By Henry Boyo
THE proceedings in the National Assembly, became rather agitated on April 26, 2018, after President Buhari’s letter, which sought approval for the sum of $496m, which had been spent on 12 fighter jets, was read by Senate President, Bukola Saraki (APC) and Speaker, Yakubu Dogara (APC), to members in their respective Chambers.
President Muhammed Buhari’s letter confirmed that this amount was earlier withdrawn from Nigeria’s Excess Crude Account (ECA), for the procurement of 12 super Tucano aircraft, in a direct purchase agreement between Nigeria and the United States governments.
The problem, however, according to Senator Mathew Urhoghide, Chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts, was that this payment is clearly a breach of Section 80 of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates that “any amount of money that has to be spent from the Federation Account, must first be appropriated by National Assembly”; according to Urhoghide, “this one” “has not been appropriated by the NASS and therefore breaches the position of the constitution”, and “there are serious consequences for such violation”. Senator Urhoghide therefore recommended that, “as a committee, the only thing that we can draw from this is that, we call on you (Saraki) to evoke Section 143 of the Constitution”, as “this matter does not need to be investigated, it is clear that this offence has been committed by the President.”
Similarly, Senator Shehu Sani (APC) described the reported expenditure as a “gross abuse of the Constitution”. Although, Sani did not support impeachment, he, however, suggested that “the payment be refunded, so that the transaction be started afresh to allow due process”; this recommendation however, seems like another variant of the presently, very unpopular, plea bargain with Treasury Looters. Nonetheless, Senator Sani did not explain how the US government could be made to simply refund the sum of $496m, without heavy sanctions and serious financial penalties for Nigeria.
Incidentally, Buhari explained in his letter to the NASS that the $496m was paid without legislative Approval, because the US government had given a payment deadline for the aircraft purchase, otherwise the contract would lapse”. It is not clear why full payment was demanded for aircrafts which will be delivered in 2020.
Furthermore, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (PDP) also noted, that “there is no name to call this (disbursement), except an impeachable offence and we cannot allow that”. “We cannot stay here and this assembly and Nigerians will be taken for granted. It should not be so, I, (therefore) rise and support the motion for impeachment”.
Conversely however, Senator Abu Ibrahim (PDP) described the call for impeachment “as a PDP Conspiracy” and wondered whether any State Governor sought approval from their respective State Houses of Assembly, before spending previous disbursements from ECA allocations. Senator Samuel Anyanwu, however, countered Senator Ibrahim that the issue in question “was about respect for government institutions and not about politics”.
On his part, Deputy majority Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC) suggested that Buhari “might have considered section 83(1-2) of the constitution, which “allows the President to make extra budgetary spending in an emergency situation”. Ultimately, the Senate President concluded that there were (actually) two substantive issues: “the spate of insecurity and the flawed process through which government wanted to tackle it”. Consequently, in view of dissension amongst members, the Lawmakers agreed to refer probe of the $496m withdrawal to the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal matters.
Furthermore, some House members also kicked against a motion to include the $496m in the 2018 Appropriation bill, which is still pending before the National Assembly. The Chairman House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, Hon. Nicholas Ossai, actually raised a point of order to counter such motion and observed that, “by the procedure of the House, the request for appropriation was belated, because Buhari had already spent the money”, whereas, “Section 80(3) of the 1999 constitution states that “no funds could be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF), except, in the manner approved by the National Assembly”. Ossai therefore concluded that such a motion “is (therefore) not relevant, because this money has already been spent”. “Consequently”, he added “this matter cannot be discussed at all”. Some other House members, including Deputy Minority leader, Chukwuma Onyema (PDP), also agreed that “the request was belated”, and warned that “trying to bend the House rules to accommodate the $496m withdrawal either by a motion or fresh money bill would amount to self indictment”; ultimately, in view of divergent opinions, House Speaker Yakubu Dohara (APC), ruled that debate on such motion should be suspended.”
It would be extremely charitable, constitutionally, to ignore the $496m ECA withdrawal, as an impeachable offence by President Buhari, nonetheless, in practice, it would be an uphill task to impeach a President, with a significant party majority in Parliament; unless of course, the present absence of a common amalgamating philosophy, tears the ruling Party asunder, during the political negotiations leading to February 2019 elections. If, however Buhari is impeached, Vice president Osibanjo may not have the requisite political followership and the critical mass, that will guarantee his election as president next year, especially if, the Northern power block, insists that, another candidate from the north should complete Buhari’s slot for a 2nd term in office.
It is however regrettable, that the $496m payment process was shrouded in such in consistencies; for example, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan Ali, reported on January 25, that the payment deadline for the purchase of the aircraft, was February 2018, but he had also observed that government rejected the related Purchase Terms, because these were stringent and clearly skewed in favour of the US. However, the Minister did not confirm, thereafter, if the contentious stringent conditions were, later, favourably reviewed, before the minister’s report barely two weeks after, on February 5, that the Federal government had already paid $496m to the US government, for the Tucano jets, without mentioning that the funds were actually withdrawn from the Excess Crude Account without the Legislative Appropriation.
Ultimately, in response to public outcry on the colossal expenditure, the President’s Special Assistant on National Assembly matters, Senator Ita Enang (APC) reported on April 9, that Buhari had not yet given approval for the withdrawal of the sum of $1b, which he earlier requested from the NASS, to enhance Nigeria’s security apparatus.
Enang therefore noted that “as of now “the process of approving the money for use is inchoate and still undergoing Executive Standard Operating procedure, before laying same before the National Assembly for appropriation”.
Ironically, Enang’s explanation has also been exposed as “inchoate” by President’s Buhari’s later confirmation of the withdrawal from ECA in his April 13 letter to the National Assembly.