Senate Rules out Including Calabar-Lagos Rail Project in Budget

  •  Asks executive to resubmit it as supplementary bill, moves to remove CCB from   SGF’s office
    Udoma: Railway projects are very important to Buhari
    FG borrows N600bn monthly to pay salaries

Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja and Seriki Adinoyi in Jos

The Senate on Tuesday ruled out the possibility of reconsidering the inclusion of the N60 billion Lagos-Calabar rail project in the 2016 budget. Instead the parliament promised to consider it only if a supplementary budget is sent to it by the executive arm of government.

This came as a bill seeking to remove the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) from the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) passed the first reading yesterday.

Briefing newsmen on the outcome of a closed-door session held ahead of yesterday’s plenary, Senate Committee Chairman on Information and Public Affairs, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, also said the Senate stood by its Monday position warning the executive against blackmail over the budget.

Abdullahi said having passed the Appropriation Bill, it was impossible for the National Assembly to revisit it, explaining that the only option left was for President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the budget and thereafter send a supplementary budget on the rail project as provided in the constitution.
He argued that the Senate had resolved to be guided by the constitution in handling the crisis emanating from the passage of the 2016 budget.

“Today, we have resumed plenary having come back from our recess and we went into an executive session which is the normal practice to welcome one another and discuss issues that we believe pertain to the burning issues on ground.

“In this case, the issue of the 2016 budget and the smooth workings of the Senate and the National Assembly were discussed. Now, the statement we issued yesterday remains unchanged.
“Today, all we did was to confirm what exactly is the true picture of this situation and in my capacity as a spokesman of the Senate, I did not go to press with falsehood.

“One thing that is obvious is we have passed the budget, so what is important now is for the budget to be signed. The constitution has taken note of this kind of scenario where you may have omissions or shortfalls of allocations and Section 81 of the constitution is very clear on what you need to do which is to sign the budget and then submit a supplementary Appropriation Bill.

“I want to assure you that the Senate is not unmindful of the cries of Nigerians that we said, for example, that the Lagos-Calabar rail project was not in the budget does not in any way undermine its importance.

“It is a very, very important project for this nation to embark on and so the National Assembly, the Senate is open if the executive brings a supplementary appropriation with respect to this issue and any other issue that they feel 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.

“I think if we do that, all these raging controversies will be off our backs and we can all concentrate and put our energies to begin the process of implementing the 2016 budget so that those dividends of democracy – the youth unemployment issue, the empowerment of women, the social intervention programme, the infrastructure programmes, the agricultural programmes, can be addressed.

“The rains are already here and all other projects that we know will have to be kick started,” he said.
However, THISDAY learnt that the closed-door session was rowdy following protests by some senators who deplored the decision by Senator Gbenga Ashafa (Lagos East) to issue a statement on circumstances surrounding the presentation of a supplementary budget by the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, on the N60 billion rail project.

It was also learnt that some senators accused him of dividing the Senate without bearing in mind that the Senate has a spokesman. They also contended that Ashafa’s statement created the impression that the Senate was not speaking with one voice and considered counter-productive by his colleagues.
It was also learnt that Ashafa said he received threatening text messages from the House of Representatives accusing him of issuing a statement that his committee, Land Transport, recommended the project to the Appropriation Committee but did not know at which point it disappeared from the budget.
However, some senators were said to have thrown their weights behind Ashafa’s action, saying his prompt statement was necessary at the time.

THISDAY also gathered that some senators said that the Senate should be blamed for the crisis which accompanied the passage of the budget, noting that if the clean copies of the budget had been made available to senators as is the case before the passage of the Appropriation Bill, the current controversy would have been nipped in the bud.

THISDAY also learnt that the parliament resolved to strictly apply Order 84 of its Standing Rules, which stipulates that it must form a quorum before it could meet. This decision was said to have followed complaints by some senators that they were left out of some vital decisions.
On the CCB bill, the sponsor of the bill, Senator Peter Nwaboshi (Delta North), said the bill is seeking to remove the bureau from under the control of the SGF and place it under the judiciary, arguing that it was not healthy for the bureau to remain under the control of SGF.

