10 February 2016

Nigeria: National Assembly Suspends Deadline for Passing 2016 Budget

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(file photo).

Signposting the persistence of the confusion that began when the 2016 budget document was declared "missing" at the National Assembly four weeks ago, doubts still remain over the figures allocated to subheads in various ministries, departments and agencies.

Now, members of the National Assembly have begun questioning the integrity of the document before them and suddenly announced yesterday the indefinite suspension of the deadline they had earlier fixed for passing the budget.

‎The two houses had fixed February 25, 2015 as the deadline for passing the document.

Meanwhile, State House officials yesterday defended before both chambers of the National Assembly the N18.1 billion proposed for its operation in the 2016 fiscal year during which they offered an insight into the contentious State House Clinic allocation.

The Permanent Secretary, State House, Jalal Arabi, who made the defence while appearing before the joint National Assembly Committees on Federal Character, Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, noted that the N1.7 billion generated by the State House in the 2015 fiscal year had since been remitted to the Federal Government coffers.

On the contentious State House Clinic, Arabi explained that the N3.219 billion proposed was meant for the completion of ongoing projects as well as procurement of drugs and other medical equipment.

Justifying the clinic's budget Arabi said: "the medical centre provides health care treatment for the president and vice president, their families as well as numerous civil servants working in the State House and across the ministries."

In a related development, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria has condemned the business-as-usual attitude displayed by Federal Government officials in the preparation and presentation of the 2016 budget proposal by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly last year.

It decried the way corruption has remained consistently mainstreamed in national budgets, especially against the fact that Nigeria seeks external assistance to fund the budget deficit.

This is coming on the heels of a call by Ekiti State governor, Mr Ayodele Fayose to Buhari to save the country from national embarrassment being caused by the 2016 budget that he presented to the National Assembly by formally withdrawing it and representing it.

The festering confusion The Guardian gathered has been exacerbated by the inability of top government officials, including permanent secretaries, who are accounting officers in federal ministries, to offer acceptable explanations to lawmakers at budget defence sessions.

The Minister of Health Professor Isaac Adewole, for example disowned outright what he was confronted with at the National Assembly.

As the confusion continued last Monday night, The Guardian sought explanations from the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma who yesterday sent a terse reply through a text message stating: "It is being sorted out."

According to Adewole, the provisions of the budget before the National Assembly were in contrast to the priorities of the health sector as contained in the original budget it prepared, adding that some of the votes earmarked by the ministry for some activities had been re-distributed while some important fields in the sector had been excluded.

Responding, the committee chairman, Tejuosho said: "Honourable minister, we need to have an executive session. Obviously, the budget we are looking at now is not your own," and Adewole swiftly responded: "No, it is not. We 'll submit the revised document tomorrow. It will be an updated version of what you have."

Just last week, permanent secretaries were embarrassingly grilled by federal lawmakers over the padding of ministries' and agencies' budgets. In one case, a subhead in the Ministry of Education was inflated by N10 billion.

In fact, an exasperated Chairman of the Senate Committee on Labour and Employment, Suleiman Nazif exploded thus: "You are proposing a budget here and we are seeing duplications .

What we seem to see that is wrong is that there is a pattern and everything you are telling us is national budget and planning template.What is this template in which you make mistakes and you say it is a template? For example general, tangible and non-tangible, all this things that you bring out we don't really understand them."

On Monday night, Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun did not want to be drawn into the ensuing confusion. Presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, also referred The Guardian enquiries to Udoma.

It would be recalled that following the anger of federal lawmakers in both Houses of the National Assembly over the mess surrounding the budget last week, Presidency officials had sought to distance the president himself and political office holders from the confusion, , blaming the top civil servants who prepared the document instead.

Reacting to the confusion, chairmen of the Appropriation Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, Danjuma Goje and Abdul Mummun Jibrin‎ respectively, who addressed a joint press conference at the National Assembly stated that the February 25 date was no longer feasible on account of the increasing contradictions in the budget figures.

Goje who presided over the press briefing said:"We are here in connection with the ongoing processing of the 2016 budget, and because of the observed instances that are being reported from the beginning of the budget submission; there are a lot of controversies surrounding the budget.

"We designed a timetable for the consideration and passage of the budget and in that particular timetable we had said that we will pass the budget on February 25,2016 but as you are all aware, a lot of issues have come up and sadly so.

"Again during the budget defence a lot of issues based on padding from over-bloated overhead and in some instances cases over-bloated personnel cost. But generally there has been a lot of issues.

"So in summary, the timetable for the passage of the budget is no longer realistic because as appropriation committees of both chambers of the National Assembly we need additional time to be able to do a thorough job for the 2016 budget."

Fayose in a statement issued yesterday by his Special Assistant on Pubic Communications and New Media, Lere Olayinka, said: "The president should admit that there were avoidable errors in the budget and since he is human and not immune to errors, he should simply do the needful by presenting a new and credible budget to the National Assembly."

Fayose described revelations by Adewole that the proposal drawn up by the ministry and submitted to the budget office had been doctored and that "foreign" appropriations, different from what was submitted, had been sneaked in as the height of national embarrassment.

On its part, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria in a statement signed by Rev. Fr. Evaritus Bassey, Executive Secretary, said members of the National Assembly "should overcome their transactional mindset and adopt a transformative one that goes beyond party affiliation to take a critical look at the budget and appropriate a final document that puts the Buhari government in its perceived perspective ...

"It is amazing that in spite of the seriousness, which the president has shown towards the fight against corruption, the first budget of this government is showing such terrible mainstreaming of corruption.

"With duplicated, repeated and carryover figures, sometimes for projects that have already been executed, the customary tendency would then be for officials to invent the means to retire these monies when they are finally appropriated, usually through a give and take process between relevant parliament officials and ministry officials," Bassey said.

Alifa Daniel, Mohammed Abubakar, Azimazi Momoh Jimoh, Cornelius Essen and Muyiwa Adeyemi

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