Senate Vs Presidency: Unending scuffle on national matters

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From ADETUTU FOLASADE-KOYI, Abuja

Shortly after the inauguration of the Seventh Senate under the Presidency of Senator David Bonaventure Alechenu Mark for a record second time, the nation’s upper legislative chamber resolved to investigate the activities of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) from 1999 to 2011.

It was a blow directed at the heart of the Presidency because the BPE, right from under the leadership of former FCT Minister, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai to the headship of Ms. Bola Onagoruwa had always been a money-spinning agency for the executive.

In fact, the BPE brought in so much  that proceeds from sales of government-owned institutions were incorporated into national budgets appropriated by the National Assembly.

Besides the BPE probe, the David Mark Senate had also initiated several probes including that of  the  management of the fuel subsidy regime and  the  shoddy implementation of national budgets, especially the 2011/2012 Appropriation Acts.

In a  similar fashion, the Senate also caused an investigation into the new price regime of drivers’ licence and plate numbers introduced by the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) without recourse to the National Assembly. On another occasion, the upper legislative chamber made pronouncements on the headship of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Not done yet, the Senate practically forced the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) through the Presidency, to back down on its proposed issuance of  the N5,000 note. In another breath, the Senate also revisited the contentious ceding of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroun during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Sometime in November last year, former Kwara State Governor , Bukola Saraki drew the attention of the Senate to strings of extra-budgetary spending by the Presidency which shot up fuel subsidy from a modest N240 billion to over N2 trillion as at December 2011.

Senate mandated three of its committees to probe the illegal spending and  the report of that investigation has been submitted by the Chairman of the Petroleum Resources (Downstream) Committee, Senator Magnus Ngei Abe.

The report which was submitted to the Senate since October has not been debated.

Perhaps, the most controversial tackle the Senate gave the Executive was the pension funds probe undertaken by the joint committees on States and Local Government Administration and Establishment and Public Service.

The committees, under the joint leadership of  Senators Aloysius Etok and Kabiru Gaya discovered massive looting of public funds such that at a particular time, some public officers withdrew N300 million daily from public accounts!

The committees  recommended  the sack of those who were appointed to stop the looting but who ended up partaking of the loot and   wanted them prosecuted in the court of law as well.

Senate felt they didn’t do a thorough job in some aspects and mandated the committees to go back and do “a comprehensive investigation”. This time around, chairman of the PTT chose to routinely ignore summons from the Senate.

The drama is not yet over because lately on Tuesday, the committees declared Maina wanted over the whereabouts of N159 billion pension funds.

But what vexed lawmakers the most was the routine manner in which the Presidency conveniently ignored resolutions which emanated from the National Assembly.

Information Minister, Labaran Maku and two Presidential aides, Ahmed Gulak and Doyin Okupe set the lawmakers off when, at different times, they pointed it out to the National Assembly that their resolutions are mere advice which President Jonathan was not obliged to implement.

An angry Senate President David Mark described such comments as “ careless talk.”

Senator Mark said the President should call his ministers to order and if such careless talk emanates from ministers in future, the National Assembly would not hesitate to call for their sack from cabinet.

Said Mark: “He (Maku) didn’t think properly. I think the information minister is a careless talker. It was a careless talk. I hope that the president cautions him and calls him to order.”

“He shouldn’t educate us; we should educate him. For if any minister  talks that carelessly next time, we will pass a resolution asking the President to sack him.”

“For those who ask ministers to bow and go when they come here for screening, this should be a hard lesson…”

On his part, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba warned the Presidential aides not to court more trouble for their principal.

Early this year, Senate ordered the FRSC to stop the issuance of new number plates and driver’s licenses because the policy was not pocket-friendly to Nigerian motorists.

The chamber mandated its Committee on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs chaired by Senator Dahiru Awaisu Kuta to investigate the new price regime and recommend appropriate prices for the scheme.

The suspension stayed in place for some months before the Senate lifted the order but this time, with a 30 percent reduction in fees.

Adopting the recommendations of its Committee on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Senate extended the deadline for compliance by motorists to renew their licenses and plate numbers from August 2012 to February 2013.

