For about two weeks running, standing committees of Nigeria’s House of Representatives have been engaging ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of the federal government on the 2022 budget. JOSHUA EGBODO reviews issues that emanated from some of the sessions .
Immediately after the 2022 budget bill got the nod for a second reading at the House of Representatives, the committee on appropriations, to which the proposal was committed, called for a meeting where its chairman, Mukhtar Betara reeled out the focus the panel will adopt in considering the appropriation bill
He told his colleagues on October 14th when the meeting held that the committee will expectantly lay its report on December 14 for the House’s consideration on the 15th, and subsequent third reading and passage on the 16th, advising committee members to be diligent in their assignments, as he told his colleagues that the meeting was necessitated by the need to streamline the way forward after the house has referred the bill to the committee.
The lawmaker stressed that ernest work will commence on the bill the same week, as guidelines will be released to all standing committees, which by budgeting tradition, are sub-panels to the Appropriations Committee
“We’re going to be more careful on recurrent expenditure. No money should be taken from recurrent to the capital expenditure, and no money from capital to recurrent, unless where it is absolutely necessary”, Betara said, advising members to guide the subcommittees they may be posted to.
With the foundation laid and members told their areas of mandates, standing committees appeared to have gone to sleep, as no engagement was seen going on. In defence, some committee heads said work was going on behind the scene, as some are going out on oversight, so as to have a better grasp of the budget permanent of MDAs in the outgoing year, 2021.
With the budget committed to the appropriations committee, which is to superintend over activities of the standing panels, the house officially vowed to come hard on MDAS which were good at selectively implementing their budgets, and in some cases, not doing so at all. On October 14, when the House suspended regular plenary for committees to engage the MDAs, spokesman of the House, Benjamin Kalu while responding to questions on the mindset of the House against such, said it will never be business as usual.
Minority Leader of the House, Ndudi Elumelu had during debate on the 2022 budget bill, noted that it was on good authority that some MDAS were holding on to funds on the excuses that the releases were not yet 100 percent, and so do not commence implementation. The spokesman said, “majority of them will be sent away because you have to justify how you used what was given to you before you can ask for more”.
Committees in action
At last, and for about two weeks running, several committees of the House were in action, with several of them sitting simultaneously in some days. The defence engagements have become more intense, as committees scrambled to meet up deadlines, but as usual, not without some dramas.
No funding for NSIA?
One of the yet to be resolved issues was threat of the House Committee on Finance against the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA), that it will direct its funding to be stopped. The Finance committee directed the office of the Accountant General of the Federation not to make any disbursement to the authority in 2022 should it fail to appear before it.
Chairman of the panel, James Faleke, handed down the directive following the repeated absence of the agency to present its spending plans to the parliament. While the agency lays claim to its Act which empowers the Board to scrutinise its budget, the lawmakers insist that such an Act cannot be superior to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which stipulates that all public funds can only be expended in manner as prescribed by the National Assembly.
Anger against Humanitarian Minister
Appropriations Committee of the House was also not happy with the Minister of Hummanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouk for failing to appear before for the ongoing budget defence, warning that the House will be forced to take a decisive action against her.
Chairman of the committee, Mukhtar Betara noted that the minister has consistently refused to appear at the House of Representatives to defend the 2022 Budget of her ministry, as the panel was said to have repeatedly invited the Minister for the budget defence exercise, but she would not honour the invitation. “Sadiya Farouq, rather than appear before the committee, kept delegating the Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Nura Alkali, to do this function.
“The Minister had overseen huge spendings of national funds on paliative in the 2020 and 2021 budgets, and the committee would want her to account for them”, the lawmaker submitted
Dramatic walk-out staged
On Monday November 1, 2021, a behaviour rather unexpected of any visitor to the parliament was to take place before the House of Representative Committee on Steel Development, when a delegation of the new owners of Delta Steel Company, who were invited to answer questions on alleged mismanagement of $1.9 billion assets of the firm, staged a walk-out on lawmakers.
The committee which commenced investigation into the alleged fraudulent sale of the Delta Steel Company, was to follow up with an ultimatum inviting Managing Director of the new owner, Premium Steel to appear before it at a specified date. Chairman of the panel, Hon. Abdullahi Halims gave the directive following the walk out staged by Premium Steel and Mine Company Limited’s representatives.
The disagreement had started when the committee requested the view of Premium Steel, following the outcry of the host community over alleged mismanagement of the Delta Steel Company by the supposed new owner, after being handed over by Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria. Counsel to the company, Essien Andrew (SAN) at the hearing was shut down from speaking by the committee based on the rule of the committee that only the managing director or a person in similar capacity would be allowed to speak at such events.
NHIS blamed over unused funds
In a seeming confirmation of the House’s Minority Leader concern that even with partly funded projects, agencies were in the habits hoarding releases, the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) came under the hammer, when agency could not provide satisfactory information to the Committee on Healthcare Services on a three million unspent fund from its 2020 budget. Chairman of the committee, Hon. Tanko Sonunu gave a directive that details on the fund must be provided before the panel concludes the ongoing budget process.
Executive Secretary of NHIS, Prof. Mohammed Sambo however explained that out of the N144 million that was released for 2020 budget, over N140 million was utilised, adding that for 2021, out of over N740 million appropriated, over N400 million have been utilised, noting that the said Three million naira was rolled over to the 2021 budgetary allocation, asking for more time to provide the needed details.
Malami, others shielded?
To many followers of the budget engagements so far in the House of Representatives, having a summed opinion that there were committees which appeared to be more on the “thank you” position when MDAs they supervise present their submissions. For instance, when Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami appeared before the committee on justice on Monday, a mild drama ensued when Chairman of the panel would not let him take questions over the ministry’s over N11 billion 2022 proposed budget.
Similar scenarios played out same day at the committee on sports, as well as that of Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees, even though the later was perceived to have given some rooms for insights. A fewer more committees are expected in the course of the week to carry out the annual ritual as efforts are on to meet up deadlines.
How far, how good?
In the consideration of many pundits, certain positive changes may have occurred in tune with new resolves of leadership of the 9th assembly of the House of Representatives, as far as budget consideration is concerned. To them, there may still be enough room for improvement.
As Nigerians await the final outcome, tongues are wagging on how responsive and responsible any adjustment to the original budget presented by President Muhammadu Buhari, will be to the interest of majority of the Nigerian populace.