N3.7trn budget padding controversy: NASS faces fresh integrity crisis

The Senate, on Tuesday, witnessed a rowdy session as it debated over claims of budget padding raised by Senator Abdul Ningi.

Nigeria’s National Assembly, especially the upper house, the Senate, has become synonymous with controversy.

Since the return of democratic dispensation from military rule in 1999, the nation’s legislative arm has always been in the news for one wrong reason or the other.

For the 10th National Assembly, the story has not changed either. The latest being the alleged padding of the 2024 National Appropriation Act to the tune of N3.7 trillion.

Although the allegation has been dismissed as being untrue both by the presidency and the legislative arm of the government, the development has unearthed nontransparent and unjustified financial allocations to the National Assembly, thus further casting doubts over its integrity.

As the controversy raged, a revelation equally emerged that some Senators reportedly got N500m each from the 2024 budget.

This was made known by Senator Jarigbe, representing Cross River North senatorial district, on Tuesday on the Senate floor while making a contribution on the allegation of 2024 budget padding.

HMTV reported that Senator Ningi representing Bauchi Central on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, had earlier alleged that N3.7 trillion was padded into the 2024 budget.

Ningi was the Chairman, Senate Committee on Population and represents Bauchi Central.

Jarigbe on his part said no Senator has a right to accuse Senator Ningi.

“We are going back and forth with this issue of the budget and individual issues with what came to our various constituencies. If we want to go into those issues, all of us are culpable.

“Some Senators here, so-called senior Senators, got N500 million each. I am a ranking Senator, and I did not get. Did I go to the press? Most of you got.

“If we want to go into those issues…I think that Senator Ningi….,” he said before his microphone was cut off.

Senator Ningi on his part while putting up defense for his allegation on the 2024 budget padding challenged the Senate President Godswill Akpabio over his take-home pay, saying it’s not known.

He said: “We discovered, some senatorial districts in these documents have up to N120 billion and my senatorial district has just N1.2 billion.

“Mr President in this budget presented to you, I have facts, constituency by constituency. Some N120 billion, some N50 billion; some N30 billion. Some have less than N1 billion.

“Mr President, as I speak to you, I don’t know your take-home pay, you know my own. I don’t know the take-home pay of any of the other principal officers.

“My President, I know within budgetary provisions, you made available funds for purchase of cars. Mr President, I don’t know how much you made for your cars and principal officers. I know how much was made for individual senator’s cars.

“As I speak to you, people are calling me names, I didn’t receive a single car.

“All within the budget provisions, Mr President, I have as a matter of fact, five aides just like other senators but I don’t know how many aides you have or how many the Deputy Senate President has.”

HMTV reports that revelations such as the ones above explain why there have been clamours to slash the NASS budget, with some Nigerians stating that the lawmakers were not performing any tangible work commensurate with their pay.

Before now, some of the previous controversies in the NASS had also involved brazen allocations of huge funds to itself for undisclosed and trivial reasons to the detriment of the hapless poor citizens.

HMTV recalls that barely two months after its inauguration, the National Assembly quickly amended the N819.5 billion 2022 supplementary budget containing an approval for N70 billion to support what it described as the working conditions of new lawmakers.

The amendment was passed in both chambers of the National Assembly barely 24 hours after President Bola Ahmed Tinubu forwarded the request to the parliament.

The allocation of N70bn to the lawmakers attracted more criticism and mixed reactions from well-meaning Nigerians.

Shockingly, two members of the House of Representatives defended the National Assembly in the wake of the controversy.

Hon. Peter Akpanke representing Obanliku/Obudu/Bekwara Federal Constituency in Cross River State, and Hon. Dennis Agbo representing Igbo-Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituency in Enugu State said the funds would cover renovations in the new chambers.

The duo gave their defence while fielding questions on Channels Televisions Politics Today programme.

“There is a lot of work to be done; if you go to the National Assembly, what is being renovated at the moment is the main chambers, and we are using the temporary chambers.

“Most of the members of the National Assembly did not return; most of us are new members. The offices need to be renovated, most offices are not in good condition, and it is unfortunate that this was not done before we were sworn in.

