FG’s $22.7bn Loan and Southeast’s Exclusion Protest

0

As the House of Representatives halts the consideration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s $22.7bn loan request, federal legislators from the Southeast have however kicked against the loan already approved by the Senate, report Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu

The Senate’s approval of President Muhammadu Buhari’s $22.79 billion external borrowing request on Thursday, March 5, stirred the hornet’s nest especially, among the Southeast caucus of the Ninth National Assembly that faulted the non-inclusion of Southeast zone among the zones to benefit from the 34 infrastructure projects to be executed with the loan.

A lot of protests and grievances also trailed the loan approval by the upper chamber with the public and the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) faulting it.

President Buhari had on November 28, 2019 forwarded a request to the National Assembly to reconsider and approve the federal government’s 2016 to 2018 external borrowing plan to help Nigeria finance the capital components of the 2020 budget. The loan if approved, he said, would be used to execute key infrastructure projects across the country.

The President had sent the same request to the Eighth Senate under Bukola Saraki in 2016 wherein he requested for about $30 billion. The then lawmakers, however, rejected the request as majority voted against it when it was brought for consideration.

The President, in the November 28 letter to the Ninth Senate led by Dr. Ahmad Lawan, explained that the external borrowing plan target-projects cut across all sectors.

According to the document accompanying the President’s request, the loan would be spread across many financial institutions. Over 70 per cent of the loan would come from the Exim Bank of China, while the remaining funds will come from the World Bank and Africa Development Bank, among others.

The breakdown is as follows: Exim Bank of China ($17bn), World Bank ($2.95bn), Africa Development Bank ($1.88bn), Islamic Development Bank ($110m), Japan International Cooperation Agency ($200m), German Development Bank ($20m) and French Development Agency ($480m).

The Senate’s approval of the loan on March 5, was however not without protests from the PDP Senators with Senate President Lawan and the Minority Leader, Senator Eyinaya Abaribe being locked in very bitter altercations over the whole procedure.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Loans, Senator Clifford Ordia, had barely laid the report and was about to read the executive summary, when Senator Adamu Aliero asked the Senate President to postpone deliberation on the document to enable them study the report.

Lawan rejected the suggestion warning that the report may have become a public debate before last week, because the press would definitely get copies and publish the contents.

“According to Senate rules, the report should not be subjected to line by line consideration. We are not doing second reading on this. We have recommendations which we will vote on but before we reach that stage, what is here is what is to finance our capital budget,” the Senate President said,

Abaribe was, however, quick to fault the position of the Senate President saying, “The position is that we would now approve some of this. It is when we get to the point of looking at each one of them that we will now determine which of these projects will help in growing our economy. Now that you have said we will take it line by line.

“We are going to pass a loan approval of $22.7bn and we, who are going to pay back that are making efforts to make sure this is clarified and Mr. President, you are not giving us the privilege to make our points known and come across. We don’t see anything that is so difficult for us.”

The Senators eventually approved the loan request when they emerged from the closed-door session that lasted for over three hours.

It, however, took the Southeast caucus of the National Assembly one whole week to express their reservations on the loan. The lawmakers made up of Senators and House members from the zone met after last Thursday’s plenary in the office of Abaribe and resolved to separately meet with the leadership of both the Senate and House over the loan request approved by the Senate. Immediate past Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who is the Leader of the Southeast caucus in the National Assembly led the ‘protesting’ Southeast legislators to the meeting that lasted for about three hours.

Ekweremadu, who briefed the press after the meeting with Lawan and Gbajabiamila, in company with Abaribe, Deputy Minority Leader, House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu; Deputy Whip and House of Representatives, Hon. Nkiru Onyejeocha, among others gave a synopsis of the loan.

“You’ll recall that in the last National Assembly, there was a borrowing plan presented by the federal government but for some obvious reasons, especially exclusion, it was not taken. This has been returned in the present National Assembly. Regrettably, the Senate passed the borrowing plan last Thursday, which excluded the whole of the Southeast.

