By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
ABUJA – Four months after the Presidency reluctantly assented to the 2017 budget based on what it called ‘significant distortions by the National Assembly’, another major conflict between the two arms of government is brewing.
Vanguard learned from authoritative sources, last night, that the source of the dispute is fueled by the prolonged delay by the National Assembly to approve virement of funds for key national projects, which the executive considers crucial in growing the economy and boosting infrastructure and development across the country.
A top official of the administration said the Executive was pained by the fact that the Senate did not approve the N135 billion virement request sent to it late July by then Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, before the senators proceeded on vacation, only for the lawmakers to resume last week and summon some ministers for questioning over what they called ‘poor implementation’ of the budget.
The official said the prolonged silence of the lawmakers on the virement request, which had been with them for over two months, was unhelpful for the execution of the Second Niger Bridge, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Mambilla Hydroelectric, Railways, and several other projects.
“You can see that each of these projects has specific timelines and was allocated specific amounts in the budget, which, for inexplicable reasons, were slashed by the National Assembly and re-allocated to some insignificant programmes not contemplated by the Federal Government.
“It is on record that they all agreed in series of rapprochement meetings with the Executive to withdraw the ‘pocket projects’ and approve the movement of the funds to the projects originally captured by the Federal Government in the budget.
“What we are seeing now is worrisome and not in the spirit of the gentleman’s agreement reached by the two sides before the distorted budget was assented to by the Presidency in June and Nigerians must be made to know what is going on,” the top official pointed out.
Last week, the Senate questioned the duo of Finance and Budget ministers, Kemi Adeosun and Udoma Udo Udoma, on the implementation of the budget so far and raised alarm that not much had been done, with only a few months to the end of the year.
After grilling the ministers, the virement letter from the Presidency which was tabled for consideration and approval was met with stiff opposition by many of the lawmakers who insisted that the Presidency ought to have come by way of supplementary budget, and not virement.
Virement request is illegal — Ekweremadu
Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, described the Presidency’s virement request as unconstitutional and illegal, quoting copiously from the law.
Ekweremadu said: “There are only two ways you can spend money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the federation. One is by appropriation process, pursuant to Section 80(2) of the Constitution and by a supplementary appropriation pursuant to Section 80(4) of the Constitution, and so if we provide in the appropriation act that monies can be vired, I believe that will be contrary to the provisions of Sections 4(84) of the constitution.
“Section 80(4) says if in respect of any financial year it is found that the amount appropriated by the Appropriation Act for any purpose is insufficient, or a need has arisen for expenditure for purposes for which no amount has been appropriated by the act, a supplementary estimate showing the sums required shall be laid before each arm of the National Assembly.
“What we noticed is that the executive doesn’t seem to be interested in this supplementary appropriation bill, rather they seek the short cut of the virement. We try to encourage this by providing in our appropriation act the need for the process.”
No going back on virement — Presidency
It was learned, last night, however, that the Presidency was not considering changing its mind on virement and presenting a supplementary budget request to the NASS in order to meet up the cash requirements for the key projects.
An official, who is familiar with the budget issue, confirmed that the executive was rather working seriously on the 2018 budget, which will soon be presented to the NASS, to see the possibility of returning the budget cycle to January-December and roll over the current capital votes to the next budget.
It will be recalled that as a result of the face-off between the NASS and the Presidency over alleged distortion of the budget, the President withheld his assent for over a month, causing national apprehension.
But on June 12, 2017, when the Presidency finally assented to the bill, Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, explained the rationale behind the delay.
Osinbajo had said: “However, the final presentation and the signing of the budget has been considerably delayed. This was largely due to disagreements we had about the changes introduced to our 2017 Budget proposals by the National Assembly.
“The executive took the view that the changes fundamentally affected some of our priority programmes and would make implementation extremely difficult and in some cases impossible.
“I must say that the entire leadership of the National Assembly, led by the Senate President and the Speaker, adopted a commendably patriotic and statesmanlike approach to our engagements on resolving these critical issues.
“In sum, the engagements yielded acceptable results. The most important being that the leadership of the National Assembly has given us a commitment that the National Assembly will reinstate the budgetary allocations for all the important executive projects, such as the railway standard gauge projects, the Mambilla Power Project, the Second Niger Bridge, the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway etc. which they had reduced to fund some of the new projects they introduced.
“This reinstatement will be by way of an application for virement by the Executive which they have agreed will be expeditiously considered and approved by the National Assembly.
“It is as a result of that understanding and the outcome of our detailed engagements that we feel able to sign the 2017 Appropriations Bill into law today.”