In addition, the Senate directed the Police to forthwith “suspend the introduction of Bio-metric Central Motor Registry (BCMR) and the N3, 500 that goes with it as this is an additional burden and unnecessary duplication of the on-going scheme by the FRSC on the vehicle owner which is capable of translating into a hike in transport fare for commuters”.

The National Assembly took up the Executive on the ceding of Bakassi to Cameroun.

In a race to beat the October 10 deadline for the final ceding of the Peninsula, Senate urged the Federal Government to invoke Article 61 of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Statute to appeal its verdict in the interest of Nigerians in the affected areas, including Bakassi.

Senate contended that the Green Tea Agreement (GTA), which ceded Bakassi to Cameroun, was never domesticated by the Fifth National Assembly, as required by section 12 of the 1999 Constitution.

They further argued that because the GTA was not given legal backing by the National Assembly, the handover  was null and void.

Nigeria ceded Bakassi to the Republic of Cameroun in 2002.

To underscore the seriousness of the matter, Senate President David Mark ,volunteered to write a personal letter to the President and urged him to hasten the appeal.

Emotions ran high in the Senate chambers on the day Bakassi motion was debated.

Deputy Senate Leader Abdul Ningi who led the debate noted that new facts have emerged after the ICJ ruling which were not available before the first trial coupled with the fact that the handover “was executed

without a referendum as enshrined by the United Nations.”

He further added: “Nigeria has never domesticated the GTA…The 1999 Constitution still recognizes Bakassi as part of Nigeria and there is no reference on the ceding…If Bakassi is inhabited by Hausa Fulani, this could never have happened. If Bakassi was inhabited by the Yoruba, this could never have happened. In fact, if Bakassi were inhabited by even the Ijaw, this could never have happened.

“If government’s problem is money, we are ready to contribute to fund the legal battle.”

The Senate Leader, who incidentally is from Cross River and is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, drew the attention of the Senate to the string of illegalities perpetrated during the handover of the Bakassi Peninsula and passionately pleaded with the upper legislative chamber to ensure justice  which was denied them during the Obasanjo administration, is done for the region.”

“Cross River State Government is the immediate victim of injustice and the high-handedness of this issue of Bakassi. In 2007, we urged the Federal Government to tarry a while and we, myself and Senator Bassey Ewa-Henshaw sponsored three motions to that effect but  they were not heeded.”

“Bakassi was handed over with an unelected governor in place and I asked the question: What was the hurry?”

“The Bakassi’s judgment was the fastest judgment that was implemented. There are judgments from the ICJ as far back as the 1930’s that have not been implemented; so, why the hurry with Bakassi?”

“Cross River State lost 76 oil wells to Akwa Ibom. Bakassi went in one direction and the oil wells went in another direction. Cross River did not cede Bakassi. Bakassi was ceded by the federal government in spite of Cross River.”

“We demand protection as people of Nigeria. If the Nigerian state cannot protect Cross River, let the Senate, to which I belong, protect Cross River.”

A day before the Senate resolved that Nigeria should appeal the ceding of Bakassi to Cameroun, President Jonathan had, in an address at the United Nations promised emphatically  that Nigeria would abide by the ICJ ruling.

Senate chose to be on the same page with Nigerians when the CBN suddenly announced the introduction of N5,000 notes, apparently without consultation with the National Assembly.

Senate ordered the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to stop any action on the issuance of the note and its proposed restructuring of other Nigerian currencies.

The CBN had said that the new note would come into effect in January 2013 while some naira notes would be turned into coins.

But the Senate maintained that the CBN did not “properly brief” the National Assembly on the new notes and the proposed restructuring exercise.

Senate’s decision was thereafter conveyed through its Committee on Banking, Insurance and other Financial Institutions.

The nation’s upper legislative chamber’s position sharply contradicts that of the Presidency which reportedly gave tacit approval on CBN’s restructuring of the naira notes in 2011after CBN Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi allegedly briefed the President on the move.

