March 23, 2024

BUDGET PADDING: Remember how lawmakers moved to impeach OBJ for trying to stop it?

National Assembly

By Magnus Onyibe

Outraged senators at the plenary last Tuesday, March 12, literally pounced on their colleague, ranking Senator Abdul Ningi, who has been a lawmaker for the past twenty-four (24) years, seventeen (17) of which he has served as a senator after being a member of the House of Representatives.

 The enraged legislators in the red chambers went after the jugular of their colleague for allegedly going rogue on them by ridiculing the distinguished senators who sit in the hallowed red chambers of the National Assembly (NASS) via his claim that the 2024 budget was padded by N3.7 trillion naira, increasing from N25 trillion that he claimed was officially passed to N28.7 trillion, which he alleged is being implemented under the table by the incumbent administration.

 But the allegation of padding, for which a sanction of three (3) months’ suspension has been slammed on the errant senator representing Bauchi Central, despite his backtracking, has been adjudged by some people as using a sledgehammer to crush a common housefly.

 The truth is that in every organization or union, there are guiding rules based on certain principles to be observed by members. The aggrieved senator is alleged to have broken the rules by making a mountain out of a molehill, and his enraged colleagues were not in the mood to temper justice with mercy; hence, they literally threw the kitchen sink at him. But there is still a wriggle out room as the sanction can be rescinded or reduced.

 Incidentally, the embarrassing allegation of padding the national budget in Nigeria is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the current incident echoes the events of 2018 when then President Muhammadu Buhari, representing the executive branch of government, also accused the legislative arm of doing exactly what Senator Abdul Ningi just accused his colleagues of doing.

 However, President Buhari was not sanctioned by the senators in the way that Ningi was literally roasted because it was during the ‘cold war’ between the executive arm under the leadership of Buhari as president and the legislative branch with Senator Bukola Saraki as senate president.

 Before 2018, as far back as the year 2000, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo had a face-off with the National Assembly (NASS) over budget padding. When he withheld assent after it was passed by the lawmakers, he was threatened with impeachment, and he capitulated. Late President Umar Yar’adua, who succeeded Obasanjo in 2007, also had a similar row with NASS. Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, who became president in 2010 after the sudden passing of Yar’adua, got caught up in a similar budget padding conundrum.

 So, it is a perennial crisis. It did not matter whether the ruling party controlled both the presidency and NASS, as was the case when PDP was the ruling party that produced both the president and had the majority in NASS, and the present time with the APC as the ruling party controling both branches ; budget padding was always a sore point between the executive and legislative branches of government.

 Even if it has been six (6) years since 2018 when the presidency and NASS had a spat on account of budget padding until the current blowout, nothing has changed, except the actors in both Aso Rock Villa, the seat of presidential power, and the chambers of the lawmakers in NASS whose leaderships have been replaced by successive occupants following new elections and the effluxion of time.

 Clearly, it’s the lingering animosity between the executive and legislative branches during the last regime that vilified budget padding, bringing it into the national spotlight in a very negative way.

 Prior to the 2018 budget debacle that earned senator Ningi a suspension from duty, there was a heated dispute in 2016 over the same issue, costing former House of Representatives member and former Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumuni Jibrin, his position after accusing House principal officers, including Speaker Yakubu Dogara, of attempting to pad the 2016 budget with 40 billion Naira for constituency projects.

 However, due to the political style  of President Bola Tinubu, the leaders of the other two arms of government—Godswill Akpabio and Kayode Ariwoola in the legislative and judicial branches respectively—are now working in harmony with him, unlike in 2018 when President Buhari and Senate President Saraki were in conflict with a Senate under Saraki’s firm control.

 Due to President Tinubu’s  political strategy, there has been no open confrontation. However, a schism has emerged within the NASS since the presidency did not challenge the NASS for reducing Government Owned Enterprises (GOEs) budget by N850 billion and allegedly padding its own budget by N1.2 trillion, bringing it to about N2.1 trillion. As mentioned earlier, such actions are not inherently wrong.