The Minister refused to comment
Two of Nigeria’s most senior budget officials, the Finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and head of Budget Office, Bright Okogu, on Monday skirted queries about funding for the proposed presidential banquet hall approved by the government last week.
The questions, put forward by a PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter at a dramatic news briefing on the capital market, provided an opportunity for government to respond to a report by this newspaper that the project is not listed in the budget and was therefore awarded in violation of Nigeria’s appropriation law.
But instead of responding to the enquiry, both officials demurred.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala passed the buck to Bright Okogu, the Director General Budget office, who in turn ducked behind the minister’s reaction, before both scurried away from the finance ministry headquarters where the event held.
The N2.2 billion building job, awarded to Julius Berger, promises 150 seats with conveniences, walkways and allied utilities and chiefly, will bring the structure nearer to the president’s residence, the government has said.
The FCT minister, Bala Mohammed, who announced the approval last week, said the existing banquet hall is about two kilometers from the residence of the president, and was too far.
A new one closer will accord Nigeria a pride “smaller countries” with similar structures share.
Critics have questioned the project’s relevance and cost, and a claim by the minister the exigency of the project was to reduce the distance of a banquet hall for the president.
PREMIUM TIMES’ evaluation showed the distance averaged about 500 meters, contradicting the minister’s claim.
But of all the contract’s shortcomings, what seems more troubling is this newspaper’s story noting the contract was no where mentioned in the budget.
Such failure implies the government may make unapproved funding that qualifies the spending as “extra-budgetary”, a violation of federal rule punishable by a three year jail term.
That concern is emboldened with the year ending, and the likelihood of a supplementary budget to cover such cost fizzling.
When the finance minister was asked how the government intends to fund the project and her attention drawn to PREMIUM TIMES’ findings, the minister said “maybe” the budget DG, Mr. Okogu, had any response as she was leaving for another meeting.
Mr. Okogu too found in that a solid alibi.
“As the minister has said, we are going for another meeting,” he said, before leaving the media room.
The Senate and House of Representatives committees on Appropriation would not also comment on the non-provision of budget for the project, a regular executive failing that lawmakers often criticize.
Leaders and some other members of the committees did not respond to phone calls and messages to their phones.
The House spokesperson too, Zakari Mohammed, did not respond to same.
The budget absence
In the relevant budgets reviewed, the contract is neither mentioned as a new project in the 2012, 2011 and 2013 budgets for the presidency nor the federal capital territory development, the report found.
Where the banquet hall is mentioned in the budgets, the allocations are merely to address specific repairs and rehabilitation within the hall, subheads costing no more than N60 million each.
Even so, same repairs within the hall have maintained a constant showing in the budget for successive years.
Under the 2012 budget for instance, new sets of “presentation equipment” were to be purchased for the hall at the cost of N116.7 million, while rehabilitation of the roof of the banquet dome was to cost N62.2 million.
Electrical installation for the building was proposed for N34.6 million too. Coincidentally, same “electrical installation” appeared for 2011 and 2013 at N45 million and N30 million respectively.
A further “rehabilitation of the dome” for the 2013 budget, a proposal not yet approved by the National Assembly, is also set at N81 million.
In all, no costs were allocated for fresh construction as approved by the Federal Executive Council.
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