by John Ameh and Olusola Fabiyi, Abuja

 


The Presidency on Thursday slammed the leadership of the National Assembly, describing the budget-related criticisms levelled against President Goodluck Jonathan as an attempt to rubbish the 2013 budget proposals.

President Jonathan had presented the proposals to a joint session of the National Assembly on Wednesday. At the budget presentation, Senate President, David Mark, had told President Jonathan that the National Assembly would not be a rubber-stamp legislature. Also, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mallam Aminu Tambuwal, had subtly accused the President of poor implementation of the 2012 budget.

But speaking in Abuja, the Special Assistant to the President on Public Communication, Dr. Doyin Okupe, said it was sad that President Jonathan could be subjected to what he described as a “harrowing experience” during the presentation.

“Normal legislative courtesy demands that such a visitor (President Jonathan) be allowed to perform his constitutional functions without any attempt to rubbish the document that was yet to be discussed even by the members themselves,” he said.

The presidential aide, who stressed that he was speaking for the Presidency, also said it was wrong for the lawmakers to have summoned the President in the manner they did recently.

“My belief is that in the interest of the Nigerian people, for the sake of our masses, the National Assembly and the Executive must of necessity find a common ground on all these issues, instead of unnecessary grandstanding and playing to the gallery, which will not help anybody,” he added.

Rubber-stamp legislature

Okupe said it was wrong for Mark to have the notion that the President merely wanted the two chambers to rubber-stamp the budget proposals.

He said, “The President and his administration do not expect and has never conceived the idea that the National Assembly would just rubber-stamp whatever is presented to it.

“It is quite clear that this is not a high-handed administration and it does not wish in any way to be one. In a healthy democracy, there is useful exchange of ideas and deliberations over various issues of national importance until reasonable agreements are reached.”

Okupe also quarrelled with Mark’s description of the proposal as a “mere estimate”, adding that the description diminished the quality of the budget proposal. “To call these figures as mere estimates is rather unfair.” he said angrily.

The spokesperson also defended his principal against accusation that the 2012 budget was poorly implemented. Okupe said that the budget had been approved in April, adding that under the law, therefore, the budget had just been implemented for five months only.

He said that the President’s explanation on Wednesday that N711.6bn had been expended on capital projects showed that 53 per cent of the budget had been already disbursed in five months.

He, therefore, said that the issue of implementation could not be taken in isolation without considering when the lawmakers passed the budget.

Tambuwal’s speech unfortunate

Commenting on Tambuwal’s remarks at the presentation, Okupe said it was unfortunate that the Speaker veered from giving a vote of thanks into making a speech.

“Some of the issues raised by the Speaker were erroneous. He said that interim oversight reports were clearly unimpressive. This statement cannot be wholesomely acceptable if you look at the background and the reason for which the assemblymen hurriedly packaged (the budget verification) visits,” he said.

He added that it was amazing that the members of the House of Representatives could go round the country in just one week and returned to conclude that budget implementation was poor.

“There are procedures for spending government money.  The time of Father Christmas or flushing of ministries with funds that are irresponsibly expended is over,” he said.

Okupe said the Speaker’s complaint that the Bureau for Public Procurement had become a bottleneck to effective capital budget implementation was unfortunate.

“National revenue should not be altered on the altar of speedy disbursing of money to the MDAs. I do not want to believe that the speaker is saying the control measure should be abrogated,” he said.

The presidential aide described the insistence of the House that government should drop the $75 per barrel benchmark in the budget for an $80 per barrel benchmark as “pure drama.”

Okupe said, “Here is another arm of government, in a dictatorial manner, saying authoritatively, that it has decided that the benchmark shall be $80. One would have expected that he would have explained the parameter with which he got the benchmark.

“You will recall that in 2008 at the peak of oil boom when one barrel of oil was selling for $147, suddenly because of massive global economic downturn the price went to $38 per barrel.”

He named Algeria ($38); Qatar ($55); Venezuela ($50); Saudi ($60); Angola ($77); and Kuwait ($60) as some of the countries with benchmarks lower than Nigeria’s.

“This is not the time to be unduly careless, or reckless about our benchmark. It is time to be conservative.”

House reacts

Reacting to Okupe’s comments, the Speaker of the House of Representatives said that the issues he raised on the budget were backed by facts and figures.

A statement by his Special Assistant, Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Imam Imam, described Okupe as an “ignorant” official, who knew little about the issues at stake.

The statement says, “It is apparent that Okupe is dabbling in areas which he is totally ignorant about. The uncouth manner in which he replied elected representatives showed his apparent lack of respect to the legislature as an institution.

“The entire remarks he made gave him out as an overzealous official doing a hatchet job in order to be relevant in the scheme of things. The Speaker and the House of Representatives will always stand by the tenets of good governance and true representation at all times.”

In a similar vein, the Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Victor Ogene, said Okupe was merely seeking relevance.

He said, “For Okupe to seek to denounce this position simply because some other oil producing nations have lower benchmarks of $75 clearly shows how the Nigerian economy is run, in a do–as–I–do fashion.

“On the issue of poor implementation of the capital budget for 2012, which Okupe attributed to non-utilisation of already released votes, there could be no better self-indictment, as all the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) that ought to execute these projects are all under the Executive branch.

“For the avoidance of doubt – and at the risk of sounding monotonous – Speaker Tambuwal is not on a popularity contest with any official of government. Instead, he embodies the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian People, and expresses, at every point, only the position of the 360- member House of Representatives.”

 

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