By Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
There are indications that the agreement brokered by the executive and National Assembly, paving the way for a virement request as a pre-condition for the assent of the 2017 budget, may be in jeopardy due to the comments made by acting President Yemi Osinbajo last week.
Osinbajo had during the budget’s assent last Monday disclosed that the executive arm of government and legislature had agreed to a virement request to reinstate several budgetary proposals altered in the Appropriation Bill by the National Assembly.
Some of the key projects affected by the National Assembly’s alterations included allocations to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the Mambilla power project, railway projects, and the Second Niger Bridge, among others.
According to sources in the presidency, the legislature shaved off an estimated N500 billion from such critical infrastructure projects and inserted 4,000 new projects that were never proposed by the executive in the 2017 budget.
This, according to sources, caused consternation among the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) during the budget’s review, after its passage by the National Assembly, and was blamed for the delay in the document’s assent until a deal was struck between both arms of government for a virement request to reinstate the alterations.
However, one day after he assented to the budget, Osinbajo criticised the legislature for altering the budget, saying it was not constitutionally empowered to change the budget proposals submitted by the executive.
Expectedly, his remark elicited a response from the National Assembly, which said Osinbajo must have been “misquoted”, reminding him that the constitution remains clear on its powers to legislate and alter the budget, since it is not the rubber stamp of the executive
The legislature also reminded the acting president that the power on the interpretation of the constitution with respect to its powers to legislate on Appropriation Bills lies with the judiciary, not the executive.
Despite the responses by both chambers of the National Assembly to Osinbajo’s remarks, several lawmakers, THISDAY learnt, were still smarting at the weekend over comments.
The angry lawmakers insisted that Osinbajo had made his remark in bad faith, in order to pit Nigerians against the legislature.
Accordingly, they are now threatening not to entertain the proposed request for the virement of funds, or even a supplementary budget proposal from the presidency.
Some lawmakers, who spoke with THISDAY off the record, queried the rationale for making the remark, particularly as a deal favourable to both parties, had already been agreed upon.
“The statement was deliberate, maybe to deflect the attention of Nigerians away from how he had to be granted permission by the president to sign the budget.
“The statement from the acting president was just simply him playing to the gallery. His position as acting president is being undermined and he does not want Nigerians to talk about that,” one senator said.
“He has now taken the same position with the aides of President Buhari, who have been pitting us against each other. This is however disappointing because he should know better as a law professor who should be versed in the constitution.
“He should study Sections 59, 80-83 (of the constitution) very well. The law says: ‘In a manner prescribed by the National Assembly’,” he added.
Another senator also stressed that all the inclusions made in the budget were for developmental purposes.
“Yes, we made increments to the budget by adding funds for the take off of some projects. We put some money for the commencement of work on a second runway for the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport.
“Are senators or House of Representatives members the only users of the airport? Can we quantify what was lost in the six weeks the airport was shutdown?
“Some people’s entire livelihoods depend on that airport. So how is that inclusion a bad thing, or inclusion of some funds to upgrade the Abeokuta airport, as an alternate airport to Lagos, bad?” he queried.
THISDAY gathered that several senators are now insisting that except Osinbajo withdraws his remark, no virement would be entertained by the National Assembly.
A member of the House also noted that the acting president should not have signed the budget into law if he strongly believed that the National Assembly does not have the powers to alter the budget.
“Maybe he should have gone to court first. I do hope he knows that now he has signed the budget into law, it must be implemented. Failure to implement is an impeachable offence,” the member said.