By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor, Henry Umoru, Levinus Nwabughiogu, Victor Ahiuma-Young & Omezia Ajayi
ABUJA — As controversy continues to trail the budget transmitted by the National Assembly to the Presidency for assent, indications emerged, last night, that President Muhammadu Buhari was still furious with the high level of distortions inflicted on his estimates by the lawmakers.
This came as the Senate, weekend, moved to pacify Southern senators over the controversy surrounding the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the 2016 Appropriation Bill.
Also, Nigerian Railway workers have advised the Presidency and the National Assembly to harmonize their positions and ensure the re-inclusion of the Lagos-Calabar railway project in the 2016 budget.
Similarly, the South-South chapter of the All Progressives Congress, APC, has expressed strong disavowal to what it claimed as the mutilation by the National Assembly of the 2016 budget proposals and warned the legislators not to derail President Buhari’s plans for the country.
Meantime, the presidency has formally opened talks with the leadership of the National Assembly.
Speaking to VANGUARD, last night, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, said that there were efforts to reach a consensus on the issue.
According to Shehu, the outcome of the meeting between the executive and the legislature would determine the president’s next line of action.
He, however, did not know how fast both parties can reach agreement to timely resolve the issue.
“It is when we reach a common ground that we will then know the next line of action. For now, the presidency is still talking with them”, he said.
On new distortions found in the budget, the President was said to be considering measures to deal with those who masterminded the budget infractions, thereby drawing back the hands of his administration.
Lagos-Calabar Rail Removed
Lagos-Ibadan Exp. Rd Reduced by N24bn
Second Niger Bridge Slashed by N3.9 bn
Odukpani-Itu-I/Ekpene Rd Reduced by N4.3bn
Benin-Sagamu Rd Reduced by N800m
Itakpe-Warri Signalling Cut by N302.9m
Calabar-Ikom-Obudu Rail N267m expunged
Kano-Damaturu-Ngala Rail N260m cut
Competent sources said the President became more upset as more stunning revelations emerged that apart from the Calabar-Lagos Railway Project, the National Assembly also expunged other key national infrastructure projects and drastically reduced the votes earmarked for others.
According to sources close to the APC secretariat, Buhari was said to be very furious that the lawmakers virtually re-wrote his budget and transferred cut from national projects to their personal constituency projects, which were neither provided for nor had been taken care of elsewhere.
Among the key projects, which capital provisions in the budget were drastically reduced are the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, which votes the lawmakers reduced by a whopping N24 billion; the Second Niger Bridge, which estimate was slashed by N3.9 billion.
Similarly, the provision for the reconstruction of the Odukpani-Itu-Ikot Ekpene Road in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states was reduced by N4.3 billion; the votes for the completion of Benin-Shagamu Road was also reduced by N800 million, while the votes for the Itakpe-Warri Signalling Project was cut by N302.9 million.
The NASS completely expunged from the budget the sum of N267 million meant for the design and feasibility studies on a Standard Guage Rail Line for Calabar-Ikom-Obudu and another N260 million slated for the Maiduguri, Kano-Damaturu-Ngala routes.
A top APC official, who is close to the Presidency, explained, last night, that it would amount to a disservice to Nigerians for Buhari as the leader of the party, who promised change for the people, to sign such a budget into law.
The official maintained that by removing the key infrastructure which the President intended to open up the country and give a new lease of life to Nigerians, the NASS had effectively rendered the budget inoperative and should, therefore, not be signed into law.
There were indications, however, that with the return of Buhari to the country on Saturday, the NASS might have decided to reconsider the document in order to avoid negative public opinion, especially given the complaints by most members that only a handful of their members in the Appropriation Committees orchestrated the noticeable infractions without their knowledge.
Saraki begs Southern senators
Also, strong indications emerged weekend that the Senate was putting in place moves to pacify Southern senators over the controversy surrounding the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the 2016 Appropriation Bill, with Senate President, Bukola Saraki, practically begging Southern senators over the removal of the Calabar-Lagos rail project from the budget.
A source told Vanguard that as part of moves to find a common ground on the budget in the interest of Southern senators, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, met with Southern senators in his office, last Thursday evening, with the Chairman of Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator Danjuma Goje, APC, Gombe Central, and some members of the committee.
It was resolved at the meeting that there was need to look at the areas of concern since the Calabar-Lagos railway, if accommodated in the budget, would be beneficial to the cities and towns the proposed project would have its routes.
According to a source at the meeting, the Senate President asked the appropriation committee to find a soft-landing for the executive on the proposed project for the overall interest of the states the rail line would pass through and Nigeria in general.
The source, who was privy to some of the issues raised at the meeting, told Vanguard that Senator Goje promised that his committee would give the proposal an accelerated approval, if President Buhari sent it to the Senate as a supplementary budget.
