House Still Cross with Buhari over Tucano Payment

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Unlike the Senate, whose leadership calmed frayed nerves, the lower chamber, writes James Emejo, is still too angry to be pacified over the payment for military war planes without legislative approval

Majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives, last penultimate Tuesday, called for the impeachment of President Muhammadu Buhari over an alleged breach of the 1999 Constitution as altered. The rare but brazen clamour for his removal may have come as a surprise to many, given that the president’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) forms the majority in the lower chamber.

Yet, it didn’t take many by surprise given the growing resentment or more still, disharmony between the executive and legislature in recent times.

In fact, analysts believe that apart from the alleged breach of the constitution in the purchase of military hardware without parliament authorisation, the president and members of his executive arm had developed the habit of belittling the legislature in several instances.

The late submission of the 2018 budget by the president in December last year instead of September as provided by law is still fresh in the minds of the lawmakers.

It is believed that the tardiness in the submission of the 2018 Appropriation constituted part of the reasons it has not been passed by the National Assembly as there appears to be no time to properly scrutinise the estimates from the agencies of government – a situation, which had forced the lawmakers to variously reach a conclusion that the executive may have reduced parliament to a rubber stamp.

Also, the recent controversy over the non-release of N100 billion contingency vote, which is dear to the hearts of every legislator and almost marred the Buhari 2018 budget presentation to the joint session of the National Assembly is another grudge being nursed against the president.

Furthermore, the penchant of heads of government agencies to flout parliamentary invitations and summons at any given time had also been a bone of contention between the legislature and executive arms in recent times.

House resolutions are hardly implemented by the executive, leading to assumptions that Buhari’s nonchalant attitude towards the parliament might have helped to embolden other agencies to treat the National Assembly with contempt.

Although the call for the president’s impeachment was the fallout of the anticipatory approval the president gave for the withdrawal of $496 million from the ECA for the procurement of 12 Super Tucano aircraft from the United States government without the green light from parliament, the lawmakers, who set aside sentiments and political alignment in their clamour to impeach him cited similar expenditure by the executive without appropriation, particularly the current petrol subsidy programme, which is unknown to parliament and which the executive had denied funding against mounting evidence to the contrary.

A Joint Committee on Finance and Petroleum Downstream, headed by Hon. Babangida Ibrahim (APC, Katsina) recently established that there’s an existing fuel subsidy regime which is unknown to parliament. As a result, he said a full-blown investigation into the sources of funding for the subsidy scheme had commenced.

The House had on January 17, following a motion, tasked the committee to find out what sources of funding was being used to operate the subsidy regime, when there’s no proposal for it in the 2018 budget. This aspect of alleged breach of the constitution was also cited by members of the lower chamber in their push for an impeachment proceeding against Buhari.

Besides, the explanation by the president in the letter that he gave the anticipatory approval for the withdrawal of the amount, because of the February deadline given by the U.S. government to close the deal on the aircraft purchase didn’t appease lawmakers’ frayed nerves as some of them questioned the rush to make the payments when the military aircraft are to be delivered by 2020.

Nevertheless, the lawmakers’ call for the removal of the president began when Hon. Kingsley Chinda (PDP Rivers) raised a point of order, pointing out the constitutional breach by the president after his letter of request was read on the floor. He said Buhari was in breach of the Constitution given that the expenditure had already been incurred even before seeking parliament’s consideration and approval.

“Mr. Speaker, there’s no such language as anticipatory approval in our law,” he said, adding that the House could not be the rubber stamp of the Executive.

Chinda argued that a “constitutional infraction like this is impeachable”, to which many members chorused: “yes”.

“Let’s commence the impeachment of Mr. President right from this moment,” he added.

He said such impunity by the president would never be allowed in any democracy in the world.

“We have no reason to allow things to continue this way. We have power over the purse. Must we approve everything?”

He called on the National Assembly to assert itself as a watchdog, noting that it appeared to be asleep and had evolved into an institution that can only bark and not bite.

Backing his assertions, Hon. Karimi Sunday (PDP, Kogi) pointed out that the $496 million was spent without the parliament’s approval and challenged his colleagues to take up the responsibility of questioning the constitutional breach.

“It’s time to tell the president that we were elected to serve the people. We are not going to take what he’s done,” Sunday said, adding that the House needed to reply the president, drawing his attention to the fact that he was in breach of the Constitution and there would be consequences.

Deputy Minority Leader, Hon. Chukwuma Onyema, while describing the constitutional breach as a shame, said the House should reply the president’s correspondence and alert him on the infraction and consequence.

Aliyu Madaki (APC, Kano) also supported his colleagues on the constitutional breach by the president, while Hon. Yusuf Tajudeen (PDP, Kogi) said, “We shouldn’t misinform ourselves. It’s a letter telling us what has been done and not a bill.

“I appeal we jettison partisanship on this issue. The executive has always told the public that we are the ones killing the economy. We were told that the aircraft are to be supplied in 2020 and so why the rush?”

Hon. Sergius Ogun (PDP, Edo) said the House had the right to do the needful, recalling that the former Senate President, the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, was impeached after he gave anticipatory approval for the construction of streetlights in the assembly complex in 2000.

Contributing, Hon. Lovette Idisi (PDP Delta) said based on precedents, it would not be the first time the executive has spent public money outside the National Assembly’s approval.

According to him, “We should not support illegality, what is wrong is wrong. We should rise and speak the truth. I second the motion for impeachment proceedings.”

Although the clamour for the president’s impeachment enjoyed the overwhelming support of lawmakers last Tuesday, it proved difficult to actually commence the process to unseat Buhari. This was largely because a few members, who were against the move, cited the need to adhere to the House rules in dealing with the issue.

According to them, the correspondence from the president to the speaker ought not to be immediately subjected to a debate on the same day it was read, as stated in the rule book of the House.

But proponents of the impeachment bid said such rules apply to bills and not letters, insisting that the issue be trashed out Tuesday.

It was apparent that those in favour of commencing the impeachment process were concerned that if the matter was deferred to a later date, members may be compromised through lobbying to abandon the move.

It was at this stage that the Chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Hon. Emmanuel Oker-jev, intervened and stated that by the House rules, debating the president’s letter would have amounted to putting the cart before the horse as “this is just the first reading”.

Seeking clarity, the Speaker Yakubu Dogara sought to know if there were instances of first reading concerning letters received by the House.

“The letter is asking for appropriation and there’s no way to appropriate because it’s not a bill. But let’s operate within the ambit of the rules,” Dogara said.

Agreeing with Dogara and Oker-jev’s position, Hon. Iorember Wayo (APC Benue) said: “The wrong thing has been done and there are infractions of the Constitution. But let the issue be properly brought to the floor. Let’s wait until that day.”

However, Hon. Sylvester Ogbaga (PDP, Ebonyi) countered Wayo, saying the president’s letter was a mere communication and not a bill. “It doesn’t enjoy first or third reading. It’s consistently out of order to subject it to a first reading.”

Hon. Pally Iriase (APC, Edo) said though such unapproved expenditure could no doubt instigate anger, “a letter from the president should be slated appropriately as this is the first time.”

At a point in the debate, it was difficult to reach a consensus on the matter.

Eventually, the speaker had to resort to the House rules to defer the formal debate on the president’s letter to another day but was curiously silent on the precise date the debate would take place.

“We have a procedure of doing things. Normally, we will commit it to another date for debate,” he said.

Although the issue may have been temporarily suspended until a date for its debate by the House, it remains to be seen whether the strong agitation for the president’s removal will be sustained when the matter is resurrected in the coming days.