“If you go to some places, you would see certain things that you won’t like, water is leaking in some places, and all those things need to be fixed,” Akpanke said.

On his part, Agbo, a then house member under the Labour Party, LP, agreed with his counterpart that the National Assembly complex was dilapidated and needed renovation.

“As sessions come and go, the entire complex ages. No member will collect one naira; it is to improve the working conditions.

“If the cost of that renovation or improving the working conditions is considered too high by Nigerians, they have the opportunity to still query it through their representatives,” he added.

Aside from the above incidents, despite the current hardship in the country, the National Assembly, NASS, leadership went ahead to procure brand new Sports Utility Vehicles, SUVs, for lawmakers.

This action was in fulfillment of the earlier announced plans by the NASS leadership to purchase 2023 model Toyota Land Cruisers for 109 Senators and 2023 Toyota Prado for 360 members of the House of Representatives.

The cost is not certain, but some reports put the price of the Toyota Prado at about N130 million each and a total cost of N57.6 billion, which many said smacks of gross insensitivity.

The expensive purchase by NASS also drew the ire of many Nigerians who were currently battling several economic hardships, including an all-time high inflation.

HMTV also reported how the President of the Nigerian senate, Godswill Akpabio, stirred controversy on the floor of the senate when he mistakenly revealed that money has been sent to senators to ‘enjoy’ their recess.

A video clip showing Akpabio making the blunder went viral on social media.

The incident reportedly happened after the senators concluded the screening and confirmation of President Bola Tinubu’s ministerial nominees.

Similarly, controversy over budget is not new. Earlier before the current administration, former President Muhammadu Buhari had while laying a total expenditure of N20.51 trillion before the Joint Session of the National Assembly as the 2023 Budget Proposals expressed serious concern about budget padding.

HMTV reported that Buhari then warned that the current practice where some committees of the National Assembly purport to pass budgets for Government-Owned Enterprises, GOEs, which were at variance with the budgets he sanctioned, needed to stop.

The warning was seemingly connected with the recent disclosure by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, that it unearthed infractions in the 2021 and 2022 Appropriations Acts, rising to the tune of N400bn.

The former president lamented that it had come to his attention that Government-Owned Enterprises liaise directly with relevant NASS committees to have their budget passed and issued to them directly.

Amid the controversy trailing the interview by Senator Ningi, the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, on Tuesday said the integrity of the Senate has been totally damaged.

Akpabio spoke during an open session on the floor of the Senate, noting that the upper chamber has been subjected to ridicule as Nigerians are bashing the parliament.

Akpabio faulted Ningi’s earlier interview and for also granting a follow-up interview where he purportedly justified his initial claim of budget padding.

He said: “Nigerians are bashing the Senate. Many Nigerians will never in future come back to respect this chamber. The integrity of this chamber has been totally damaged, and we wanted you to repair it with your speech.

“Instead of that, you said you have more documents to prove what you are saying. This thing is in the public glare. I have not received full details up to this moment. If you had given me full details, I would have been able to know what you know.

“So far, what you know is only known to you, it is not known to any other person. I don’t know how you rushed to the press carrying different versions. Social media is very fast. From Canada, the United States, everywhere, the story was budget padding by the Senate.

“I can quote a section of the Premium Times that said ‘this is the highest level of budget padding in Nigeria’s history where the Senate passed a budget of N25 trillion but what we collected was N28 trillion.”

Speaking against the allegation by fellow Senator Ningi on the floor of the Senate during Tuesday’s plenary session, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, representing Ekiti Central Senatorial District, said it was tantamount to a civilian coup that the 2024 Budget passed by the Senate was padded.

According to him, the allegation was all about an attempt to remove the Senate President, who incidentally comes from the southern part of the country.

A furious Bamidele, who is also the Majority Leader of the upper chamber, alleged that Ningi was attempting to unseat Senate President Godswill Akpabio by allegedly inciting the Northern Senators’ Forum which he led against Akpabio, a southern senator, who took over from Ahmad Lawan.

“What my big brother, distinguished Senator Abdul Ningi, whom I respect so well, planned to do or set out to do was tantamount to a civilian coup which has failed. And in doing this, he wanted to use the platform of the Northern Senators’ Forum. God bless all those who have dissociated themselves from the Northern Senators’ Forum.

