Festus Owete in this analysis examines how the House of Representatives may approach the allegation of budget padding upon resumption on Tuesday.
One issue that is certain to feature prominently as the House of Representatives reconvenes from its three-month recess, Tuesday, is the controversial allegation of budget padding against its Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, and three other principal officers of the House.
In June, a former Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumuni Jibrin, accused the Speaker, his deputy, Yusuff Lasun, the Chief Whip, Ado Doguwa, and the Minority Leader, Leo Ogor, of surreptitiously inserting in the 2016 budget projects worth over N40 billion.
“These members of the body of principal officers were not comfortable with my independent disposition and my refusal to cover up their unilateral decision to allocate to themselves 40 billion naira out of the 100 billion allocated to the entire National Assembly,” Mr. Jibrin, a former ally of Mr. Dogara, claimed in a statement shortly after his exit from his position.
Aside publishing in the media, documents, some of which also fingered the principal officers for collecting illegal allowances, the embattled former appropriation committee chair took his allegations to the anti-graft bodies, including the EFCC, ICPC and the police, urging them to launch investigations into his allegations.
He also visited the National Human Rights Commission and the national secretariat of his party, the All Progressives Congress, to state his case against the four principal officers.
The accused, on their part, have at different fora stoutly denied the allegation.
Mr. Dogara, in particular repeatedly said he never doctored the budget, on which legislative action was completed on March 23 before it was transmitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.
“I wish to reiterate that no kobo belonging to Nigerians has been misappropriated, stolen or lost in this budget saga,” Mr. Dogara said on his Twitter handle.
“I wish to state clearly that there was no act of corruption by me during and/or after the preparation of the 2016 budget.”
The House accused Mr. Jibrin of inserting projects in the budget without its authority with a view to currying favour from prominent Nigerians.
One of the projects, it said, was the Muhammadu Buhari Film Village to be sited in Mr. Jibrin’s Bebeji/Kiru federal constituency of Kano State.
The House said he did so not only to curry favour and use it to blackmail people, but also to justify the N4.1 billion he allocated to his constituency alone in the budget, which has assumed the most controversial in the recent past.
Since the scandal broke out, some lawmakers as well as members of the public have expressed divergent views on the propriety or otherwise of the action of the principal officers.
To some, the lawmakers merely performed their constitutional role of amending the 2016 appropriation bill just like it would do to any other executive or private member bills introduced into the House.
Those on the other divide say beefing up the budget, which Mr. Jibrin allegedly claimed the principal officers did, was criminal and should be investigated and possibly punished.
Even with scanty evidence on the matter, those who hold this view say it would help to sanitise Nigeria’s budget-making process which has been profusely abused since 1999.
Amid the discordant voices, calls for investigation have not abated.
Auwal Musa, the Executive Director of the Centre for Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, said launching investigation into the matter is the only way to establish the truth about Mr. Jibrin’s allegations against the quartet.
“It has been going on for a long time in the National Assembly,” Mr. Musa told PREMIUM TIMES. “These people who have been given responsibility divert funds and projects without following due process and so this is the time for Nigerians to resist such things.
“So, there must be investigation into the allegations that have been made if this thing has to stop. They need to be thoroughly investigated and, if possible, prosecuted.”
Eze Onyekpere, the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, a group that campaigns to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and reduce corporate domination, says though the issue of revamping the economy should take a centre stage as the House reconvenes, the budget padding saga must also be resolved.
He said, “I expect them to get to the root of the matter, but unfortunately, there is also the problem of the economy, which should be sorted out. So they should look at the larger picture.
“I am saying that they should try and resolve that challenge and ensure it does not happen again but for me they should settle down with the executive and resolve the economy, which also seriously affects the Nigerian people.”
On its part, ahead of the House resumption, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has filed a suit in the Federal High Court asking for an order to compel the EFCC “to investigate and prosecute allegations of budget padding and abuse of office levelled against Mr. Dogara and others.
In the suit filed on its behalf by Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana, the group argued that Mr. Dogara and the others are not immune from investigation under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, even though the speaker “has been talking tough saying that the EFCC cannot investigate him.”
Will the 360-member House investigate the matter that has heavily polarized the House? Will the House subject its leadership to scrutiny? Should it decides to do so, who undertakes the task?
The House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, said he has no idea how the matter would be resolved when it reconvenes.
“I have no idea yet,” Mr. Gbajabiamila told PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday.
But he quickly added, “The House will be objective, follow due process and come to a decision that will be in the best interest of the institution and the country.”
Nicholas Ossai, the Chairman of the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, the investigative body of the chamber, declined comment when PREMIUM TIMES sought his view.
“Leave me out of the matter until we resume; we are resuming on Tuesday,” Mr. Ossai said.
At the peak of the crisis in July, Mr. Ossai had told this newspaper that his committee would handle the matter if it was referred to it.
“We are waiting for petition and I know pages of newspaper are not petitions,” he had said.
“The ethics committee looks forward to receiving petition. No petition has been brought before the committee; the committee must receive petition before it dabbles into any issue.”
Asked if his committee could not act proactively in the face of the damaging allegations, he denied any damage to the House, saying “No petition does not stop the committee from its internal investigation. Without petition, you don’t know if we have started or not.”
“Petition formalises everything. Without recourse to letter that comes from the House (after it received petition), the ethics committee can move into and investigate the matter, but it is better empowered if a petition is forwarded to it.”
Mr. Ossai, however, frowned at suggestions that EFCC or any eternal body should probe the allegation.
According to him, “Anything done at plenary or premises of the House cannot be investigated by external bodies.
“The House can regulate itself using its rules and procedures. Nigerians are yet to appreciate what the legislature is. We have mechanisms to discipline ourselves.”