“I would like to use this opportunity to thank some of our colleagues, who were in the chamber that day, especially, Senator Abaribe, who made spirited efforts to get the issue of equitable distribution addressed. Most of us were not in the chamber that day. Like myself, I was attending the INEC retreat on electoral reforms in Lagos as a member of the Senate Committee on INEC.”

He posited that the caucus met last Wednesday and decided to engage the National Assembly leadership on the issue

“We met as a Caucus last night after consulting with our people and getting their feelings on this issue. We decided that the best approach would be a constructive engagement with the National Assembly leadership. So, this afternoon, we had a very good conversation with both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

“They showed not just concern, but commitment to addressing these issues. And we are satisfied with those assurances. And we are believing that the matter will either be revisited or since it has not been passed in the House, that the appropriate thing will be done so that our people’s fears could be assuaged.

“We want to thank the Senate President and the Speaker for their assurances and their commitments to national unity and justice for all parts of Nigeria. We believe that equity should be the way for our country to make progress. It is our thinking that since what the federal government presented is a borrowing plan, there is still an opportunity for us to look at the distribution so that every part of the country will have a sense of belonging in the way the loan facilities will be managed.

“We believe ultimately that every part of Nigeria will be part of the repayment. And if we are going to be part and parcel of the loan repayment, it makes every sense that we all also benefit from the utilisation of those funds. We are concerned about certain facilities, including the Eastern Railway Corridor from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, access to the sea through dredging and developing of seaports in our area, power projects etc”.

Responding to why some Senators, including the Southeast Senators were not at plenary on the day the loan was passed, the Chairman of the Senate committee on Environment explained, “I cannot remember any day 109 Senators were present during a sitting. Not even on the day of inauguration. It has never happened. We all have our own assignments and sometimes they take us out of the plenary or the National Assembly entirely. “But if a matter comes up and you are not there and a decision is taken, we have under our Rules, what you could do, which is what we are raising now. What you could do is to come under our Rules for the matter to be rescinded and be taken again. We understand that. We have been here for a long time.

“Meanwhile, you can’t be in two places at the same time. Those Senators from the Southeast, who were not there were on one national assignment or the other. So, it is unfair to say we were not all there. It came up in the last Senate and we ensured it was not taken. If it has now been taken in the current Senate that is democracy in action.

“Also recall that the Southeast has only 15 Senators. It is part of the issue of marginalisation we have been talking about and that is why we have been pushing for restructuring. Even if you put all the 15 members of the Senate from the Southeast together at a sitting and you vote, definitely, you know what will be the outcome. So, it is not a matter of playing to the gallery. We are here to engage our colleagues in a way that they would understand our concerns and we will get results. That is what matters. Minority will have their say, but majority will have their way”.

On the part of the House, the consideration of the loan request has been kept on hold, due to a petition by a member, Hon. Henry Nwawuba on behalf of Southeast Leaders, under the aegis of Southeast Elite, who described the loan as illegal.

Nwawuba at plenary earlier last week stressed that the borrowing and procedure being used were against the norms, laws and constitution of Nigeria.

Responding, Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila asked the lawmaker why the petition came from the elite and not the common man?

“On the issue of the Southeast elite, I guess the $22.7bn does not concern the Southeast’ poor men, it is only for the elite. Honourable Nwawuba, this $22.7bn you complained about does not concern your constituents? Only the elite? Until we get a petition from the common man, who you represent, I’m not sure we will address that petition.”

Nwawuba, who is the Deputy Chairman of House Committee on Niger Delta Affairs later told THISDAY that the document was basically seeking to save the National Assembly from embarrassment, saying there’s a disconnect between the loan proposal and Fiscal Responsibility Act.

His words: “The elite raised alarm, I presented the petition this afternoon on the floor of the parliament challenging its efficacy. There’s a way we can contravene the constitution by approving this loan and we will be taken to court as a parliament for that approval that we have given.

