19 August 2018

Nigeria: Presidency Deliberately Withheld INEC Budget for 2019 Polls for Seven Months - Senator Abaribe

"In this interview on Channels TV, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe explains why Nigerians should not allow themselves to be misled in the on-going face-off between the leadership of the Senate and the Adams Oshiomhole leadership of the All Progressives Congress, APC. He outlines the procedure for the approval of the budget for the 2019 general elections and insists that once relevant committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives finish their work, there would be a meeting of the harmonisation committee before the two chambres of the National Assembly meet in plenary to approve the budget. Excerpts:

What do you say about the non-resumption of the National Assembly and the controversy surrounding it?

It (resumption) is totally unnecessary. Yesterday, the committees on INEC, in both chambers, met with officials of the electoral body to defend their (officials) submissions on the budget for the elections. Now, committee work usually comes before we bring everything to the whole house to consider. That is precisely what needs to be done, and that is what was pointed out by the media aides of the Speaker and President of the Senate to say, in effect, that all this brouhaha was unnecessary.

When you say 'resume, resume', you don't just resume to commit something to the committees and then go away. Now, you have seen how long it will take to get the details and how the details could be defended by the relevant committees. This is just for INEC. Don't forget that the President is also asking for virement for the money to be used for the elections. In other words, for each item in the virement which has to deal with a particular committee, that committee has to also sit and consider it and decide whether they will approve the virement or not. So, it is not a process that you will just say' bring all of them together, go ahead and look at the matter'. That is why we feel that there was much more to this call for returning, than merely to look at the matter of the budget.

Some people say the manner the National Assembly went on recess was rather abrupt, before the scheduled date. And the INEC budget was yet to be considered.

I think you are very wrong to say the Senate went on recess abruptly. We were scheduled to go on recess on Thursday. And we met on Tuesday. And it was that same Tuesday that the Senate President's house was blocked, he (nearly) could not come out; the Deputy Senate President's house was also blocked so that he also could not come out, and the intention was to make sure that none of the two presiding officers was there to preside. And the idea, of course, was that, after a meeting of APC senators, they were to come that day and, if the two presiding officers were not there, they would go ahead to bring presiding officer pro-tempo and then use that to effect a change of leadership. We were scheduled to go on recess on Thursday but left on Tuesday. The aspect of this matter which Nigerians don't know and which everybody needs to know is this: INEC sent the request for the approval of the budget for the 2019 elections in January to the Presidency.

From January to February, March, April, May, June, nobody did anything until July. And at the point we were to go on recess in July, the week before we were to go, on Thursday, you now brought a letter, asking us to look into this matter. What were you dong all these seven months? That is why we felt that it was deliberate, it was designed to fail. Now, the problem we have with the APC government and the Presidency is designing stuff of this nature, turning around and trying to blame another group or persons. Let me also say this so that it can be very clear to Nigerians: The Presidency cannot say they cannot fund INEC. Why did we pass a humongous budget that is called Service Wide Vote? We passed that so that when you need money, you could take from that while you bring us back, and we are to come back in September ending. In other words, you could have still used part of the Service Wide Vote to fund whatever preliminary things you are going to do now because the bulk of the job you have to do in INEC, that is, printing ballot papers and all of that, you don't print the ballot papers until you are sure who is a candidate.

If you saying this was a set-up that the INEC budget was brought in late, let me remind you that the budget was not passed until June. Was it not because of the political intrigues that made the budget to be passed in June? So you cannot really divorce one from the other, or can you?

I think the problem there is that we have a sense of history. We know when the budget was brought for consideration. It was brought in November, just before we went on Christmas break. At the point Mr President laid the budget, it was also known by everybody that we could not have considered that budget until January. And when we came back, we started the consideration. You also know that even Mr President himself had to direct ministries, departments and agencies to come to defend their budgets, because they were very lackadaisical. I can tell you from what happened in my own Committee on Power, the Minister of Power, Mr Babatunde Fashola, refused to come. We, as a Committee, now said, 'no need'. Ordinarily, we could have said we were not going to take the budget until the Minister was there. The Minister of State was there. And we said, 'okay, let s take the Minister of State'. And the Minister of State, of course, never knew what was in the budget, because any question we asked him, he would refer it to the Permanent Secretary. So, we asked him, 'Why are you referring it to the Perm Sec? Are you not supposed to be the political head?

That is why you need to answer the question'. He said 'no, I need to consult with the Perm Sec, the Perm Sec knows more'. And we said 'no, if this is the condition, let us adjourn to give you time to come back'. Those were the things that were going on inside. And that was why you saw delays. Second, the INEC budget was not brought at the same time. The INEC budget is the issue now. And it was brought just before we were due to go on recess... is that not so? The question we have asked and continue to ask the Presidency is, why did you keep this budget with you since January and you didn't submit it to us? You knew there was an election coming. And election is like a pregnancy. We knew before hand. And you didn't send it. and then you start all this brouhaha and say it is the fault of the Senate. Of course, members of the Senate and the House are now interrogating the INEC on those matters which had been delayed all this while. Why is nobody asking the Presidency, why did you delay it? Why blame the Senate?

The Power Minister did say that, not only did he appear before your Committee but the argument was made at that time was about one document and another that was missing.

They are being claver by half. The job of the defence of a budget is not that of the Perm Sec; it is the job of the person who is the Minister because he is the person who takes responsibility, he is the person who appears at the Federal Executive Council meetings to defend what comes to his ministry. So, even if any Minister tells you, 'oh, I don't have this document', they ought to have continued, so, what did you expect us to do? If you don't have a document, what did you want us to do? You want to go ahead and wave it? Then tomorrow, you will come back and you will see in that document something you ought to have queried? Who will now take responsibility for that?

