…N’Assembly Increases 2017 Budget by N143bn, to Pass Spending Bill Thursday

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• Mild drama in Senate over Osinbajo’s coordinating status
• Acting president: Buhari handed over to me

Damilola Oyedele and James Emejo in Abuja

The National Assembly has increased the size of the 2017 budget proposed by the executive by N143 billion, from N7.298 trillion to N7.441 trillion.
This is as the Senate and House of Representatives laid the harmonised report of the 2017 Appropriation Bill at their respective plenary sessions on Tuesday.

The lawmakers increased statutory transfers to N434.4 billion from N419.02 billion, while the amount proposed for debt service was increased to N1.841 trillion from N1.66 trillion.
The sinking fund for maturing bonds was retained at N177.4 billion, while non-debt recurrent expenditure was increased to N2.99 trillion from N2.98 trillion, as contained in the budget proposal.

The National Assembly also appropriated N2.174 trillion for Development Fund for capital expenditure, which is exclusive of capital expenditure in statutory transfers. The executive had proposed N2.24 trillion for capital expenditure, inclusive of capital in statutory transfers.

President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, said the budget would be passed on Thursday.
He added that the electronic copies of the budget bill would be sent to lawmakers by the end of Tuesday, while hard copies would be distributed Wednesday.

“We will use all of tomorrow to study and hopefully pass it on Thursday,” he said.
“Let me congratulate the Appropriation Committee, because we have seen history being made. This is the first time the Appropriation Committee is laying the budget with the details,” Saraki added.

THISDAY had reported last week that the National Assembly also increased its budget to N150 billion, from the proposed N120 billion.
Briefing newsmen after plenary, the Senate spokesman, Senator Aliyu Sabi-Abdullahi, said the submission of the harmonised version of the budget in both chambers has eliminated any further delays.

“Remember I once said the two committees were working to harmonise their reports. The report that was laid at the Senate is the exact report that will be laid in the House of Representatives.

“The key take away today is the fact that we did not just lay the report, we laid the report along with the details of the budget.
“I think this is unprecedented because to the best of our knowledge, from 1999 to date, it has not happened,” the spokesman said.

Also, the House on Tuesday received the report of the Committee on Appropriation on the 2017 budget.
President Muhammadu Buhari last December submitted a budget proposal of N7.29 trillion to a joint session of the National Assembly.

Melodrama in Senate

Also, a letter from the president to the leadership of the Senate and House, notifying them of his medical trip and handover to his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, was read on the floors of both chambers by Saraki and Dogara.

But whilst the letter was read without incident in the House, a mild drama ensued after Saraki read the letter in the Senate.
Buhari’s letter dated May 7, 2017, said: “In compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, I wish to inform the Distinguished Senate that I will be away for a scheduled medical follow-up with my doctors in London.

“The length of my stay will be determined by the doctor’s advice.
“While I am away the vice-president will coordinate the activities of the government.”
After it was read out in the Senate, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa (Abia North) stood up to point out that the word “coordinate” failed to make it clear that Osinbajo would act as president in Buhari’s absence.

According to the Abia senator, the letter had refrained from stating that Osinbajo would be acting president and was therefore ambiguous.
He advised that the letter be returned to the presidency.

“Mr. (Senate) President, I do not think in our constitution we have anything like ‘coordinating president’ or ‘coordinating vice-president’. It’s either you are vice-president or you are acting president and any letter should be unambiguous and very clear.

“So, I am saying that this letter really does not convey anything because ‘coordinating’ has no space on any place in our constitution.

“We have been having letters like this, you tell us he is the acting president and we know who to deal with as a Senate. This is the highest legislative body of any country and if you are sending us a letter it should be direct, unambiguous.
“So, I am saying that this letter for me is not right and maybe should be sent back,” Ohuabunwa said.

