• Declines audience with Niger Delta minister, others

James Emejo in Abuja

There were further indications that expectation for the early passage of the 2018 budget by the National Assembly would not come to pass, having missed the December date which President Muhammadu Buhari had appealed for its approval.

This was reinforced when the committees of the House of Representatives separately declined audience with the federal government agencies they oversight, either on the grounds that the latter had deliberately withheld useful information required to vet the performances of the 2017 budget or that they deliberately submitted information a few hours to their budget defence sessions with lawmakers, thereby denying them ample time to properly scrutinise the proposals.

Last Tuesday, the Presidential Amnesty Office was reportedly turned down from defending its budget because of insufficient information submitted to the lawmakers.

Also, at a recent budget defence session of the Federal Ministry of Health, a sub-committee had to be set up as things got knotty- to properly scrutinise the ministry’s budget performance in 2017 as well as how it had spent funds generated during the period.
Nevertheless, the lawmakers saw such delay tactics by agencies to withhold information as a deliberate ambush against them, and had repeatedly restated their resolve not to be stampeded by the executive.

Only yesterday, the Chairman, House Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Hon. Ayi Essien Ekpenyong, declined audience with the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Pastor Usani Usani, and his management team who had come to defend the ministry’s 2018 budget proposal before the committee.
Among other things, the ministry was being accused of failing to provide necessary documents and answers which would be handy in guiding the committee to properly interrogate the proposals.
Ekpenyong said the committee is particularly interested in the completion of all capital projects and programmes already in existence.
He added thatthe ministry had not been co-operating with the committee and by extension, the National Assembly.

The chairman said the ministry even tried to frustrate its efforts and evaded answers during a recent oversight visit to Niger Delta.
The committee said the ministry appeared not ready for budget defence.

Ekpenyong, however, ruled, following a motion by a member of the committee, to discharge the agency, giving it till next Monday to furnish it with all relevant details- as well as apprear on Thursday for the defence.
Members who expressed displeasure that the budget was filled with new projects when a plethora of old and existing ones had not been completed.

They further chided the minister for dishonouring many invitations extended to him to interface with them on sensitive issues of the ministry.
The chairman noted that the committee in the course of its oversight functions to the ministry discovered abandoned projects, saying it was the priority of the committee to ensure that ongoing projects were completed before new ones would be introduced, and criticised the ministry for not releasing funds to pay contractors handling various projects.

He said:”In reviewing the budget, the committee is not un-mindful of the federal government thrust towards ensuring that a greater percentage of the budget is dedicated to capital projects. The committee is interested in the completion of all capital projects and programmes already in existence.”

He said: “During the oversight visit to the Niger Delta region, the committee saw very many uncompleted projects littering the whole place. Most of the uncompleted projects belong to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs. Some of the projects though budgeted for in 2015 and 2016, t the Ministry deliberately refused to release funds to the contractors for reasons best known to the ministry.

“This committee seriously frowns at the attitude of the minister towards the committee. On July 4, 2017, the House of Representatives passed a resolution mandating all Standing Committees to request all Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) under their supervision to supply information on all movable assets in their ministries for the purpose of verification.

“The committee wrote to the ministry dated July 26, 2017, ref: NASS/8HR/CT.069/190, this letter was ignored by the minister and up till now, we have not gotten the reply to the letter not to talk of supplying the needed information.

“Again, on February 22, 2017, a letter ref: NASS/8HR/CT.069/183 was sent to the Hon. Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs requesting for the number of the houses built in each state of the Niger Delta indicating unit cost, location and stages of completion. If they have been completed and allocated, he should state the beneficiaries and qualifications of the beneficiaries. The ministry refused to provide the needed information.

“A reminder to this letter was sent via a letter dated May 17, 2017 ref: NASS/8HR/CT.069/185, again, it was ignored by the ministry. Lastly, on November 13, 2017, a letter was sent to the Minister-(Attention) Director of Procurement requesting for the list of contracts awarded from the 2016 Appropriation Act and the location of such projects in the Niger Delta, this was equally ignored.
“Honourable members, this has been the attitude of the Ministry of Niger Delta towards this committee and I have to bring it to the attention of all. The Ministry was established to take care of the development of the Niger Delta region and the committee was equally put in place to help facilitate this development through appropriate legislative instrument but the ministry has decided not to cooperate with the committee and by extension the National Assembly. In light of the above development, what do you advice?”
Ekpenyong, while acknowledging the importance of early passage of the budget in the fiscal year to help reflate the economy however stated that the committee was committed to doing a thorough job.

He said lawmakers would not be pressured to pass the budget since it wasn’t submitted on time by the executive.

According to him: “If the government wants the budget to be passed early enough, they would bring the budget early enough too. We are not rubber stamp. You cannot stampede us. We will do a thorough thing. We have a timeline. The leadership will give us a timeline.

“Plenary will resume on Tuesday but we are all back here because the leadership said come and look at the budget but when you come here and you are not giving us the necessary information, what do you want us do? We cannot just sit down and pass a budget like that.

“We have to look at it, dissect and look at areas of needs and we will frown at new projects very seriously. The already existing ones are suffering. Some have been there for 12 years and then we have a N52 billion project and how much is being given to complete it.”
He said:”Niger Delta is a volatile area. What comes from the area sustains the economy of this country. Anything you do in the Niger Delta, you have to be very careful. If not, it will affect the whole country. We are having a smooth production because of the way they have been able to handle the issues in the Niger Delta including militancy. And we need to sustain it.

“A lot of people are frowning, saying why should we be producing all the money and we cannot have roads to pass? What’s wrong with the East-West road? This time around, the correct thing has to be done.

“Appropriation is dead on arrival. We will look at the areas of needs and then we get the approval of the leadership to fund those areas of needs particularly as it concerns those areas of needs. I have seen an electrification project of N750 million and about three hundred and something million has been paid.

“The last time it was paid was in 2013 and it is not even in this budget. So, we have to look at it. We have to prioritise certain things. We were elected here to come and see how we can make Nigeria move forward.”