“My appeal to the leadership of the Senate, let’s do the right thing; I am not bothered. Just as this is going on, it’s trending now that every Senator got N500 million.

“My appeal to Nigerians, it wasn’t what was said here today because I am not going to deny that. But we have twelve months to implement the 2024 budget, let every Nigerian wait to see whether there’s any of these Senators who will not bring enough boreholes, enough solar lights, enough road construction and other projects, training and empowerment that will be up to N500 million,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Co-Founder of civic group, Budgit, Seun Onigbinde, has said that Senator Abdul Ningi was right that there was no detailed project allocations for about N3.7trn of the N28.78trn 2024 Appropriation Act.

Onigbinde said this on Tuesday while featuring on Channels Television’s Politics Today programme.

He, however, said the claim by the Bauchi Central Senator that Nigeria was running two concurrent budgets wasn’t factual.

“There should be a detailed breakdown of the budget. On that point, Senator Ningi is right but to say that we are running two parallel budgets, I don’t think that is factual,” he said.

Onigbinde further disclosed that as the rowdy session by the Senate was ongoing, the Budgit team fact-checked claims by Ningi.

“As the Senate rowdy session was going on, we were also fact-checking and one of the things we found out is that we were not able to lay hold to the claim by Senator Ningi. A budget of N28.7trn was passed into law and we were not able to see where N3.7trn (was missing).

“Historically, there are items in the budget that don’t have breakdown like statutory transfers but that does not mean there is a certain level of capital projects by the Federal Government that was appropriated and does not have a breakdown,” he said.

According to him, the entire capital project was around N9trn in the 2024 Appropriation Act signed into law by President Bola Tinubu after the bill was reviewed upward from N27.5trn to N28.78trn.

“The budget we have now has the ministries, departments and agencies (MDA) and the government-owned enterprise budget,” Onigbinde stated.

“Around N2trn of the budget presented by the President is the government-owned enterprises budget. So, if Senator Ningi says there is a N25trn budget, yes, that is the MDA’s budget. It’s different from the government-owned enterprises budget whose budget was now added.

“It is factual that he says that but it doesn’t mean that we are running two concurrent budgets. There is a different conversation that those projects should be detailed. TETFUND should not just get an allocation. What are you spending money on? INEC is collecting a huge chunk of funds but there is no public details about what the funds are used for.

“In the current budget, the National Assembly gave a very broad summary of its allocations but there are no detailed allocations on a granular level that everybody can understand.

“These are transparent issues and if you put all these together, that is around N3.5trn to N3.7trn. So, if that is what he (Ningi) wants to interrogate, that there are components of the budget where there are no breakdown, that is very factual.”

The Budgit boss further called on the executive and the National Assembly to ensure transparency in the budgetary allocations to MDA and government-owned enterprises.

Speaking to HMTV in an interview concerning the matter, a Public Affairs Analyst and Communication Scholar at Peaceland University, Enugu, Nduka Odo, suggested that the system needed cleansing from individuals solely motivated by desire to acquire wealth while working in the government.

According to him, there should be a platform where citizens could find a way to support lawmakers like Senator Ningi to ensure that whistle-blowers don’t get punished by their colleagues.

He said: “I’m no longer bothered when I hear lone voices from those in governance raising alarms about ills carried out by people on seats. Why? Nothing comes out of it.

“It has become more like a tradition, a normal occurrence for budgets to be padded in this country. Do you remember when Buhari’s government raised alarms ? What was primarily budgeted was adjusted by some elements for personal gains.

“Nobody got punished for padding budgets. There should be punishment for padding a nation’s budget.

“You watched the video, right? Did you see any other senator fully out in support and defence Senator Abdul Ningi? His colleagues murmured and tried to shut him down and prevent him from saying what he wanted to say. They even turned off his microphone.

“That tells you that our systems need cleansing from individuals solely motivated by the desire to acquire wealth, working in the government.

“There should be a system or platform where citizens find a way to support lawmakers like Senator Ningi. That’s the only way we can ensure such whistle-blowers don’t get punished by their colleagues.”





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