As Ohuabunwa presented his argument, several senators could be heard murmuring, while some nodded their heads in agreement with his observation.
The Leader of the Senate, Senator Ahmed Lawan, however, called on the lawmakers to simply rely on the first paragraph of the president’s letter.

“Any other word in this letter or indeed anywhere else is irrelevant. I therefore feel that Mr. President has done what the constitution requires him to do and I urge this Senate not to go ahead to discuss this because it’s not an issue.
“We have the budget and so many other serious issues for us to discuss and Nigerians are waiting,” Lawan said.

Having heard both men, Saraki did not subject the issue to debate and ruled Ohuabunwa out of order.
“I think it is a very clear issue and what we should be guided by is the constitution. I think that it is clear, the letter has referred to the constitution and there is no ambiguity in the constitution.

“So, I don’t think there’s any issue there. Let me first rule you out of order, Senator Mao,” Saraki said.
But the debate in the Senate snowballed into a debate among Nigerians, some of who felt that the president deliberately did not state in the letter that his deputy would “discharge the functions of his office” in his absence, as clearly stated in Buhari’s letter in January, when he embarked on a similar vacation and handed over to Osinbajo.

This prompted one Bernard Amaiguo to post a Tweet asking Osinbajo why the president refused to hand over to him.
In his post, he wrote: “Mr. Vice-president, why did Mr. President refuse to hand over the affairs of the country to you?”

Responding, Osinbajo said the president had indeed transferred power to him.
In his Tweet, Osinbajo wrote: “He did sir. He transmitted a letter to the Senate in compliance with S.145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).”

‘No Ambiguity, Osinbajo is Acting President’

Also reacting to what transpired in the Senate, two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Chief Wole Olanipekun and Chief Olisa Agbakoba said Osinbajo remained the acting president regardless of what the president wrote in his letter to the Senate.
Speaking to THISDAY, Olanipekun said that there was no question about it, “Osinbajo is acting president”.

He stated that as long as the president transmitted the letter in accordance with the provisions of the constitution, Osinbajo had become the acting president.
“Whether the president called him acting president or not, the fact that he called him the coordinator of activities of government is immaterial. It is inferred that all powers vested in the president have been transferred to him.”

Olanipekun, however, expressed some reservations, saying that the country was yet to evolve in terms of governance.

“There should be a system where the acting president is imbued with all the powers, including the power to be Commander-in-Chief, power to manage the economy and power and vires to appoint and constitute the cabinet that will enable him to deliver.

“We should stop personalising governance,” he said.
Agbakoba also agreed and advised Nigerians to focus on what is important and ignore trivialities.

He said: “I think it is a matter of nomenclature. We should avoid unnecessary distractions. I’m aware what the politicians were trying to do with the interpretation but that is not the issue Nigerians are interested in for now.

“It is just semantics. It makes no difference. Let us not concentrate on trivial issues. The man is acting president. We wish the president well and also pray for Osinbajo to address the challenges of poverty, bad roads and joblessness in the country.”

Enoh Defects to APC

In another development, the Senator representing Cross River Central, Senator John Owan Enoh, has announced his defection from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).

His announcement at plenary on Tuesday elicited applause from APC senators, some of whom shook his hands as he was ushered to take a bow in front of the mace.
Reacting, PDP senators put up a feeble protest.

Smiling, the Deputy Minority Leader, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, said Enoh, who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, is a political tourist.

“I raised this order because the event that just took place has become a tradition that they have gotten another political tourist. By the time the bubble bursts, they will also move back when the baton changes. I want to also put him on notice that we are willing to receive him back,” he said.

Saraki, however, congratulated Enoh.
“The only thing for me as the presiding officer is to recognise Senator John Enoh and wish him continued fruitful contributions and service to his people through the platform he has now chosen,” Saraki said.

Enoh’s defection increased the membership of the APC Caucus in the 109-member Senate to 66, against PDP’s 42.
The seat for the Anambra Central Senatorial District is currently vacant.