“There’s a disconnect between the loan proposal and fiscal responsibility act, which says that for every loan, we will take in this country it must be accompanied by a cost benefit analysis of the implementation of the loan.”

The lawmaker further explained that the petition also sought to stop the House from passing the loan request and do some more work to ensure that economic activities will be triggered to repay this loan.

Following Nwabuba’s petition, the House during plenary the next day postponed deliberation on the loan request, while Gbajabiamila, who made the announcement said the consideration of the external loan request by the President should be stepped down for now.

…And the Immunity Clause Amendment Debate!

If the proposed amendment of some sections of the 1999 Constitution scaled through in the Senate, the election of President, governors, lawmakers and other political office holders including serving politicians may be affected,

The constitutional amendment is seeking a new minimum educational qualification for those seeking to be president, governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives and State Houses of Assembly.

The political office seekers have to pass through this new hurdle in order to be eligible to run for any office.

Titled: “A Bill for an Act to alter the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to provide for the amendment of Section 65(2)(a),131(d), Section 106(c) and Section 177(d) therein, to provide for minimum qualification for election into the national and states assembly, office of the President and governors, and other related matters, 2020, the bill, which passed second reading on the floor of the Senate last Thursday was sponsored by Senator Istifanus Gyang (Plateau North).

The Bill also seeks to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to provide for the amendment of Sections 65 (2) (a), 131 (d), Section 106 (c) and Section 177 (d) on minimum education qualification for those seeking election into the State Assembly, Governor, National Assembly and office of The President.

“The Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (in this Bill referred to as ‘the Principal Act’) is altered as set out in the Bill,” part of the proposed amendments reads. The Bill is seeking the alteration of section 65 (2) (a) of the Constitution, which deals with the qualifications for intending members of the National Assembly

“While the existing law which the Bill seeks to amend reads: ‘A person shall be qualified for election under subsection (1) of this section if he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent’, Section 65 (2) (a) is now rephrased to read ‘if he has been educated to at least National Diploma level or its equivalent.”

The Bill also seeks the alteration of Section 131 (d), which deals with minimum requirements for anyone running for the office of the president. The current Section of the Constitution states that the person must have “been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent”.

The proposed Section 131 (d) is now rephrased to read: “He has been educated up to at least HND level or’ its equivalent.”

As for the House of Assembly, the Bill seeks the alteration of section 106 (c) of the Constitution. While the existing law stipulates that, anyone aspiring to be a member of the House of Assembly must have “been educated up to at least the School Certificate level or its equivalent,” Section 106 (c) is now rephrased to read: “If he has been educated up to National diploma level or its equivalent.”

As for the governors, the Bill seeks the alteration of section 177 (d) of the Constitution. The current Section states that the person must have “been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent.”

Section 177 (d) is now rephrased to read: “If he has been educated up to at least Higher National Diploma Level or its equivalent.”

The implication of these proposed amendments, if passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly and assented to by the President, is that some of the current political office holders including governors and legislators cannot seek re-election as they possess only school certificate (WASC), which cannot be tendered during elections in 2023.

Another crucial aspect of the legislative process is that which seeks to strip sitting presidents and the vice presidents of their immunity, particularly in issues of criminal matters. Thus, if the proposed constitution amendment passes into law, the governors and their deputies will no longer enjoy immunity.

Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution as amended ensures that, the president, vice-president, governors and deputy governors, enjoy immunity in order to be protected from litigation or persecution.

However, part of the bill reads: “This Act provides for qualification of the immunity clause to exclude immunity for public officers referred to in Section 308 from criminal liability, where the offence involves misappropriation of funds belonging to the federal, state or local government and also the use of thugs to foment violence.”

The proposed bill provides that a President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors shall lose their immunity if they are investigated by security and anti-graft agencies, including the courts.