There were indications on Sunday that the National Assembly’s peace moves with the executive over the 2016 budget crisis had flopped.
The PUNCH learnt that as part of the peace moves, the National Assembly had, on Saturday, reached out to the executive and asked President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the document and then send a supplementary budget to the lawmakers.
It was gathered that the President did not accept the suggestion against the backdrop that the distortions in the budget discovered in the document transmitted by the National Assembly were too many.
A minister, who confided in The PUNCH, said both arms of government had been discussing the issue, but the President had been advised by members of his cabinet not to sign the appropriation bill.
“The National Assembly has initiated some peace moves. The lawmakers have suggested that the budget should be signed by the President before he will send a supplementary budget to cover the omissions, but he had turned down the proposal,” a competent source told one of our correspondents on Sunday.
Also, a competent Presidency source told The PUNCH on condition of anonymity on Sunday that with the level of distortions noticed in the document returned to the President, there was no way he could have been advised to append his signature to the budget.
The source stated, “I can confirm to you that the President has been advised not to sign the budget as it is. The initial plan was for him to sign it before going to China and thereafter present a supplementary budget to the National Assembly.
“But as it is, with the level of distortions noticed, the President has been advised not to sign it at all.”
It was gathered that Buhari on Sunday afternoon met behind closed doors with Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma, in continuation of his consultation on the budget.
The meeting was held inside the President’s official residence in the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
The meeting was held shortly before Buhari left Abuja for China on a one-week official visit.
It was learnt that the meeting was a follow-up to an earlier one held by the President with the leadership of the National Assembly.
Presidential spokesmen, Mr. Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, were not available for comments on Sunday as they were on the President’s entourage to China.
Investigations by our correspondents at the National Assembly showed that the majority of the 109 senators and the 360 members of the House of Representatives had no knowledge of the details of the 2016 budget before they passed the document on March 23.
It was learnt on Sunday that the lawmakers placed too much confidence on the judgment of the Joint National Assembly Committee on Appropriation, chaired by Senator Danjuma Goje and Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin, to work out the details that they reportedly paid less attention to the work of the committee.
One senior legislative official, who followed the budget through, said, “Let the truth be told; the budget was passed without any information on the breakdown.
“We all trusted the committee that due to the pressure to pass the budget, the members should work out the details while we passed the highlights.
“The news of inserting projects or removing some came as a surprise to many us.”
It was learnt that in the case of the House of Representatives in particular, only the Chairman, Jibrin, and a few members of the Committee on Appropriation sat to work on the details of the budget without the knowledge of other members.
“Although members of the committee were asked to stay behind during the Easter break for the purpose of working on the details, they were not called to meetings to work on the details.
“What we heard was that some consultants were hired by the chairman to work on the details, while he pleaded with members for understanding because of the exigencies of time,” another legislative official disclosed to The PUNCH.
As the development unfolded, opposition party lawmakers, in a surprise move, backed Buhari’s objections to the budget, saying the President was right.
Speaking on their behalf, the Minority Leader of the House and member of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, Mr. Leo Ogor, told The PUNCH that Buhari was free to reject the budget if it did not fall in line with his economic agenda.
Citing the alleged removal of the Lagos-Calabar rail line project from the budget, Ogor noted that the President must have made provision for it because he believed it would be a major boost to his economic agenda.
Ogor stated that the Committees on Transport and all other committees supervising agencies whose projects were removed would have to explain whether the removal was done with their knowledge.
However, Jibrin took to his Twitter handle to respond to allegations levelled against the National Assembly and specifically the Committee on Appropriation.
In a series of tweets, he addressed some of the issues one after another.
In the tweets, he said, “The Lagos-Calabar rail (line project) was never included. How could NASS have removed what was not there? But the nation is being misled.
“This is unfortunate as it is quite clear to all and sundry that #Budget2016 and all its headaches and controversies didn’t emanate from NASS.
“We will come up with a comprehensive position especially with respect to our observation of the budget and what we did to make it better.”
He added, “What NASS did with the N54bn? We added N39.7bn to the Lagos-Kano Rail project. This will help complete the project once and for all.
“That N50bn be set aside as special bursary for students of tertiary institutions.”
When contacted, the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, on Sunday, said he was not aware of any meeting between the leadership of the National Assembly and the Presidency over the 2016 budget.
Ndume, who spoke in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents in Abuja, said, “Our concern as Nigerians should be how to collectively move the nation forward instead of writing on speculations that could heat up the polity.”
Attempts to get the Director, Information, Ministry of Budget and Planning, Mr Charles Dafe, to comment on steps being taken to resolve the grey areas in the budget were not successful.
The Senate on Sunday also denied allegations of padding levelled against the appropriation committees of the National Assembly.
Senate spokesman, Senator Abdullahi Sabi, said in Abuja that the Constitution of Nigeria did not make the legislature a rubber stamp.
He said, “I can say authoritatively that we did not pad the budget at all. I reject that in its entirety. We appropriated in line with what we believe the issues are and we did so in consultation with the Ministries, Departments and Agencies.”
He added that the National Assembly, in reality, helped the executive to pass a badly written budget, saying having done its job within the law, the lawmakers expected the executive to follow the constitutional process.