By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA — Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, yesterday, said he could not be investigated or interrogated over alleged padding of the 2016 budget.
Giving reasons he refused to be interrogated by the Police Special Investigating Panel over the issue, Dogara argued that no one or agency has the powers to pry into activities of the House, saying “most of the things we do in the National Assembly are privileged.”
The speaker, who spoke at an interactive session with Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, in Abuja, on the one-year review of the 8th House of Representatives Legislative Agenda, said he enjoys statutory protection under the Legislative Houses Powers & Privileges Act.
The event was organized by the Policy &Legal Advocacy Centre, PLAC, in collaboration with the House of Representatives.
According to him, legislative business of the House “cannot be grounds for any investigation or any procedure or proceeding to be commenced in court against a member of parliament, either the Speaker or even the Senate President, once they are done in exercise of their proper function.
“The law is there. Both communications, whatever it is, they are privileged. That is in order to give independence to the legislature. If the legislature is not independent, we can’t do anything. If whatever you say on the floor or before a committee or whatever you communicate is subject of litigation, then all the members will be in court and at the end of the day when debate comes, you cannot even air your views.”
I did no wrong, says Dogara
However, Dogara took time to narrate his side of the story, stressing that the House of Representatives under him, had the powers to tinker with the budget proposal sent to it by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Contending that what President Buhari prepared and sent to the House was a mere proposal that was eventually turned into an appropriation bill and later made law in the form of a budget, Dogara, said the constitution imbued the National Assembly with the requisite powers to prescribe how funds withdrawn from the consolidated revenue fund should be spent.
“So the budget being a law, therefore, means that it is only, I repeat, only the parliament that can make it because it is law and I challenge all of us, members of the civil society to look at the law and tell me where it is written that the President can make the budget.
“What I am saying is further reinforced by Section 80 of the constitution where it clearly provides that no amount of money should be withdrawn from the consolidated revenue or any other account of the federation except in the manner prescribed by the National Assembly.
“How does the National Assembly prescribe it in this manner? It is in the appropriation bill which is later made a budget. I want this thing to sink so that we understand it from here and that perhaps may change the ongoing discourse.
“If you contend that we cannot tinker with the appropriation bill, therefore, it goes without saying that we cannot tinker with any Executive bill. If they bring a bill on EFCC, for instance, or any other executive bill and, maybe, because the Executive will not consult civil society to come for public hearing, they don’t do that. It is the legislature that does that by the instrumentality of public hearing and when we aggregate your views, it is only our duty as representatives of the people to make sure that your voices are reflected in the laws.
“So, by the time we have heard from the people and we now say we are introducing a clause into an Executive bill and it goes to the President and he signs, they will say some people have padded the bill. It doesn’t even make sense,” Dogara stated.
Why House inserted projects
Justifying why the House inserted projects into the budget, Dogara, said it was done in line with the legislative agenda of the 8th House of Representatives, to enhance the integrity of the project selection process.
He lamented that if the 2016 budget was allowed to go as proposed by the Executive, not a single federally funded borehole would have been sited in his constituency, comprising three local government areas.
He said: “When it comes to national budget, who actually sits down to say these are the projects we will fund? Is the process open? Is it transparent? Are the people responsible for doing this accountable to anyone? You just find these projects littered in the budget. The answer is No!
“But some people sit in the budget office, I want to challenge the civil society to just take the budget of a particular ministry, for instance, and look at where the directors and some of the key officials, I don’t even want to mention their names, just look at where they come from and then look at the allocation for that Ministry. It is all over. If you do that exercise, you will be shocked.
“That is why we are calling to question, the integrity of that process. The minister, perhaps, comes from a particular region and you will see that almost 60 to 70 per cent of the funds go to that place. In furtherance of our responsibilities and duties, as representatives of the people, we have to attract federal presence.
“Even in the USA, the requirement for a parliamentarian to keep winning election is to attract federal presence back to his constituency. A Senator brought just an airport in one of the districts in Texas, just for that, he has been elected over three times.
“The truth is that if you come from a constituency like mine for instance, we don’t have a Perm Sec or a Director anywhere, so if you look at the 2016 budget, if it were to go as proposed by the executive, there is no single federally funded borehole, even if it is N50, there is no N50 meant for any project in my three local governments.
“Why? Because I don’t have anybody where they are preparing or sharing these allocations. If it were not for the instrumentality of the zonal intervention, or what is known as constituency projects, how can I attract even a federally funded borehole in my constituency in four years? The answer is none! Then how do I get elected into the House again? It is not possible. So the biggest challenge before us is to address the integrity of the project selection process.
“In the 2016 budget, if you look at it critically, if we had no powers to amend laws, by the time the executive itself brought the proposals to us, there were so many aspects that funding was not effectively provided for.”
Dogara noted that only N250 was budgeted for daily feeding of prisoners. “How callous can we be? You have constrained somebody regardless of the offence he has committed; some of these people are even innocent, but they are there because they are awaiting trial and at the end of the day, some of them may be discharged and acquitted but you are subjecting him into a position by providing only N250 to feed him in present day Nigeria. How will that work?
“We looked at it and said no, that must go up. Even if we don’t have money in the country, at least, we can provide N500 to feed them through the intervention of the National Assembly. Nobody is talking about padding in this case.”
He said the House equally intervened and raised budgetary allocation for the construction of a befitting edifice for the EFCC, saying, “if we had gone without touching what the executive did, all these things would not have been possible.
“The 2016 budget was controversial from the onset but the House handled the controversy with maturity, employing the democratic tools of dialogue, compromise and consensus by which an implementable 2016 budget was passed and assented to. Let me also add that once we have determined that something or anything has constituted itself into a cog and we have known the right way to go in terms of a review of our budget process, the only thing that will stop us from implementing that will be cowardice. Since we are not cowards, we will continue to do the right thing.
“If you talk about the Lagos-Calabar rail line, by the time we took the budget, there was no provision, even though the minister claimed that he appeared and tried to defend the thing before the House. But the truth is that the provision for that project was not in the budget proposal that was submitted by the President.”
He said that it took the intervention of the National Assembly to raise N60 billion for the Lagos-Calabar rail line.
“So if they claim that there is anything known as padding, and I have always wondered what padding is, if anything was padded, are we the ones that padded it? So who would be held responsible? Is it the institution? Has there been any country where parliamentarians have been cautioned or interrogated for performing their constitutional responsibility of making a law?
“The worst that can happen is that if anyone disagrees with the law, he takes it before the court. That is the beauty of separation of powers. So I think I have attempted to explain all the issues.
“For anyone who understands legislative process to begin to say that four people sat down and padded the budget, if it were in the US, we refer to such person as a BS artist. If you don’t know what BS artist is, go and Google it.
“There has never been a time when four people will just sit down on their own, take over the secretariat and impute things into the budget and it will go to the President. It is almost unimaginable that such thing will happen. It is always a process of negotiation, the ministers were there, the appropriation secretariat was there, and no one has come to say that was the case. No person from the secretariat has come out with such allegation other than one person,” he added.