Budget Padding: All Eyes on the House

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The House of Representatives resumed last week amid keen public attention on the budget padding scandal that has rocked the lower chamber since the last eight weeks. Damilola Oyedele reports

The House of Representatives has been in the public eye for the past eight weeks. The former chairman of the Committee on Appropriation, Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumin, who was sacked just as the House embarked on its annual recess, had unleashed a tirade of allegations against the House leadership.

He accused Speaker Yakubu Dogara, Deputy Speaker Yussuff Sulaimon Lasun, Chief Whip Alhassan Ado Doguwa, Minority Whip Leo Ogor, and nine chairmen of standing committees of making fraudulent insertions into the 2016 budget and other corrupt practices. He further accused the four principal officers of allocating to themselves N40 billion out of the N100 billion allocated to the National Assembly for constituency projects.

Abdulmumin relentlessly bashed Dogara and others through the mainstream and social media, urged on by a public that considers the legislature as a gathering of people pursing their selfish interests.

It was, therefore, understandable that a lot of attention was on the House as it resumed from its recess. What would happen? Would he be suspended? Would the lawmakers throw punches as they had done before to settle scores? These were the questions at the forefront of many minds as the legislators resumed.

Re-emergence of groups
As Abdulmumin’s allegations raged in the airwaves, a group tagging itself Transparency Group had emerged. It initially claimed it wanted all parties, including the whistle-blower, probed to ascertain their level of culpability in the mismanagement of the 2016 budget. But the group later did a U-turn and changed its demand to the probe of the four accused principal officers, and also demanded that they stepped aside while an independent investigation was conducted on the matter.

On the day of resumption, before adjournment in honour of a late member, Abdulmumin announced that he had formally joined the Transparency Group.
Interestingly, the group continued to claim that it had at least 185 members, who were all ready to resist any move to refer the matter to the Committee on Ethics. However, only about six members have publicly identified with the group, while their spokesperson, Hon. Mohammed Soba (Kaduna APC), told THISDAY in a text message that they had 185 members.

Their opinion, same as Abdulmumin’s, was that the chairman of the ethics committee, Hon. Ossai Nicholas Ossai, as an appointee of Dogara, could not conduct a fair and impartial investigation.
The expectation, therefore, is that with the numbers, which the group claims to have, it would vote nay to an investigation by the ethics committee.

Legislatives Theatrics Properly
On the day of resumption, the procession of the body of principal officers, led by Dogara, walked into the chambers at 11.12am. Abdulmumin, clad in a white agbada, was already in the chambers. He exchanged greetings with several of his colleagues before making his way to sit next to Hon. Mohammed Zakari, on a seat behind Hon. Herma Hembe.

Zakari and Hembe are included among the nine chairmen of standing committees accused by Abdulmumin of making insertions into the 2016 budget, running into billions of naira.
Dogara, in his welcome address, hinted that the matter would be referred to the ethics committee, when he noted that plenary was “not the appropriate venue to address allegations made against individual members many of which are criminal in nature, as there are constitutional avenues for that.”

As Dogara made to continue with the “first business of the day”, the chairman of the Committee on Rules and Business, Hon. Emmanuel Orker-Jev, raised a point of order. He noted that attention of Nigerians was on the House with widespread fears that the lawmakers might engage in exchange of blows.

“Let’s disappoint them,” Orker-Jev said.
Orker-Jev then sought permission to move a motion on what he called “breach of privilege of the House, breach of the privileges of the members of the House, breach of practices, precedents and usages of the House of Representatives, and sundry acts of misconduct against the members and institution of the House and the National Assembly” by Abdulumin.

This was accompanied by shouts of “No” from Abdulmumin’s supporters. Orker-Jev, however, continued reading his motion, spurred on by Dogara’s supporters. About the same time, Abdulmumin walked out of the chambers, returning almost immediately bearing a collection of documents and returned to his seat next to Zakari.

It was clear that there was a well-crafted plan. While the commotion continued, several of Dogara’s supporters were among those shouting “No” and walking around the chamber. What many did not pay attention to was that Orker-Jev continued to read his motion, even though he could not be heard by many in the awful din.

Amid the commotion, the prayer of the motion, which sought to “refer the above matter and Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin to the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges for proper investigation”, was passed by a majority of “Ayes” and a barely heard “Nays”.

The Motion
Familiarity with the workings of the parliament would show that Orker-Jev’s motion was well crafted, without any wiggle room for Abdulmumin. This is because in his tirade against Dogara and others in the last eight weeks, Abdulmumin severally described the House as corrupt, instead of limiting it to those he accused. This part was conveniently collated; the motion did not mention any instances where he mentioned the principal officers.

Some of the collated statement culled from newspapers, and his television appearances include, “As it stands today, these corrupt elements have infected the House, making the institution a hub of systemic corruption. I repeat, there is massive individual and systemic corruption in the House of Representatives. And all Nigerians have a responsibility to avail themselves of this rare opportunity to flush out corruption in the House.

“It is a known fact that the legislative investigation is used as an avenue to extort money on an organised crime aided and abetted by Mr. Speaker,” and “I dare say corruption in the House of Representatives is more than that of the executive and judiciary combined.”

The motion, therefore, accused Abdulmumin of breach of privileges of the House of Representatives, breach of privileges of members of the House, breach of the practices, precedents and usages of the House of Representatives, and sundry acts of misconduct against the members and institution of the House and the National Assembly, breach of the provision of the legislatives houses (powers and privileges) Act.

Committee Begins Sitting
The ethics committee under the chairmanship of Hon. Ossai Nicholas Ossai began its sitting on Friday morning.
Orker-Jev, in his testimony before the committee, said the utterances of Abdulmumin had defamed the House and presented it as a hub of thieves.

“There is nothing like budget padding as far as the constitution is concerned…His actions have defamed everyone. It means when we go on oversight, people would say these thieves have come again. We need to redeem our image,” he said.
Abdulmumin is scheduled to appear on Monday at 12 noon.
With the current inquest by the House, the budget padding issue would, certainly, be in the spotlight for quite some time.