… Steps down Amended 2020 Budget over Omitted N186bn Vote

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Deji Elumoye and Chuks Okocha in Abuja

The upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly yesterday stepped down the consideration of the revised N10.509 trillion 2020 Appropriation Bill that was forwarded to it a fortnight ago by President Muhammadu Buhari.

This is just as the Senate gave its Ad-hoc committee probing the alleged N40 billion frauds in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) four more weeks to do a thorough job and turn in its report at plenary.

The Senate had given President Buhari’s budget request an expeditious consideration and debated the general principles of the fresh proposal along with the revised 2020-2022 Medium Term Expenditure Framework ( MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper ( FSP) the very week the documents were received, which led to passage of MTEF/FSP yesterday.

However, moves by the Senate to receive report of the revised 2020 budget from its Committee on Appropriation for possible passage suffered set back at plenary yesterday.

The President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, had hardly called on the Chairman of the Appropriation Committee, Senator Jibrin Barau, to lay the report when he stunned the Senate saying the report could not be laid as a result of the refusal of the Budget Office to capture the entire N500 billion intervention fund for COVID-19 in the appropriation bill.

He said that while N314 billion was captured as part of the intervention fund, the balance of N186 billion proposed for health sector was not captured.

Barau said: “Upon making such observation at committee level, we quickly informed the Budget Office of the omission last week. Though the Budget Office, as part of excuses given for the omission, said since the entire N500billion was captured in the MTEF/ FSP documents already passed by the Senate, that there was no need for it to be fully captured in the budget.

“But we rejected that excuse in line with Sections 80 and 81 of the 1999 Constitution as amended which empowered the National Assembly to appropriate every single kobo for the executive before spending.

“On the strength of our superior argument, the Budget Office admitted wrongness of the omission but promised to write a letter to us to be used as evidence of helping them to include it. But the expected letter never came till now, making us not to be ready for presentation of any report now.

“If by the end of today, the office still refuse to send the letter to us, we shall be left with no other alternative than to print out our report today based on proposals contained in the appropriation bill for consideration in plenary tomorrow,” he said.

Apparently surprised by the development, the Senate President declared: “I will advise those responsible for putting budget estimates for revised budget or whatever to be meticulous and responsible as the National Assembly cannot be a destination where lack of efficiency in somebody’s job would be addressed.

“We are supposed to have the entire bill presented to us and you did the right thing by asking and insisting that a letter should be written to specifically address that problem that there was an omission on their side and they are requesting for the inclusion of N186 billion. We have to insist on this because when we simply put figures without the document supporting the inclusion somebody will say we are padding the budget and the National Assembly is castigated and in some cases even insulted.”

Lawan directed that the budget documents should be circulated among senators on Wednesday (today) ahead of the consideration of the appropriation bill on Thursday.

His words: “So you did the right thing by asking for letter to that effect. I believe that the needful will be done by the executive to address this but when you say you will print the document between today and tomorrow; you have to print it today. We must have the document printed today, you lay it tomorrow and make copies available to all senators today (Wednesday) and then we consider the report on Thursday.”

The Senate also descended on those making accusations and counter accusations on alleged financial impropriety in the NDDC because of its move to probe N40billion expended by the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the commission within the first three months of year 2020.

This was sequel to fresh request for extension of time made by the Chairman of the Ad-hoc Committee, Senator Olubunmi Adetunbi.

Adetunbi complained that the lockdowns prevented many of the stakeholders invited by the committee to respond on time.

He, therefore, requested the Senate to grant the committee additional six weeks to carry out thorough investigation of the issue.

Lawan, however, approved four weeks extension for the committee.

He said: “We wish the committee a very successful exercise and urge it to remain focus as far as the planned investigation on finances of the NDDC under the Interim Management Committee is concerned. The move by the Senate in this direction has generated a lot of controversies driven by vested interests.

“So many side attractions, distractions and disruptions for or against the planned investigation are being carried out by people or groups of people. Part of the distractions are series of write ups in the media by the vested groups almost on daily basis but unfortunately, all these cannot stop the Senate from forging ahead with an assignment backed by resolution and firmly within the ambit of its constitutional responsibilities. So, in their own interest, the earlier they stop the distractions the better because our committee will forge ahead with the assignment.”