It was also gathered that the Southern senators told the Senate President that if the project was eventually accommodated in the 2016 budget, places such as Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State; Ore in Ondo State; Benin in Edo State; Agbor; Sapele; Warri; Ughelli, all in Delta State; Onitsha in Anambra State; Yenegoa in Bayelsa; Port Harcourt in Rivers State, among others, would benefit from it to boost their development.
It would be recalled that senators from the Southern part of Nigeria last Wednesday asked President Muhammadu Buhari not to give his assent to the 2016 Appropriation Bill that had been passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives until both chambers agreed to include the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the budget.
According to the Southern senators, the call for the supplementary budget was an attempt to deny the south an opportunity to enjoy a viable rail project.
The resolution came after both federal legislators from the South West, and South South geopolitical zones met in their caucus levels last Tuesday night and resolved to resist any attempt to deny their people the viable project.
While the South South, South East senators met at undisclosed locations outside the National Assembly complex, South West senators had met at the residence of Senator Gbenga Ashafa, APC, Lagos East.
Railway workers react
Meanwhile, Nigerian Railway workers weekend in Lagos, advised the Presidency and the National Assembly, to harmonize their positions and ensure the re-inclusion of the Lagos-Calabar railway project in the 2016 budget.
Acting under the platform of Nigeria Union of Railway Workers, NUR, the workers urged the National Assembly, its committees and the executive arm of government to desist from further trading of blames and resolve the Lagos – Calabar railway project issue for the sake of Nigerians.
The union in a statement signed by the Secretary General, Segun Esan, said: “The Presidency and the National Assembly should stop any further bickering and blame game that is going on in the media as a result of the alleged removal or non-inclusion of the Lagos-Calabar railway project in the 2016 budget.
Such blame game will not help us as a nation but rather will portray us as unserious people. The only patriotic and honest thing to do now is for the executive and the legislative arms to come together and clear the project for inclusion in the budget. No two ways about that.”
South-South APC warns NASS
In a similar vein, the South-South chapter of All Progressives Congress, APC, has expressed strong disavowal to what it claimed as the mutilation by the National Assembly of the 2016 budget proposals and warned the legislators not to derail President Muhammadu Buhari’s plans for the country.
A statement issued by the national vice-chairman of the party, South-South, Prince Hillary Eta, while condemning the complete deletion of the Calabar-Lagos rail project weekend, also accused the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation of wanting to disrupt the rehabilitation of the Calabar-Ikot Ekpene road.
The statement alleged that N5 billion of the N6 billion voted for the project was removed and taken to non-existent projects in Kano State, in the constituency of Abdulmumin Jibrin, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation.
The chapter thus vowed to take legal action against the National Assembly on the issue.
Eta in a statement issued at the weekend, said: “We are very upset that our representatives in the National Assembly would discard decorum and hinder progressive change by acting at variance with the infrastructure development agenda of the APC-led federal government.”
‘’The arbitrary removal of the Lagos – Calabar rail track by the National Assembly from the 2016 budget is a display of depraved indifference to the welfare of Nigerians. The deletion is not just arbitrary; it is a big disservice to the people of Nigeria, particularly the South South zone which the proposed railway track would have traversed.
“Also, the total rehabilitation of the collapsed and terrible Calabar – Odukpani –Itu – Ikot Ekpene federal highway which was allotted six billion naira by the federal government in the budget was doctored and almost five billion naira removed and reallocated to a non-existent project in the constituency of the Chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriation Committee, Abdulmumin Jibrin, in Kano state.
“By these two acts, the Senate and House of Representatives displayed the astonishing contempt in which they hold Nigerians. The National Assembly exists to ensure that Nigerians get the best from their government using the instrument of purposeful legislation but the 8th Assembly by this budget padding debacle has not only brought itself to ridicule, it has also proved itself unworthy of the trust and confidence of Nigerians.
“It is pertinent to at this point conduct a re-examination of the powers of the legislature to establish if really it has the power to doctor and alter projects or totally remove them from the budget even after the Minister under whose ministry the said projects fell under had credibly defended them and justified their inclusion.
“As a Party in the South South zone, we make public our disenchantment with the National Assembly and we are particularly disappointed by the Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee, Senator Danjuma Goje and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Honourable Abdulmumin Jibrin who directly supervised and even actively abetted such debauchery.
“The South South zone of the All Progressives Congress demands that the budget be reverted to its original form and all the development projects conceived and included in the budget by the federal government be retained without alteration. We also advise the legislature to refrain from giving the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari a bad image by attempting to deprive Nigerians of the dividends of democracy under any guise.
“Lastly, we shall approach the courts of the land for a clear interpretation of the role of the National Assembly in the passing of the National Budget as it is evident that it overstepped its bounds by unnecessarily tinkering with the budget when its constitutional duty is mainly supervisory.
“It is time we Nigerians begin to show a keen interest in the affairs of the legislature as only that can put a stop to the kind of shady alterations that the budget was subjected to while it was being evaluated by the National Assembly.”