Even so, the House may decide not to approach the matter at all since it is already a matter of litigation.
Apart from the latest suit filed by SERAP, Mr. Jibrin had in August approached the court asking it to shield him from being arrested and interrogated over his allegation against Mr. Dogara and others.
The Standing Orders of the House forbid it from discussing any matter that is before a court.
According to Order IX Section 57 (5) “Reference shall not be made to any matter on which a judicial decision is pending in such a way as might in the Speaker’s opinion prejudice the interest of parties thereto.”
But the Speaker and indeed the House may want to clear the legislative institution of any wrongdoing and insist on investigation, especially given the anti-corruption posture of the Buhari administration.
If it toes this path, two things are likely to happen.
First, going by previous experiences, a pro-Dogara lawmaker would come up with a motion complaining that Mr. Jibrin had brought the House to disrepute.
The lawmaker, invoking Section 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Standing Order, would not only say his privilege as a member and that of the speaker had been breached, but also push for the suspension of the erstwhile appropriation committee chair.
If the speaker allows debate on the matter, there would be argument over whether consideration of appropriation bills amounts to padding or not, especially where no case of bribery was established as was the case of former Senate President, Adolphus Wabara and others in 2005.
Also, depending on the prayers sought by the motion, Mr. Dogara, invoking his enormous power, may cause the matter to be referred to the ethics and privileges committee for investigation if it (motion) is carried. This means that Mr. Jibrin may appear before the committee to state his case.
Section 123 (3) (b) empowers the committee to “investigate……any alleged violation, by a member of the Code of Conduct or any law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct applicable to the conduct of such member and, after notice and hearing, to recommend to the House by resolution or otherwise, such action as he Committee may deem appropriate in the circumstances.”
Under the rules, the committee can recommend punishment for misconduct as it “deems appropriate,” after investigation.
Such punishment could be suspension, which may be for weeks or up to six months.
Even so, the Speaker can invoke his powers to unilaterally suspend Mr. Jibrin if there is turmoil at any point in time at the plenary, as former Speaker Dimeji Bankole did to Dino Melaye and 10 others on June 22, 2010 or extend the suspension as it suits him.
But the committee’s handling of matters involving the House members since the return of the Legislature in 1999 is hardly impressive. The committee has the reputation of not only clearing its members but carrying out shoddy jobs.
A few examples suffice.
In 2008, former Speaker Dimeji Bankole, was named in a scandal over the alleged purchase of 380 units of Comfort (Auto) and ST Sport (Auto) Peugeot 407 cars for the oversight function of the House standing committees. The contract was valued at N2.3 billion.
The House at its plenary session asked its ethics and privileges committee to investigate the matter. That was after Lagos Lawyer, Festus Keyamo, in a letter dated October 7, 2008 asked the Speaker to explain the difference in the N1.1 billion in the price quoted by the Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria and the actual amount the company sold the cars.
In its report, the committee cleared Mr. Bankole and the leadership. It also said that Mr. Keyamo’s letter was “faulty and baseless in its allegation.”
The same year, the 27-member House committee on Power and Steel was accused of receiving N100 million bribe to water down its report on the investigation into the alleged expenditure of $16 billion by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007 on the power sector.
The then newly reconstituted ethics and privileges committee, led by Sani Minjibir (ANPP, Kano), was asked by the House to conduct the investigation.
The committee in its seven-page report said that “the allegation against the committee on power is unfounded and untrue.”
In 2012, after it was heavily criticized for shielding one of its own, the House removed Farouk Lawan, a former Chairman of the Ad hoc committee on Fuel Subsidy for allegedly receiving $620,000 as bribe from Zenon Oil boss, Femi Otedola, to shield his company from indictment. Mr. Lawan was also removed as chairman of committee on education.
The House mandated the ethics and privileges committee to investigate the matter and report back in two weeks. It has yet to do so, though the matter is in court.
However, another window open to Mr. Dogara as a way of maintaining his innocence is to establish an independent panel to investigate the budget padding allegation.
In this wise, he would be expected to testify before the panel.
This is not strange to the House. In September 2007, it set up a nine-member committee headed by David Idoko, a PDP member from Benue State, to investigate the alleged award of contract valued at N628 million by former Speaker, Patricia Etteh. The money was meant to upgrade her official residence and that of her deputy, Babangida Nguroje, and also for the purchase of utility vehicles for the 10 principal officers.
Mrs. Etteh, the only woman to be Speaker of the House since inauguration in 2007, bowed to pressure to float the panel to “to examine in totality the award of contract for upgrading of the residences of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker;” and “to examine the contract for the purchase of official and utility vehicles for the officials of the House.”
The embattled speaker appeared before the committee she set up just like others but denied not following procedure. But the panel, in its report, said she did not.
On October 30, Mrs. Etteh was forced to resign.
In 2000, the late Senate President, Chuba Okadigbo, set up a panel chaired by Idris Kuta to probe an allegation of anticipatory contract award by his leadership.
In the end, Mr. Okadigbo, like Mrs. Etteh, also fell from power after the panel’s assignment.
Can Mr. Dogara take the risk? Will he subject himself to public scrutiny?
It is difficult to establish how Mr. Dogara, a lawyer and lawmaker from Bauchi State, would approach the matter.
What is certain is that the speaker has enormous powers to determine which way things should go at the plenary. He has committee chairs and deputies to back any strategy he would come up with.
Yet, the granite support of the committee leaders can also not be guaranteed if the experiences of Mr. Wabara and Mrs. Etteh are anything to go by.
As in those cases, some of those may join the call for Mr. Dogara to step aside not only to ensure unfettered investigation but also because of the need to purge the legislature and its leadership of immoral financial acts, if any.