Sanusi reportedly secured the President’s approval before going public with the new move. Regardless, Senate lately ordered CBN to stop the process and recalled that moves to re-denominate the naira in 2008/2009 failed and wondered reasons behind the policy summersault.

Although the Senate initially kept quiet when the House of Representatives sounded the drum beats of war over the shoddy implementation of the 2012 Appropriation Act, Senate could no longer keep quiet when it saw that the Executive systematically starved ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) with regards to funding of capital projects.

What actually triggered the face-off was the attitude of the Executive when the Senate called a meeting to resolve the poor budget implementation charge leveled by the House of Representatives.

Pointers to a frosty relationship between the National Assembly and the Executive emerged when more than half an hour after the scheduled meeting between the Senate Committees on Appropriation, Finance, Public Accounts, National Planning, Economic Affairs and Poverty Alleviation and the Coordinating Minister on the Economy, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, no official from the Ministry of Finance was seated.

In fact, on the other side of the expansive committee room, no senator was seated either; only anxious reporters and committee staff waited for the gladiators to appear and herald what promised to be a huge face-off.

Since the President Goodluck Jonathan administration was inaugurated on May 29, 2011, the relationship between the two arms of government was at best cordial. On several occasions, Senate served as the voice of reason and caution.

But all that changed in the summer. The road to that frosty relationship started soon after the passage of the 2012 budget in March. Sunday Sun gathered that series of meetings were convened between the National Assembly and the Presidency before the N4.8 trillion budget was approved .

One of the deals was that the budget should not be tinkered with and both parties would get what they wanted in the Appropriation Act. Any tinkering, it was learnt,  could  make the budget un-implementable  as it were.

Based upon that gentleman’s agreement, the National Assembly reportedly told its sub-committees of the Appropriation Committees in both chambers to be guided by the envelops presented by the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).

But relations soured almost immediately after. Promises reportedly made to the National Assembly were soon dashed. While the Senate held its peace, the House of Representatives could not stomach the “habitual failed promises of the Executive arm of government” and bade its time.

The House soon showed its displeasure through a motion last month, shortly before its annual recess on July 19.

The original motion had only two prayers and after deliberations and an amendment by Hon. Ogbuefi Ozomgbachi, only one prayer was carried by the House.

Quite significantly though, that motion had nothing to do with impeachment threats on President Jonathan but soon gained currency with the public when other members, outside the House resolution, keyed in to the idea.

The impeachment threat, however, drew the ire of Presidential Adviser on National Assembly Matters, Senator Joy Emordi who asked that the issues shouldn’t be muddled up.

Emordi equally reiterated that only Minority Leader Femi Gbajabiamila made a passing mention of the impeachment process in his contributions to the debate. “What actually happened during the debate on budget implementation was that the minority leader, in his contribution, mentioned impeachment which was not even put to vote. At no time did the House resolve to impeach the President.”

Moving on from there, Senate joined the fray when its Appropriation Committee reportedly invited the Finance Ministry to an informal session on the 2012 budget implementation.

Some members told Sunday Sun that it was a heated session and that the meeting between the minister and the lawmakers became imperative after it was apparent that funds were not being released to ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to execute certain projects.

Drawing a nexus between release of funds to MDAs for capital projects and the National Assembly, a reliable source noted that constituency projects of lawmakers are closely tied and if the MDAs don’t get sufficient funds, no project can be executed.

After the meeting which was led by Appropriation Committee Chairman, Ahmed Mohammed Maccido, the committee briefed the Senate on the outcome of the parley.

A reportedly furious Senate leadership mandated the committee to schedule another meeting with the minister and this time around, expanded the scope and drafted in three more committees, including Finance, National Planning and Public Accounts.

Raising the ante, the leadership demanded that the meeting be held in the open as against the first one which was held behind closed doors.

Perhaps, in a vindication of the series of Senate probes and resolutions, the Presidency, last month, sacked the BPE Director-General, almost a year after the upper chamber had called for similar action.

But skeptics would argue that Onagoruwa’s sack had nothing to do with the Presidency kowtowing to the Senate on its resolutions.

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