By Johnbosco Agbakwuru & Joseph Erunke
ABUJA – SENATORS yesterday took a swipe at the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, accusing her of crippling the nation’s economy.
Senators had met in a closed-door meeting and accused the minister of destroying the economy through some of her policies and her refusal to release funds for the execution of capital projects, while allocation for the recurrent expenditure was on the increase.
The Senate President, David Mark had in the secret meeting ordered different committee heads to expedite action on budget defence so that it would be passed before the senate commences another recess for the general elections.
Senator Mark regretted that about four months after the presentation of the 2015 Appropriation Bill, nothing much had been done on it.
Although, journalists were not formally briefed on issues that dominated the secret meeting, some senators who spoke to Vanguard, preferring not to be mentioned, said the Senate President convened the session principally to draw the attention of the legislators to what he called the slow pace of work being accorded the budget treatment.
Mark was said to have expressed fears that if the budget was not expeditiously treated and passed before the National Assembly proceeds on another round of recess to witness the March 28 and April 14 elections, it may delay attention, thus, affecting the smooth running of government.
To this end, he therefore asked all Senator, especially chairmen of committees handing the defence of ministries, parastatals and agencies’ budgets to brace up with a view to completing their assignments and submitting their work for consideration before the election recess.
It was gathered that majority of the senators had lamented during the closed-door session that lasted about one hour that the executive has been in the habit of making poor budgetary allocation to capital projects.
Journalists, who had anxiously waited to officially hear the issues raised at the meeting were disappointed when Mark and other senators in attendance emerged from the forum with sealed lips.
Speaking before the Senate continued it’s plenary, the Senate President said: “At the closed-door session, we deliberated issues bordering on national interest, and national development.”
However, some of the Senators said lawmakers expressed concern over meagre allocation of N387 billion for capital projects in the 2015 budget which they said was unprecedented even as the recurrent component was allocated over 90 percent of the N4.3 trillion budget.
The lawmakers were said to have insisted that they will not approve such huge lopsided budget allocation.
Consequently, the committees were directed to liaise with the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to cut down on recurrent votes in order to make more fund available for projects.
One of the Senators that did not want his name published said majority of Senators expressed anger against Okonjo – Iweala, for deliberately drawing back, the wheel of the nation’s progress.
The senator said, “All of us are not happy that most of the MDAs could not execute any reasonable capital projects this year because the little money released to them by the finance minister was not enough to pay the contractors who had executed projects for them in the past.
At the budget defence of different committees, senators expressed their angers when some ministers and heads of government agencies appeared before them to defend their 2015 budget proposals.
Chairman, Committee on Establishment and Public Service, Senator Aloysius Etuk, described as shameful, the manner budgetary allocation was released to MDAs.
Senator Etuk said, “The rate of budgetary releases is shameful and unacceptable. For us to sit down to plan annual budget and at the end of the day, only 41 per cent performance is implemented is like cutting short the expectations of the people.”
The Committee, which took on the Head of Service of the Federation, Federal Housing Staff Loan Board, Public Service Institute of Nigeria, Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON) and Public Civil Service Reform Bureau, also expressed concern over zero Capital Budget that characterize the 2015 fiscal year.
The Committee Chairman, Etuk however urged the agencies to design means of generating revenue outside government. “Time has come for MDAs to begin to seek alternative source of revenue for sustenance. Government is more concerned with paying salaries. It may have to cut overhead further to ensure that salaries are paid”.
Etuk noted that the on-going defense exercise was crucial in the life of the 7th Senate as it marked the final assignment for most of the Senators, especially those who are not returning. “As such, it should be taken seriously”, he noted.
He added that between now and the next Senate, his Committee will engage in an aggressive oversight activities to ensure that the reports submitted on implementation are in line with practical performances.
Earlier, Head of Service of the Federation, Danladi Kefesi, told Senate Committee that a sum of N11.5 billion was budgeted for the Head of Service of the Federation in 2014.
Out of this sum, he informed that N5.1billion was budgeted for Personnel Cost, N1.9billion for Overhead Cost and N4.1billion for Capital Cost.
