar Rail modernisation), as at the time the committee defended its report before the senate committee on Appropriation.
“The Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation project was, therefore, included in the Senate Committee on Land Transport’s recommendation to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
“With regard to the Idu to Kaduna rail completion, the Senate Committee on Land Transport did not interfere with what was provided for in the budget as sent by the executive, being approximately N18 billion hence I am equally surprised to read on the pages of the newspapers that the amount allocated to the said project was reduced by N8 billion.
“While I would have preferred to wait till Tuesday, April 12, 2016 (today) 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, I am compelled to place the facts in proper perspective as it relates to the activities of the Senate Committee on Land Transport.
“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.
Vanguard learned, yesterday, 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,” a Presidency official conversant with the issue said. The source further revealed that on account of the information, Amaechi had to visit Goje to solicit his help on the passage of the budget proposals of the Ministry of Transportation.
Amaechi and his key aides were part of the president’s delegation to China and efforts to reach his media assistant; Mr. Dave Iyofor were unsuccessful.
A top presidency official stated that the Calabar-Lagos railway project alongside the Lagos – Kano rail project was included in the draft budget of the Ministry submitted to the Budget Office.
The official challenged the House of Representatives and the Senate to produce the report of their respective submissions to the NASS if they insist that the project was not included in the budget.
The officer said: “When the budget was collated by the Budget Office, and copies sent back to the respective ministries for perusal, it was noticed that the Coastal Rail Project was erroneously omitted at the compilation stage, although the total amount did not change.
“The Transportation Ministry immediately, through a memo, drew the attention of the Budget and National Planning Ministry to the omission and it was corrected in the amended version which the Minister took to the National Assembly and defended,” he said.
He insisted that it was the amended copy that the team from Ministry defended before the National Assembly and not the one that had the error.
Another presidency official who spoke to Vanguard also confirmed that the issue over the erroneous submission made was trashed out between the president and the National Assembly leadership. The National Assembly leadership, the source said, asked the ministers to proceed to the committee levels to harmonise the differences between the initial submission and the corrected version, an issue that stoked the reports of a fake budget allegedly attributed to Senator Enang.
Vanguard learned that although members of the Appropriation Committee of the House of Representatives raised some issues about an assumed duplication of the project because both the Lagos – Kano and Calabar – Lagos had the same figure of N60bn each in the allocation, Amaechi explained that there were two different projects that would be funded through the assistance of the Chinese government.
According to the ministry, the sum of N80bn was also provided in the same amended version for all other rail projects indicated.
The source said Amaechi even met with the Chairman of the Appropriation Committee in the Senate, Senator Danjuma Goje, who was his colleague as state governor, on the two strategic rail projects; and also with the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Senator Gbenga Ashafa, and the projects were clearly explained after which they were appropriately reflected in the Senate Transportation Committee report to the Appropriation Committee.
“That may be reason the Senate Committee Chairman on Appropriation has been quiet since the controversy started because he cannot claim ignorance of the issue.” The source challenged the Senate to produce the Transportation Committee report that was submitted.
The source also drew attention to the fact that the House of Representatives Appropriation Committee Chairman, Jibrin admitted that the Transport Ministry budget overshot by N54bn and queried if they were sincere, why the Ministry’s attention was never drawn to it during the several interactions they had with the National Assembly committees; but decided to distribute the funds to projects which were either not included anywhere in the budget nor provided for elsewhere.
He also queried why the allocation for Kano Airport jumped from N60bn to the N92bn reflected in the details sent to the President.
“Since Jibrin was referring people to the original budget, let him also show the people where either N60bn or N92bn was reflected in the original budget for the Lagos–Kano rail project?” he insisted.
It was also noted that provisions were made elsewhere in the budget for the rehabilitation of major airports in the country and would not know why the legislators decided to take the money apparently meant for the coastal rail project to allocate for security and football fields, wondering what connection such projects had with the ministry of transportation.
Meanwhile, a text message allegedly sent out by Jibrin to select committee chairmen to defend the extraction of the Calabar–Lagos rail project was, yesterday, in circulation.
The text read in part: “To all Hon Chairmen and Dep Chairmen of Standing Committees: As you are aware, we have transmitted details of budget 2016. After consultation with the leadership of both Chambers, the reports of all standing Committees were sustained in the details. Though all items submitted by Committees were retained, you will see additional inputs that were necessary to be accommodated via little cuts. You are therefore enjoined to be prepared to justify reports both in media and elsewhere; in case, the executive arm disagrees. We are already justifying your reports, but you must join in doing so, especially in the media…”