CHUKWU DAVID reports on how some Senate standing committees held the ongoing 2021 Budget defence with Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government without inviting the media for coverage
The Senate commenced defence on the 2021 Appropriation Bill on October 20, with the Ministry of Works and Housing kickstarting the exercise, when the minister, Babatunde Fashola, along with his management team, appeared before the Senate Committee on Works to defend the ministry’s budget. Traditionally, in previous assemblies preceding the immediate past Eight Assembly, the budget being a public document, was subjected to parliamentary scrutiny in full glare of the media. In fact, the lawmakers are usually excited to have their budget defence sessions fully covered by journalists.
The MDAs usually come to the National Assembly to meet relevant committees of the two chambers, over-sighting their activities in order to furnish the lawmakers with the performance of the previous year’s budget and then justify reasons for seeking approval of the parliament for budgetary proposals of current year.
However, from the Eight Assembly, it was observed that some committees preferred to hold their budget defence sessions with the MDAs in secrecy. Curious to unravel the reason behind this non-transparent approach to budget defence by the parliamentarians, New Telegraph carried out an investigation, which also revealed that some of the committee’s leadership resolved to hold the budget hearing sessions in secrecy so as to cover up sharp practices they might decide to perpetrate with heads of the MDAs, such as budget padding and projects racketeering.
It was also learnt that the Senate leadership released N950,000 to each of the standing committees to organize the 2021 budget defence, which the committee chairmen and clerks considered grossly inadequate.
An insider in activities of the committees told our correspondent that sometimes, a committee chairman and his deputy might decide to take up to N500,000 out of the amount, leaving the committee clerk withN450,000 to buy snacks, water, drinks and other necessary items for the entertainment of MDA officials.
Corroborating this information, a committee clerk, who spoke to New Telegraph on the condition of anonymity, agreed that paucity of funds made some of the committees to hold the budget defence sessions without inviting the media for coverage.
The clerk said: “Yes, it’s true that some committees do hold their budget defence without calling the whole Press Corps for full coverage but it’s not true that they don’t call journalists at all. For instance, in my own committee, when we did our budget defense last week, I personally invited three television stations.. “I actually acted on the instructions of my boss, the senator and chairman of the committee.
He believes that these stations have wide reach, and that once the budget defence proceedings are shown on the three, he is satisfied. As you said, the bottom line is money. Things are no longer the way they used to be.
In the past, reasonable amount of money used to be provided for budget defence but it is not so again today. “So, what happens is that the little money provided for the exercise, the chairman of the committee and his deputy will take a larger chunk of it, leaving the clerk and his staff to go and manage whatever meager amount left. And you also know that whenever the heads of agencies are coming for budget defence, they used to come with a very large crowd of people, including those who are not useful to the exercise. So, it’s usually difficult for us to manage the situation, and the only way out is to invite a sizable number of the media.
“However, as the clerk of the committee, I am not comfortable with the arrangement because sometimes, you discover that broadcast journalists are not usually as comprehensive in their reportage as their print counterparts.
That is why I usually make arrangement for at least one or two print journalists, who will quietly come and cover and then help us syndicate the story.” Apart from the issue of fund as a reason for holding budget defence in secrecy, it was further learnt that the lawmakers, in some cases, have some skel-etons in their cupboards, warranting them to prefer to hold such critical matter of public interest without media coverage.
It is pertinent to note that, in the past sessions, the National Assembly and the executive got enmeshed in controversy of budget padding, whereby the two arms were accused of fraudulently injecting fictitious items and allocating funds to same for their selfish benefits. The allegation of padding was first made during the budget defence of 2017, and was also repeated during the defence of the 2018 Appropriation Bill.
That was when Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara were President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives, respectively, and a time the relationship between the National Assembly and the executive was acrimonious because of the emergence of the duo against the wishes of the leadership of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
However, the Ninth National Assembly under the leadership of Ahmad Lawan as the President of the Senate and Femi Gbajabiamila as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the executive have resolved to work harmoniously in order to serve Nigerians better.
Another clerk to one of the standing committees, who also spoke with our correspondent on the condition of anonymity, hinted that any standing committee holding budget defence without the media must have something to hide.
He decried the development, saying that it would tantamount to shutting out Nigerians from the budget defence process and thereby negate the principle of transparency and accountability in governance. He also argued that holding budget defence sessions in secrecy, would also frustrate and bring to naught, the promises by the leadership of the current National Assembly to be transpar-ent and fair to Nigerians at its inauguration in June last year.
The committee scribe further said that the secret budget sessions would also afford the lawmakers and the heads of MDAs opportunity to compromise the process of thorough and credible scrutiny of the document, stating that most things done in secret have credibility problem.
“For some of you from the media, who were here during the 2017 budget defence, you witnessed the controversy called budget padding. That time, Saraki was the President of the Senate and Dogara was the Speaker. They were always in conflict with the executive because they were not the choice candidates of the ruling party, so they fought battles throughout their tenure. The executive was always accusing the National Assembly of wrong doing and vice versa.
“Now, that era is gone. The leadership of this Assembly is a product of party consensus, and both arms have resolved to work in harmony. It is very good and highly welcome for the two major arms to work together.
I believe they will deliver more for Nigerians. However, I don’t think that shutting out the media from budget defence sessions is a good way to work in harmony. The lawmakers will definitely compromise thoroughness in doing their job and this development is not good for Nigerians.
“I remember that the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, are always promising Nigerians that they will be transparent in leading the parliament but the secret budget hearing sessions indicate that their word is not their bond”, the Clerk said. Other clerks of some of the committees in the Senate, who spoke to New Telegraph, also echoed the views of their colleague, describing the process as suspicious and condemnable.