By Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Most members of the House of Representatives are unlikely to wish a replay of the outgoing year in 2013. They are not wrong for thinking that way. Unlike the Senate, the House waged deluge of battles all through the year. Unfortunately, some of the duels earned it massive stains and tried its soul to the foundation. The Chamber started off the year on a good note.
On the first Sunday of January, the Speaker, Hon Aminu Tambuwal convened a special session to wade into the national strike that paralysed affairs in the country. The strike was a fallout of the January 1 hike in the Pump price of Petrol by the Federal Government. Petrol was raised from N65 to between N141 to N145 per liter. The special session by the House was outside the tradition of the Chamber. The move, expectedly, was rewarded with a widespread applause by the public.
The session eventually gave birth to the Farouk Lawan ad hoc Committee for the investigation of the Petroleum Subsidy Regime. It was the House’s first battle against powerful forces. The public investigation lasted till February and predictably unearthed high degree of sleaze in the subsidy payment. The Chamber celebrated the public hearing. Several Nigerians and bodies also praised the lawmakers. Riding on the euphoria, the leadership of the House also set up another ad hoc committee to probe the near collapse of Capital Market. The Committee was headed by Hon Herman Hembe. That was in April. However, that was to signal the commencement of dark days for the House.
The Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ms. Arunma Oteh, who was at the centre of the probe hit the committee below the belt. She accused Hembe of corruption. Oteh alleged that the committee had demanded N39m from SEC to fund the public hearing and insisted that she had no confidence in it. She asked: “In asking the SEC to contribute N39m for this public hearing, don’t you think that you are undermining your capacity to carry out your duties?” Not done, the SEC boss also alleged that 24 hours before the hearing started on Wednesday, Hembe had demanded N5m from her.
Looking straight into the eyes of Hembe and other Committee members, Oteh fired: “You also requested that we should provide at least N5m, which was a day before this public hearing started. “I have raised issues regarding the credibility of the chairman, but that has not been addressed. “I will like to say to the Nigerian people that I do not think that I am given a fair hearing.” She claimed to have turned down both requests because she felt that they were not appropriate. The SEC DG said: “I was told upon my appointment that whenever you try to fight corruption, corruption will fight you back.
“What I did not know was that this would come from the House committee.” Oteh’s allegation was a fight back. She was accused of not following due process in the running of the commission. The committee claimed that Oteh spent N30m on hotel accommodation in eight months, following her appointment in January 2010. She was also alleged to have spent N850, 000 on a single meal at Transcorp Hilton. The committee also claimed that she engaged two members of staff of Access Bank to work as special advisers in SEC. The two members of staff were reportedly paid allowances equivalent to those of a director in the Federal Civil Service.
Although Oteh’s allegation swept away Hembe’s Committee and put the House on spot, the Chamber did not give up the battle. It set up another committee led by Ibrahim El-Esudi which found Oteh guilty and recommended for her sack. The dust over Oteh was yet to settle when the bribery scandal against Farouk Lawan emerged. The scandal rocked the House and almost made nonsense of the Subsidy report. The Chairman of Zenon Oil and Gas Ltd , Mr Femi Otedola accused Lawan of collecting $620,000 from him to delist one of his companies, Fort Oil Ltd from the list of indicted firms in the Subsidy payment scam. The battle by the House was not only with Otedola but also against its members fingered in the bribery allegation.
It quickly moved against Farouk and Boniface Emenalo, the Secretary of the ad hoc Committee. The House also suspended Lawan as the Chairman of the Committee on Education pending the outcome of the investigation. It mandated its Committee on Ethics and Privileges to investigate the allegation and report back to the House within two weeks. It however passed a vote of confidence on the Speaker, Tambuwal. The decision to pass a vote of confidence on the Speaker was informed by insinuations in some circles that the Presidency was not only the one stoking the Farouk Lawan bribery case but was discretely plotting to use that as a foothold to cause the impeachment of Tambuwal.
The presidential aide on Media, Dr Ruben Abati denied the speculation but that did not stop many, especially some legislators from pointing fingers at the Presidency. A sign that the House was not happy with the Presidency and was ready to battle showed just three weeks after the bribery Scandal came to the fore. First was the criticism of the handling of worsening insecurity in the country by the Presidency. The Lawmaker invited President Goodluck to appear before them to explain what he was doing to check terrorism and general insecurity in the land.
President Jonathan declined the invitation and did not offer reason for his decision. The House did not raise eyebrow over that. Instead it turned attention to another issue. The lawmakers accused the President of unimpressively implementing the 2012 budget and threatened to invoke the impeachment article against him if by the end of September he failed to achieve 100 percent execution of the budget. The lawmakers also cautioned the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on the non-release of funds to ministries, departments and agencies of government to implement projects.
In a motion moved by Sam-Tsokwa and 20 others entitled: “Poor implementation of the 2012 budget,” the lawmakers argued “while the recurrent expenditure has kept pace with expectations, capital budget implementation seriously lags behind and leaves much to be desired.” According to Mr Tsokwa, “whereas the majority of MDAs have reached advanced stages in the implementation of the procurement process, they are unable to release contract award letters as a result of the release of insufficient funds or non-release of funds, which has further exacerbated the crushing burden of accumulated debts.”
He added: “the 2012 national budget was passed with aggregate expenditure figure of N4.887 trillion, including the N180 billion for the Subsidy Re-Investment Programme (SURE-P).” Various chairmen of the House committees that contributed to the debate, which generated heated arguments and emotions, berated the executive for the poor implementation of the 2012 budget and equally frowned at the false alarm being raised by the Minister of Finance that the country was broke. The lawmakers then submitted that from the data they obtained from various government revenue generating agencies, except the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the country’s economy was not doing badly, as most of the agencies were said to have already surpassed their targets.
The Minority Leader of the House, Femi Gbajabiamiala, contended: “President Goodluck Jonathan promised Nigerians a budget of transformation, but what we have is a budget of abracadabra and a voodoo economy.” Backing his impeachment call with Section 143, Mr Gbajabiamila said, “if by the time we resume in September 18, 2012, budget has not been implemented by 100 per cent, we shall begin the impeachment process on Mr President.” However, the House Leader, Mulikat Adeola-Akande, cautioned the lawmakers on the impeachment threat, stressing that she believed that before the lawmakers resumed from their recess on September 18, 2012, things would have changed for the better.
The House is still battling the Presidency on the budget implementation till date. The doggedness in the fight for a 100 percent execution of the budget has helped in no small way to launder the image of the House. Although the Farouk and Hembe scandals shook the House, what cannot be brushed aside is the image of a ‘People’s House which the Tambuwal leadership has succeeded in building. Another credit to the leadership is that despite the missiles fired from high quarters against the House, the Chamber has continued to speak with one voice.