By Henry Umoru, Abuja
What can be termed a testy relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and the Senate came to the open on Tuesday when senators got provoked.
The problem had to do with the 2013 Budget implementation. The lawmakers, while reacting to a statement credited to the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, warned her not to set them against the President.
One would not really need the services of a soothsayer to tell that the relationship between the Executive arm of government and the National Assembly was frosty especially as the Minister related with the lawmakers on the budget.
There appears to be cutting of corners and not recognizing the positions and offices of some persons. The budget palaver would not have got to this level if there was no mutual suspicion between Okonjo-Iweala and the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters.
The Special Adviser’s Office, as the name implies, ought to play a significant role in dousing the tension had it been carried along by the Minister.
The attack on Okonjo-Iweala began on the Senate floor after the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Media and Information, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, PDP, Abia South, chided her over her statement that the Federal Government would not be able to pay workers’ salary by September, due to non-passage of the 2013 Budget amendment bill into law.
Infact, what the Minister meant was that the lawmakers must rush and pass the amendment bill or the country and Nigerians would hold them responsible for any collapse of the nation’s economy. The Executive arm, through Okonjo-Iweala, seemed to be tactically pushing everything to the doorsteps of the lawmakers.
Abaribe, noting that the Senate and the National Assembly in general, was an arm of government the way the Executive arm is and could not be a rubber stamp to a fellow arm, warned that the Minister must not pitch the National Assembly against the President, adding that such statement was capable of inciting workers against the lawmakers.
Okonjo-Iweala had, while speaking on a radio programme, on Monday, been quoted as saying the national economy would collapse due to the failure of the legislature to pass the new amendments to the 2013 Budget.
Jonathan had forwarded a bill amending the 2013 Budget of N4.987 trillion to the National Assembly in March, an action the lawmakers have not been favourably disposed to.
Rather, the National Assembly asked the Executive to immediately commence work on the 2014 Appropriation Bill. The delay over the amendment prompted the Minister to warn, during the interview on Ray Power FM, that if there was no resolution on the bill, the government would not be able to pay public sector workers by September.
Explaining the delay and the reason the National Assembly could not pass the budget, the Senate spokesperson, Abaribe, said, ‘’What we got from the President, which is actually the third Amendment, is a sort of document amending the budget. Now we found that these documents are even larger than the budget itself and there is no way the Senate and even the National Assembly can consider these amendments until we come back from our vacation this year.
”There is absolutely no way amendments of these nature would be considered for the short time that we have until we go on our national vacation. And the point really is this, it not about the report that there are differences; and this was discussed with the presidency that we take care of the differences and deal with them. Coming to now bring up a whole list of amendments that are even much more than the original that was sent, I do not expect the presidency would say we shouldn’t have enough time to go through it.
”In addition to that, we have other things we would want to deal with. What we would want to appeal is that efforts should not be made to put us on a collision course. We are not on a collision course.
”We are all interested in making sure that the budget as passed would be implemented, and implemented in such a way that everybody within this country will get the benefit of why the budget was passed in the first place.
”We know that in September as the president has promised, there is going to be a new budget. So, when you bring a budget of this volume and then you bring another budget in September, what do you expect us to do?”
Reacting to Okonjo-Iweala’s statement, Abaribe, who noted that the Senate was perplexed and dismissed the insinuation that the economy would collapse, said, ‘’The National Assembly was perplexed when we heard today(Tuesday) the comments allegedly made by Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minister of the Economy with respect to the budget. First of all, the Senate does not view the comments made lightly. The feeling of the Senate and of course the National Assembly has always been that we do not expect Ministers of the Federal Republic and appointees of the President to make comments that tend to give the impression of a collision course between the Executive and Legislature, because we are all working towards the same purpose; and which is to make sure that we take care of the welfare of Nigeria.
‘’Therefore, we find it not to our liking when a comment is made that tends to say that government will shut down if the National Assembly doesn’t do anything. We do not agree with that”.
According to the lawmaker, the third budget amendment proposal sent by Jonathan to the Senate was more voluminous than the original 2013 budget document. He added that as a result of the size of the new proposal, the Senate could not deliberate on it until senators returned from their annual vacation in September. The vacation begins in August. “If there are differences, we shall discuss with the president in order to trash them out. The president cannot expect us to pass the proposal without looking into the voluminous document”, the Senate spokesman said.
“The Finance Minister should not put us on a collision course with the president. The Senate will consider what was sent.” Abaribe’s reaction came the same day Jonathan sent a third 2013 Budget amendment to the Senate through a letter addressed to Senate President David Mark and dated June 26, 2013, bringing some changes in some select expenditure categories, even as he noted that some capital projects whose allocations were reduced by the National Assembly be restored as that would help promote national development.
The lawmakers could not discuss as plenary was suspended in honour of the late Senator Pius Ewherido, DPP, Delta Central, who died June 30.
In the new proposal, the President accused the National Assembly of removing some capital votes from the initial proposed amendments thereby making execution of such projects impossible and these amounted to N72.4 billion cut which the president wanted the senators to restore. This is just as the lawmakers accused Jonathan of reneging on an earlier agreement that should he sign the 2013 Budget, they would approve an immediate follow-up amendment he would send.
The areas the President wants changes to are: Ministry of Works: Abuja-Lokoja Road reduced by N4 billion; Kano-Maiduguri Road reduced by N3.5 billion; Dualisation of Ibadan-Ilorin Section 2 reduced by N5.5 billion; Rehabilitation of Jebba Bridge reduced by N1 billion; Special Intervention Fund for Emergency Roads and Bridges washout across the country reduced by N6.28 billion; Dualisation of Obajana Junction to Benin reduced by N4 billion; Ministry of Health: MDG HIV/AIDS ARV drugs allocation reduced by N1 billion; Routine Immunisation Vaccines reduced by N1.75 billion; Malaria Programme procurement and distribution of insecticides reduced by N0.8 billion; payment of pledge for Onchocerciasis Recertification cut by N0.12 billion; National Trauma Centre, Abuja reduced by N0.1 billion;
Ministry of Power: A total of N16.3 billion was cut from power projects including the 215MW Kaduna Dual Fired Power Plant,which was reduced by N2.25 billion; 2nd Kaduna-Kano 33KV DC Lines reduced by N1.5 billion; Gombe-Yola-Jalingo 330KV SC Line reduced by N0.6 billion; Maiduguri 330/132KV Sub-station reduced by N0.3B; Kaduna-Jos 330KV DC Line reduced by N0.5 Billion; Omotosho-Epe-Ajah 330KV DC line reduced by N0.8Billion;
Ministry of Transport: Construction of Abuja-Kaduna Rail was reduced by N1.4 Billion; Jebba-Kano Rail line Rehabilitation reduced by N0.5 Billion; procurement and Rehabilitation of Wagons/locomotives reduced by N1Billion;insurance of Locomotives reduced by N0.2 billion.
Ministry of Education: Allocations to various projects were reduced to the tune of N5.64 billion including the National Library Project which was cut by N2 billion.
The Senate is going on recess on July 25 and will not return until the end of September while Jonathan is expected to send the 2014 Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly that some month.