Last week, plenary sittings were suspended for two days to enable the eighty-nine Standing Committee concentrate on the budget. As usual, the lower chamber witnessed a flurry of activities as the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) took turns to defend the implementation of the 2012 budget.
In all the sessions, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Directors-General were expected to give account of their stewardship in terms of how the funds appropriated to their respective MDAs were utilized in the outgoing year. The second part of the engagement was for the MDAs to show cause why they deserve the various amounts allocated to their departments and agencies in 2013 Appropriation Bill.
As for the running budget, the story was the same everywhere - lawmakers said performance was poor and nothing to write home about; MDAs insisted they performed creditably well given the resources at their disposal. In virtually all the MDAs, there were complaints of partial release of funds by the Federal Ministry of Finance and hence less performance on capital budgets. However, there were no similar reports on overheads and recurrent expenditure.
The Friendly, Hostile Bouts
The atmosphere was calm and convivial in many of the sessions but tempers flared at some spots where, as the lawmakers would say, the ministers and directors-general and permanent secretaries were not on the same page with the parliament.
If there were an award for the most peaceful and friendly session, it would have gone to the House Committee on Marine Transport where the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, received accolades after he rendered an account of his stewardship.
The House Committee on Culture and Tourism had a good outing with the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation Edem Duke. Although there was an initial threat when the session kicked off, a sudden power outage brought both parties back to the reality that Nigerians shared a common destiny in adversity.
It took the sheer comic wits of the minister to calm down all the claws that were hitherto itching to draw blood on account of the perceived poor performance of the budget.
On the other hand, the House Committee on Science and Technology would easily have picked the gold medal for the most hostile panel after the lawmaker walked out the Minister of Science and Technology Professor Ita Okon Bassey Ewa over a minor friction. The lawmakers had asked Ewa to express the performance of the 2012 budget in percentage and when he hesitated, hell was let loose and a hot exchange of words ensued, culminating in the abrupt suspension of the session. Judging from the sequence of the events, it is still debatable if it was the minister who walked out on the lawmakers or vice versa. However, it is incredible how the budget defense session in this vital sector of the economy was scuttled by a storm in a tea cup.
The House Committee on Environment would have bagged a silver medal in the contest of hostile panels as members threatened to seek the sack of the Minister of Environment, Mrs. Hadiza Ibrahim-Mailafia, when she failed to appear before the panel on the first day. As if this threat was not enough, the lawmakers confronted her with a grievous allegation that some unnamed officials in her ministry have been indulging in some form of extortion in the award of contracts. Of course, she denied the allegations and promised to conduct an investigation to unravel the truth.
A similar situation of hostility played out at the House Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream) where lawmakers on Wednesday, threatened to issue a warrant of arrest on the Group General Manager, National Petroleum Investment Services, (NAPIMS) Mr. M. A. Fiddi over his inability to appear before the committee to give an appraisal of the 2012 budget and defend budget estimates for 2013.
This has been the posture of this committee and a few others over time and they need to be reminded that there is actually no need to boast about the seeming limitless powers of the parliament, particularly when these threats are never carried out.
Fresh Flood Alert
Barely two months after Nigeria witnessed its worst flood in fifty years, the Surveyors Registration Council of Nigeria (SURCON) came to the budget defense with yet another flood alert.
The Council said the country might be heading for a worse flood unless some urgent steps were taken to maintain and closely monitor over 200 dams dotting the Nigerian landscape.
Registrar of the Surveyor Council of Nigeria, Mr. Winston Ayeni who appeared before the House Committee on Works disclosed that most of these dams were at various levels of disrepair and were therefore potential sources of devastating floods in the event that any of them collapses.
He disclosed that facilities such as the Kainji Dam was not been maintained regularly and remained a source concern in view of the recent flooding that swept through the country.
Ayeni said the Council predicted the recent flood but lamented that its alert was not taken seriously by the state governments and relevant agencies. The Council disclosed that even the National Emergency Management Agency(NEMA) which ought to obtain images of flood prone areas from the Surveyor Council of Nigeria to enable it identify high risk zones and prepare an emergency plan only came for such images after the flood. Talk about medicine after death!
As we observed in the penultimate week, the budget defense sessions have remained silent on the issue of wastages and official corruption embedded in our national budget. The dialogue is merely focused on what figures were appropriated, how much was released, how much has been utilised and how much more the MDAs are expecting to receive before the close of the budget year. Since last year, a coalition of civil society organisations, namely Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and Citizens Wealth Platform (CWP) has been advocating for a deeper oversight on the budget. The coalition has consistently maintained that what we have had as budgets are bloated figures and dubious sub-heads and has demonstrated how to. Identify these leakages and plug them permanently.
Obviously, the lawmakers are not probing enough to enable them discover anything new about the budget they pass every year. They are either ignorant of these leakages or are accomplices in their creation.
This is the bane of parliamentary oversight in this country.