SGF, Senate Rift Worsens as Lawal Fails to Appear for Budget Defence

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• NCS c’ttee queries CG over refusal to wear customs uniform
•FCT claims contract for VP’s gate house will cost N250m

Omololu Ogunmade
The stand-off between the Senate and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, (SGF), Babachir Lawal, resurfaced yesterday as the SGF failed to appear before the Committee on Federal Character to defend the 2017 budget proposal from his office.

At a time, heads of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) make it a priority to appear before relevant committees to defend the budgets of their agencies, Lawal opted to send the Permanent Secretary, General Services in the Office of the SGF, Mohammed Bukar, to do the defence on behalf of the office.

But irked by the development, the committee chaired by Senator Tijjani Kaura disallowed the permanent secretary from making any submission before it, insisting that Lawal must appear before it to do the defence or forget it.

It was however, learnt yesterday that some minutes before 10a.m. when the defence was scheduled to take off, the permanent secretary on behalf of the the SGF informed the committee that he (SGF) would not be available for the exercise. Bukar was said to have told the committee that the SGF was away, attending the funeral of a relative outside Abuja.

While turning away the permanent secretary from representing the SGF, the committee asked the SGF to communicate a new date when he will personally appear before for the defence. The committee later briefed the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, about the development.

One of the senators who chose to be anonymous, expressed the displeasure of the committee over the SGF’s action.
“Much as we try to protect him as a brother, there are limits to what he should do. What he ought to do is seek the understanding of the committee to reschedule which is a normal thing. As far as the committee is concerned, courtesy demands from him to call the chairman. He didn’t appear; he didn’t show concern. Since he’s not here and not ready, he should make contact with the committee to reschedule.

“Why he’s not here is not cogent. He said he went to condole with relatives over the loss of a loved one, but here, we have a colleague, a senator for that matter, who is also supposed to attend the funeral of a loved one, but stayed back to attend the budget defence. As far as we are concerned, the excuse he gave – going to bury a loved one is not a good one at all,” he said.
However, it was learnt that following the action of the committee, the SGF wrote a letter to the committee late yesterday that he would appear before it on Monday.

The Senate had on December 14, 2016, called on President Muhammadu Buhari to sack and prosecute Lawal over alleged mismanagement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) funds following the presentation of an interim report of its Ad hoc Committee on North-East Humanitarian Crisis which indicted him. But Buhari in a letter addressed to the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, a forth night ago, faulted the report, saying it was hasty because it was interim.

Also yesterday, Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS),  Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), came under intense rebuke by the Senate Committee on Customs and Excise over his perpetual refusal to wear customs uniform since his appointment in 2015.

While throwing his weight behind the committee, Mr. Mohammed Bello, a former Comptroller-General of Customs during the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd.), said Ali ought to be addressed as Sole Administrator of NCS, if he felt too big to wear uniform which he said was a reflection of his rank as head of the agency.

Ali was put on the spot at a session between the committee, NCS management, Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on an amendment to NCS bill that is currently before the committee. But in his defence, Ali said as a former military officer, it is against norms to wear uniform the second time.

But the committee dismissed his claim, reminding him about a retired General Halidu Hananiya who wore Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) uniform when he was appointed as Corp Marshall of the agency in the past.

But, Ali was swift to tell the committee that by wearing the second uniform, Hananiya erred.
Angered by the development, a member of the committee, Senator Obinna Ogba, walked out of the session, saying “this is how you people keep deceiving Nigerians on wrong action and still defending it.”

The committee also queried Ali over his refusal to constitute the board of NCS since 2015 when it was dissolved. According to the committee Chairman, Senator Hope Uzodimma, the decision of Ali’s leadership to unilaterally promote and sack customs officers which ought to be done by the board was illegal.

“You claim that the Minister of  Finance is the one delaying the composition of the board. The committee has written a letter straight away to the Minister, Secretary to the Government and Attorney General of Federation to put the board in place without any further delay,” Uzodinma said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Committee has alleged that the gate house being constructed in the vice president’s official quarters will cost N250 million. Making the disclosure while briefing journalists yesterday, FCT Committee Chairman, Senator Dino Melaye, called for the stoppage of the contract.

He said: “The gate house of the Vice President’s residence was also awarded at over N250million. We are going to call for a review of that contract and Julius Berger said they are going to build a concrete building. I went there with a hammer and I hit it on the wall and I saw blocks. So, that investigation is ongoing. And we want to make sure that government is not being raped and shortchanged. So we are definitely going to call for a review of the contract because this is a rape of the taxpayers money. We can’s be talking about completion when we are investigating the award of the contract.”

But Melaye denied the allegation that the accommodation of the leadership of the National Assembly was costing the government N600 million, saying “I as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on FCT,  I put my integrity on test to say that no kobo was collected by any of the presiding officers from the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) and those who know how government bureaucracy works. It is practically impossible for any of the presiding officers to collect money directly from the FCDA.”