The move is not unconnected to allegations that the SGF has resisted several attempts made by some senators to see President Buhari on the trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki over false declaration of assets when he was the Governor of Kwara State between 2003 and 2011.

But as the Senate asked the executive arm of government to submit a supplementary budget for the Calabar-Lagos rail project, the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, said yesterday that the two major railway projects – Lagos-Kano and Calabar-Lagos – were very dear to the Buhari administration and would want both projects reflected in the budget submitted to the National Assembly.
In a statement signed by Mr. Akpandem James, the Media Adviser to the minister, Udoma stressed that the two rail projects are part of those which the president is currently negotiating funding with the Chinese government.

According to him, “With reference to the specific issue of the Calabar-Lagos rail project, we will like to state that the two railway projects, Lagos-Kano and the Calabar-Lagos, are very important projects of the present administration; and it was always the intention of the executive to have both projects reflected in the budget submitted to the National Assembly.”

The minister admitted that the Budget Office of the Federation made a number of errors in the initial budget proposals for a number of ministries, in the process omitting critical infrastructure projects.
He however added that the errors were all corrected by his ministry and the corrected versions were submitted to the relevant committees of the National Assembly, which 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.
“The N60 billion provided in the budget for the Lagos-Kano and Calabar-Lagos rail lines, respectively, is counterpart funding to support the Chinese financing for the projects.

“These projects are part of the Strategic Implementation Plan of the government which was disclosed by the Minister of Budget and National Planning at the National Economic Council (NEC) retreat in March 2016, in the presence of state governors. They were also mentioned by the vice-president last week in Lagos,” he clarified.

Senator Udoma hoped that with the clarification, the raging controversy over the Calabar-Lagos rail project would be laid to rest.
The minister added that immediately the budget was received, the president, who he said was desirous of signing the document into law as soon as possible, directed that copies should be made available to heads of the various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of the federal government.

“Ministers were asked to go through the details and give their reactions as it affects their respective ministries so as to guide the president and enable him sign the Appropriation Bill into law.

“That process is still ongoing and no statement has been issued by the executive on the matter, apart from the one by the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohamnmed, to confirm that details of the budget are being examined. No final decision has been taken by the president and no other statement whatsoever has been issued on the matter,” he said.

But as the latest dust raised over the budget appeared to be settling down, the federal government yesterday owned up to challenges it is having meeting its obligations, admitting that it borrows on the average N600 billion every month to augment the payment of workers’ salaries.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 63rd General Church Council (GCC) of Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) held at its headquarters in Jos yesterday, the SGF, Mr David Babachir Lawal, who represented the president also lamented that the Buhari-led administration inherited a country that had been robbed mercilessly, hence leaving an ailing economy that must be nurtured and would have to be endured for some time before its stabilises.

He said: “The federal government borrows an average of N600 billion monthly and the federal government gets N130 billion, and sometimes if it is lucky, it gets N200 billion from the Federation Account. Yet we have an expenditure profile of roughly N800 billion to N900 billion a month.
“So, naturally, you need to augment sources from anywhere and from wherever you can find it. I am talking about local borrowings, not international.

“There is the ways and means to raise the money (CBN printing money and issuing treasury bills), because the monies coming from the Federation Account is not enough and the figure is not fixed, so it varies from month to month, depending on what enters into the treasury and our own share of it from the Federation Account just like the states.

“And you remember that there was a time Osun State Government got N55 million in a month from the Federation Account and the state has a salary bill of over N4 billion per month, so you can see that the problems are too many.”
He however assured his audience that Nigeria would overcome the economic downturn within the shortest possible time.

He called on the church to join government in its fight against corruption by encouraging people to embrace honesty, transparency and accountability.
On the rising unemployment, the SGF said the government was working on programmes to open up the industrial sector and create employment opportunities for the teeming youths by encouraging all agencies and parastatals as well as foreign investors to create more employment opportunities and skills acquisition activities in the country.