Jonathan attacks Mark, Tambuwal over budget remarks

President Goodluck Jonathan laying the budget before the National Assembly in 2012

In a rare tit-for-tat, President Goodluck Jonathan targeted Senate president, David Mark, and House of Representatives Speaker, Aminu Tambuwal, for criticism Thursday, a day after both lawmakers aimed pot-shots at him at a budget presentation.

Speaking during a joint session of the National Assembly, the senate president and the speaker lambasted Mr. Jonathan’s budget implementation record, and questioned the president’s opposition to the legislature adjusting budget proposals. Mr. Mark, often more restrained in presentations to the president, on this occasion, adopted a more stringent tone, informing the president that the National Assembly reserved such rights.

He told the president the National Assembly was not a “mechanical robot” that ritually moves past the budget without inputs.

“We do not think the constitution intended to turn the National Assembly into a mere mechanical rubber stamp that rolls robotically past budget estimates,” Mr. Mark said.

He also warned that more oversight of the budget will be deployed this time.

Mr. Tambuwal, on the hand, well known for delivering acerbic response to Mr. Jonathan, also questioned the performance of the budget, a subject that has already for months pitted the House against the Executive. Perhaps more troubling for the president, the speaker made it clear the House will review the president’s proposal for oil price benchmark from $75 to $80 per barrel.

Under protocol, Mr. Mark spoke first to usher the president for his budget speech before an audience of lawmakers, ministers and other guests. Mr. Tambuwal presented a speech as a vote of thanks to the president. Mr. Jonathan requested for the speaker’s written speech before leaving the chamber Wednesday.

Jonathan replies

The brash remarks, similar to what obtained during the president’s 2011 budget presentation, drew scathing criticisms from the presidency, a day after, with spokesperson Doyin Okupe, firing barbs at Mr. Mark, and more virulently, Mr. Tambuwal. Mr. Okupe, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, insisted his response was on behalf of the presidency. Mr. Okupe, who spoke in Abuja, said the president was subjected to a “harrowing experience” and criticized the two leaders for denigrating the budget proposal with their remarks. He referred to Mr. Tambuwal as authoritarian.

“Normal legislative courtesy demands that such a visitor be allowed to perform his constitutional functions without any attempt to rubbish the document that was yet to be discussed even by the members themselves,” Mr. Okupe said. “My belief is that in the interest of the Nigerian people, for the sake of our masses, the National Assembly and the Executive must of necessity find a common ground on all these issues, instead of unnecessary grandstanding and playing to the gallery, which will not help anybody,” he said.

He dismissed Mr. Mark’s “rubber-stamp” remark and his description of the budget as “mere-estimate”, a comment Mr. Mark made to underline his earlier stand that the document was subject to National Assembly adjustment.

“The President and his administration do not expect and has never conceived the idea that the National Assembly would just rubber-stamp whatever is presented to it,” Mr. Okupe said.“To call these figures as mere estimates is rather unfair.”

Mr. Okupe also attacked Mr. Tambuwal, for delivering a speech instead of vote of thanks he was called upon to give.

“Some of the issues raised by the Speaker were erroneous,” he said, rebutting Mr. Tambuwal’s position on poor budget performance.“He said that interim oversight reports were clearly unimpressive. This statement cannot be wholesomely acceptable if you look at the background and the reason for which the assemblymen hurriedly packaged (the budget verification) visits.”

“There are procedures for spending government money. The time of Father Christmas or flushing of ministries with funds that are irresponsibly expended is over,” the presidential spokesman said.

Mr. Okupe said the House plan to review the oil benchmark upward was “pure drama.”

“Here is another arm of government, in a dictatorial manner, saying authoritatively, that it has decided that the benchmark shall be $80. One would have expected that he would have explained the parameter with which he got the benchmark.

“You will recall that in 2008 at the peak of oil boom when one barrel of oil was selling for $147, suddenly because of massive global economic downturn the price went to $38 per barrel,” he said.

Mr. Okupe cited countries with low benchmarks as examples Nigeria should follow, to include Algeria ($38); Qatar ($55); Venezuela ($50); Saudi ($60); Angola ($77); and Kuwait ($60).

Okupe is a political jobber

Late Thursday, Mr. Tambuwal and the House hit back at Mr. Okupe, describing the spokesperson as a “political jobber.”

“The uncouth manner in which he replied elected representatives showed his apparent lack of respect to the legislature as an institution,” Mr. Tambuwal’s office said in a statement. “The entire remarks he made gave him out as an overzealous official doing a hatchet job in order to be relevant in the scheme of things.”

The House committee on media said citing other nations’ benchmark amounted to running the nation’s economy on “a do – as – I – do fashion.” The committee, in a statement signed by Victor Ogene, the its deputy chairman, said the presidency’s justification of poor budget implementation on claims that ministries had not utilised previous cash releases to warrant new ones, was an indictment.

“For a time-worm political jobber like Dr. Okupe, whose antecedents in government is all too familiar, to attempt, therefore, to seek relevance by taking ill – considered pot-shots at the House only bespeak the tragedy which has befallen governance, whereby shadows are chased, instead of substance,” the statement said.

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