Let us look at the foreign borrowing request on the table. We heard from the Minister of Finance that if it is not done and delivered by the National Assembly by the end of this month, there would be no funding for the capital component of the 2018 budget.

The problem of the reconvening of the National Assembly, I hasten to repeat, is not the National Assembly's fault. I am just saying this so that Nigerians can know. We are willing to reconvene but the point is this, reconvene to do what? Now you are talking about foreign component of the budget. There is a committee, in fact, there are three committees or so that are supposed to be part of that. The Committee on Foreign Borrowing, the Committee on Finance and Committee on Appropriation. Those committees now have to interrogate the Minister and agree with her and her officials on the borrowing plan and what it does to the humongous debt we already have. On that note, the committees will come back to plenary to report to us. So, whenever you continue to say 'come back, come back', we are saying 'let the committees finish their work, ready and then we come back to hold a joint session and agree and pass everything'. That is the point. So merely putting the cart before the horse is what we are against and that is exactly what the Senate President and the Speaker have already put out to the public.

What is your response to those who say this reconvening or not of the National Assembly essentially boils down to politics, that the issue of committees doing their work is a delay tactic employed to avoid the Senate President being impeached?

Let me put it in context so that everybody understands.You don't just say 'come back and sit'. To do what? The committees have to finish their work. As for the political aspect and the question of whether somebody is going to be impeached, the same APC, led by their Chairman, who, despite having all the lawyers, despite knowing everything, continues to heat up the polity by being on television, shouting everyday, 'We must impeach. We have this. We have that'. They are the people talking about that. It is not us.

Some people say it is within the purview of the APC Chairman to say whatever he wants to say as long as it is political. But looking at what is happening in the National Assembly, you were trying to defend that your going on recess was not abrupt even though you agreed that you were scheduled to go on Thursday but went on Tuesday. Some people say the circumstances as reason for going on Tuesday is what you are still trying to avoid by not reconvening. Some people are alleging that the Senate President is trying to protect his position by preventing the National Assembly from reconvening, otherwise the joint statement issued would have been issued way before then

The reason for the joint statement was because of the incorrect statement and the inaccuracies that have been bandied about by the APC. And they needed to make the issue clear. I agree with you that there were circumstances that led to us to having to adjourn and go on scheduled recess two days earlier. I can say this. It boils down to what exactly is needed. You have also said what is needed. One is to pass the INEC budget. Two is to pass the borrowing plan. And, of course, they added some other inconsequential matters like approval of those who needed to be cleared. I say this. Take it from the beginning... from the immediate hstory we have. Why did they not do this all along? We can also excuse the tardiness of this regime. Third, you want us to reconvene and we are saying to you, 'fine, we would reconvene but when these processes have been finished'. I can just give you, from the newspapers today, why we needed to do all that. Just imagine, there was a N46b difference between what the President sent and what INEC sent.

INEC was already clear. The Chairman said there was no disparity between what the President sent and what INEC is saying, that what happened is that there was a division as a part of it was submitted in the 2018 budget and another part was supposed to be for the 2019 budget.

You are a senator, you are sitting there, and you have the President's letter, with a different number and you have the INEC submission with a different number. The first question you ask is, why is there this disparity? It is the job of the INEC Chairman to now do the clarification that you have said. But would there have been any clarification if there was no meeting? Would there have been any clarification if we had all of us sitting in a joint session to now look at that, would we sit in a joint session with the INEC Chairman? You know why there is need for us to go through processes.

Nobody is faulting the joint statement. The question is why this joint statement coming when the clamour for the reconvening of the National Assembly comes up first.

I can explain that very easily. Our procedures are known to each of us who is a member of parliament. How we do our business? Now when a narrative goes out to the public that we are not doing our business the way it is supposed to be done, we have a responsibility to the public to say 'this is how we do this business'. By telling us that we needed to have told the people, no. This clamour came from the APC, outside of the National Assembly, shouting that we refused to reconvene and even mentioning things like treason.

The Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, appealed that the National Assembly should reconvene, didn't he know the process?

Of course he knows the process.

So what was he asking for?

That the question the Senate Leader will have to answer, not me. He has been in the National Assembly since 1999. So he should know the process.

The Deputy Speaker said the National Assembly will resume last week.

What he meant is that we were going to start the processes which have already started.

How long do you think it is going to take before the National Assembly reconvenes?

I am not a member of those committees. The INEC Committee met yesterday. They could not resolve all the issues and they said they were still meeting today.

Do you see reason Nigerians are concerned that the committees are puppetering in order to suit the political...

I take exception to what you just said now when you said presiding officers are puppetering. That is the narrative out there to the public and very injurious to the National Assembly because it is essentially wrong. Every Committee works. And whenever a Committee meets, it is essentially a National Assembly meeting. That is the rule.

But we know that the National Assembly can direct its Committee to finish its work within a certain period.

(Cuts in) Precisely

How long will it take

I am not the presiding officer. I don't know how long they gave them. And I think that we have a sense of urgency. And if we have a sense of urgency, then, everybody must work towards that. When you have that a sense of urgency, then you should follow the rules and do things expeditiously. You don't have to tell us that we should try to pass this budget, and saying the leaders of the chambres are pleading on the one hand, and the Chairman of APC is standing over there and on the other hand, shouting 'this is our crown, we must impeach' and all that. Those are the things heating up the polity

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