The Senate, on Monday, issued a final warning to the presidency to stop blaming thelegislature for its failures. Senate spokesman, Senator Abdullahi, issued a statement saying “While the executive is mandated to prepare and lay before the National Assembly a proposed budget detailing projects to be executed, it should be made clear that the responsibility and power of appropriation lie with the National Assembly. If the presidency expects us to return the budget proposal to them without any adjustments, then some people must be living in a different era and probably have not come to terms with democracy.
“We make bold to say, however, that the said Lagos-Calabar rail project was not included in the budget proposal presented to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari, and we challenge anyone who has any evidence to the contrary to present such to Nigerians. Since the beginning of the 2016 budget process, it is clear that the National Assembly has suffered all manners of falsehood, deliberate distortion of facts, and outright blackmail, deliberately aimed at poisoning the minds of the people against the institution of the National Assembly. We have endured this with equanimity in the overall interest of Nigerians. Even when the original submission was surreptitiously swapped and we ended up having two versions of the budget, which was almost incomprehensible and heavily padded in a manner that betrays lack of coordination and gross incompetence, we refused to play to the gallery and instead helped the Executive to manage the hugely embarrassing situation it has brought upon itself; but enough is enough.
“This latest antics of this particular minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, is reckless, uncalled for and dangerously divisive. Apart from setting the people of the southern part of the country against their northern compatriots, it potentially sets the people against their lawmakers from the concerned constituencies and sets the lawmakers against themselves. This manner of reprehensible mischief has no place in a democracy. We hereby demand from Mr. Amaechi a publicly tendered apology if he is not able to show evidence that the Lagos-Calabar rail project was included in the budget. Otherwise, he should resign forthwith.
“Finally, by the provision of Section 81 (4) (a) and (b) of the constitution, the President is allowed to sign the budget and kick-start the implementation of the other areas that constitute over 90 per cent of the budget where there is agreement between both arms, even as we engage ourselves to resolve the contentious areas, if there were any. We, therefore, maintain that even these contrived discrepancies are not sufficient excuse not to sign the budget into law. We, therefore, urge President Buhari to sign the 2016 budget without any further delay. For every additional day that the president withholds his assent from the bill, the hardship in the land, which is already becoming intolerable for the masses of our people gets even more complicated. Certainly, as primary representatives of the people, we shall not vacate our responsibility and watch the people continue to suffer unduly.”
This statement was a direct response to allegations that the Calabar-Lagos rail project was excluded from the final budget as a means for the National Assembly to misappropriate funds. As a result, he presidency has refused to sign the budget into law. This accusation was denied by the Senate and the House. However, the claim was backed by Chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transport, Senator Gbenga Ashafa, who said the coastal rail project was in the budget report presented by his committee to the Senator Danjuma Goje-led committee on appropriation. Ashafa released a statement saying “I confirm that the Lagos to Calabar rail line was not in the original document that was presented to the National Assembly by the Executive. However, subsequently at the budget defense session before the Senate Committee on Land Transport, the Minister for Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, did inform the committee of the omission of the Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation project and indeed sent a supplementary copy of the ministry’s budget to the committee which contained the said project. The Minister noted that the amount needed for the counterpart funding for both the Lagos to Kano and Lagos to Calabar rail modernization projects was N120 billion, being N60 billion per project.
“While the committee did not completely agree with all the changes made in the subsequent document, being fully aware of the critical importance of the rail sector to the development of our dear country, distinguished members of the Senate Committee on Land transport keyed into the laudable (Lagos to Calabar, rail modernization) project and found ways of appropriating funds for the project without exceeding the envelope provided for the ministry, he said.
Ashafa continued: “In so doing, the committee observed that the Lagos to Kano rail rehabilitation project had been allocated the sum of N52 billion as against the sum of N60 billion which the Hon. Minister requested as counterpart funding while no allocation whatsoever was made for the Lagos to Calabar rail line. Hence, the sum of N54 billion that was discovered by the Senate Committee on Land Transport to be floating in the budget of the Ministry of Transportation as presented by the Executive was injected into augmenting the funds needed for counterpart funding of both projects (Lagos to Kano and Lagos to Calabar Rail modernisation), as at the time the committee defended its report before the senate committee on Appropriation. The Lagos to Calabar rail modernisation project was, therefore, included in the Senate Committee on Land Transport’s recommendation to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
“With regard to the Idu to Kaduna rail completion, the Senate Committee on Land Transport did not interfere with what was provided for in the budget as sent by the executive, being approximately N18 billion hence I am equally surprised to read on the pages of the newspapers that the amount allocated to the said project was reduced by N8 billion. While I would have preferred to wait till Tuesday, April 12, 2016 (today) when the National Assembly reconvenes in order to have the benefit of viewing the details of the budget that was conveyed to the executive as passed, I am compelled to place the facts in proper perspective as it relates to the activities of the Senate Committee on Land Transport. Without prejudice to the considerations and powers of the Senate Committee on Appropriations with regard to the appropriations process, the foregoing is the true reflection of what transpired at the committee level with respect to the Land Transport sector of the Ministry of Transport,”Ashafa said.
House spokesman, Namdas, also accused Amaechi of bringing the Calabar – Lagos rail project to the National Assembly through the back door. According to him, the report that the project was removed, and its budget appropriated for the completion of the Lagos-Kano rail project was misleading and intended to pit the Southern and Northern parts of the country against each other. However, there has been speculation that the Lagos – Calabar rail project was removed from the budget tin an attempt to spite Amaechi who has distanced himself from his former colleagues in the Senate. “Amaechi was told by associates in the Senate that Goje was not happy with him and that he had teamed up with the Buhari people against his former colleagues in the Governors’ Forum,” a Presidency official conversant with the issue said. The source further revealed that on account of the information, Amaechi had to visit Goje to solicit his help on the passage of the budget proposals of the Ministry of Transportation.
A top presidency official stated that the Calabar-Lagos railway project alongside the Lagos – Kano rail project was included in the draft budget of the Ministry submitted to the Budget Office. The official challenged the House of Representatives and the Senate to produce the report of their respective submissions to the NASS if they insist that the project was not included in the budget. The officer said: “When the budget was collated by the Budget Office, and copies sent back to the respective ministries for perusal, it was noticed that the Coastal Rail Project was erroneously omitted at the compilation stage, although the total amount did not change. The Transportation Ministry immediately, through a memo, drew the attention of the Budget and National Planning Ministry to the omission and it was corrected in the amended version which the Minister took to the National Assembly and defended,” he said. The presidency was angered by these accusations being slung by the legislature, especially the timing as the president has just left for China.