According to him, the difference in the main budget, which was about N326million was the part of the appropriation for one of the Parastatals under the Commission. He also disclosed that until present, the allocation for the last quarter of last year was yet to be released.
Similar complaint was registered by all the parastatals in the civil service. They blamed lack of activities in the civil service and the nation at large on non-release of the allocation for the last quarter of last year.
For Federal Housing Staff Loan Board, the Executive Secretary, Dr. (Mrs) Hannatu Adamu Fika, said N722million was appropriated for the housing loan scheme, upgrading of ICT and monitoring of housing loan scheme in 2014. According to her, the sum of N301 was released. Also released was the N282million loan budget for housing scheme.
Although N1.8billion was realized under the revolving loan scheme out of which N1.6billion has already been given out as loan to civil servants, the ES decried that it would be challenging to grant civil servants housing loan in the 2015 fiscal year with zero Capital budget.
” In 2015, we are expecting zero allocation under Capital. We only have to pursue those who took loan to ensure they pay. Instruments are on ground to ensure those who took loan repay. That is what we have to fall back to”, she said.
Also at the Committee on Power, Mines and Steel, members of the committee described the minister’s action as frustrating, expressed anger over the development, describing her attitude as an expression of carelessness and lack of planning initiative.
The senators’ outburst was occasioned by the presentation of the Minister of Steel, Musa Sada, during the defence of his ministry’s budget in 2015 before the Senate Committee on Power.
The minister had while presenting the performance of last year’s budget in his ministry, highlighted his ministry’s limitation as a result of non-release of funds to implement planned projects.
This provoked anger in the senators who said it was frustrating that after spending quality time to appropriate funds for projects every year, the year would end without achieving desired goals as a result of non-release of funds.
First to expressed anger was Senator Victor Lar who said, “A situation where we considered a budget, have it approved, then somebody sits in an office and refuses to make releases is too bad.”
He said, “Ministers and heads of various agencies who had awarded contracts could not pay but somebody would sit in the comfort of her office and declare a surplus. Is that an economy that is growing?
“This is simple planlessness, this is frustrating and it cannot go on like this. The presentation by the Minister of steel for instance is an opportunity to raise the revenue profile of the ministry from a non oil sector which would have enhance economic growth was frustrated.
“A serious nation would have encouraged this ministry to ensure that everything required was provided but this is the same ministry that had been subjected to the same envelope system, to the same non releases among others.
“We need to change the way we do things because if we have a problem and you keep on using an approach that has not yielded the desired results, common sense demands that you change the approach.
“We keep doing the same thing wrongly and we expect to get the desired results. It will not work. It is now becoming part of our tradition to get budgets approved as a parliament and someone refused to provide funds for its implementation.”
Another member of the committee, Senator Chris Ngige, also expressed fears that the economy of Nigeria would collapse completely if the current trend of non release of funds for project execution continue unchallenged by the appropriate arms of government.
Senator Ngige said, “We as legislators should be interested in putting in place, structures that will enable the country to realise additional sources of revenue apart from the oil sector.”
Senator Ibrahim Gobir, stressed the need for the country to harmonise all available resources in the country by developing the natural resources.
Senator Gobir said, “Our internal debt now is too high, which is over N1trl. The foreign debt is also very high. Poverty is very high and to worsen the situation, naira is being devalued by 30 percent. All these are happening because we cannot sustain production.
“The only way we can move the nation forward economically, is to make sure that web diversify our economy to make extra revenue. We budget about N50bn for capital projects and only N20bn would be released at the end of the day because there is no cash backing.
“Something is really wrong somewhere, we cannot continue like this. We have to call a spade, a spade. ”
It was also a shocking revelation to members of the committee on Lands and Housing when the Also the Minister of Lands and Housing, Mrs.Akon Eyakenyi told the Senators that her ministry was owing contractors, over N39bn.
Mrs. Eyakenyi also said new projects cannot be embarked upon last year because of the heavy burden on it.
This drew the ire of the lawmakers as Senators Bukar Ibrahim and Aisha Al – Hassan, wondered how the ministry would tackle the housing challenges confronting the country when there was no provision for it to build a single house due to non release of funds.