The Presidency and the National Assembly yesterday engaged in another media tirade over the latter’s alleged alterations of the 2018 budget.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on Wednesday, while signing the 2018 appropriation bill into law, accused the lawmakers of inserting about 70 new road projects into the budget estimates without recourse to project conceptualisation, designing and costing.

Buhari also alleged that the lawmakers made cuts amounting to N347 billion in the allocations of 4,700 projects submitted to them for consideration and introduced 6,403 projects of their own, which amounted to N578 billion.

Noting that the budget, as it is, would be difficult to implement, the president said he was compelled to sign the 2018 Appropriation Bill in order not to further slow down the pace of the nation’s economic recovery.

But in a joint statement signed by the chairman, Senate committee on media and public affairs, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, and chairman, House of Representatives committee on media and public affairs, Hon Abdulrazak Namdas, the National Assembly yesterday faulted President Buhari’s claims.

However, in a swift reaction, the presidency fired back at the lawmakers, insisting that they cut allocations to important national projects, thereby distorting the budget in order to further increase the allocations to their constituency projects.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives argued that the figures claimed to have been inserted, altered or doctored do not justify the reality, saying it confirmed their firm belief that the president’s appointees did not properly brief him.

The National Assembly said it added only 24 items to the 2018 budget estimates, amounting to a total of N245,512,325,726 after full consultations, and that in many cases it was done following requests by the executive arm through the Ministry of Budget and National Planning.

The statement noted: “The figures given as amounts of the reductions made by the National Assembly were unduly exaggerated as we did not make any substantial reduction on any project to the extent of affecting its implementation.

“If the President had been properly briefed by his appointees, he would not have raised most of the concerns that he did in his remarks at the budget signing.
“It is therefore inevitable for the legislature to give members of the public an insight into what transpired during the appropriations process and how we arrived at the decisions that are contained in the 2018 budget, the parliament stated”.

The lawmakers contended that the cuts they made amounting to N347 billion, which were meant for 4,700 projects, were made from low priority areas to higher priority areas to support the generation of employment for Nigerian youths by MSMEs.

They said they took the decision to reduce the funds in some areas in order to ensure balance and equity in the spread and utilization of our national funds.
The statement made available to LEADERSHIP Weekend further noted: “To give the exact detail of the projects where we made deductions, it should be noted that the counterpart funding for the Mambilla Power Plant, Second Niger Bridge/Ancillary roads, the East-West Road, Bonny-Bodo Road, Lagos-Ibadan Express Road and Itakpe-Ajaokuta Rail Project, was reduced by only N3,956,400,290 – which represents only 1.78 % of the total N222,569,335,924 submitted by President Buhari.

“This left these projects with N218,612,935,634 which cannot negatively affect their implementation. This obviously contradicts the claim that these projects lost “an aggregate of N11.5 billion”.
The National Assembly said in specific terms, the counterpart funding for 3050mw Mambilla Hydropower project was reduced from N8.5billion to N8.2billion (a reduction of N300million), even as the construction of the Second Niger bridge, including access roads phases 2a and 2b in Anambra and Delta states and other projects in the Southeast were reduced from N10billion to N9.1billion (a reduction of N900million).

The lawmakers held that, contrary to President Buhari’s claim, there is no existing contract for the Second Niger Bridge in spite of frequent requests from the National Assembly.
They explained that the N900million reduced from the N10billion proposed by the Executive was deployed to fund ancillary roads that connect to the Bridge.

To put the government of President Buhari further on the spot, they alleged that the federal government awarded contracts for 15 roads in the 2017 budget with no budgetary provisions.
They noted: “It should again be noted that the N12.5billion and the N7.5billion appropriated for the Second Niger Bridge in the 2016 and 2017 budget by the National Assembly were never utilized for the project.

“We also need to call the attention of the public to the fact that the National Assembly allocated an additional N2billion to the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway project. This was more than the Executive proposed.
“Realizing the importance of these projects, the National Assembly decided to spread the N3.9billion saved from the earlier mentioned projects funding to facilitate the take-off of these projects that include: the rehabilitation of Ikorodu-Shagamu road in Lagos State; the rehabilitation of 9th Mile-Orakam to Benue Border; and the general maintenance of Pankshin – Ballang – Nyelleng – Sararele – Gindiri road in Plateau State, etc.

“These are the projects purported to be “project inclusions without conceptualization.” On these projects, the National Assembly needs to be commended by Mr President for helping to support the take-off of these awarded but unfunded projects.

“On the provisions for strategic interventions in the health sector which were said to be cut by an aggregate of N7.45billion, it is on record that for the first time since the National Health Act was enacted in 2014, the National Assembly made provision of an additional N55billion for funding primary healthcare through the Basic Primary Healthcare Fund which will be sourced from 1% of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Thus, contrary to the claim that the health sector suffered any budgetary cuts, we actually provided more funds that will make access to health services possible for over 180 million Nigerians.

“In the case of statutory transfers where the increase in the National Assembly’s budget was isolated, it is important to note that the increase in the oil price benchmark from the projected $45 to the actual price of $51 generated additional N523.65 billion for the Federal Government.

“Thus, based on agreement between the National Assembly and the Executive as represented by the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, the additional revenues were allocated among the three arms of government such as the increase of the National Judicial Council from N100billion to N110billion.

“The Executive’s proposal for the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was N71,195,023,529, however the National Assembly appropriated N81,882,555,891 — which represents a N10,687,532,363 increase;

The statement continued: “An additional N33,981,437,188 was also appropriated for the outstanding liabilities to the NDDC by the Federal Government to enable the commission settle some of its contractors that were owed over N1 trillion.

‘’The National Assembly received an additional N14.5billion in funding. In order to ensure that they are able to meet their mandate, the National Assembly increased the Public Complaint’s Commission’s budget from the N4,200,000,000 proposed by the President to N7,480,000,000 — which represents a N3,280,000,000 increase; and

“Lastly, the National Human Rights Commission’s budget was increased from N1.5billion to N3,013,745,000, which represents a N1,513,745,000 increase.

“It is therefore very clear that the three arms of government benefited from the increase which was mutually agreed on with the Ministry of Budget and Planning. In fact, we have correspondences addressed to the leadership of the National Assembly from Ministry of Budget making requests on how to spread the increment arising from the Benchmark differentials”.

On the budget of the National Assembly, the lawmakers said, “It should be noted that the budget of the National Assembly as at 2014 was N150billion, which is still N10.5billion more than our current figure despite increased national challenges that requires: frequent public hearings held on almost a daily basis at high costs; and intense oversight, which has become more thorough and incisive in order to check the Executive.

“The N139.5billion budget of the National Assembly represents less than 1.5percent of the entire N9trillion budget. Does it not make sense to use 1.5percent to protect the other 98.5percent?”
Responding almost immediately yesterday, the presidency, while insisting that the lawmakers slashed allocations to important national projects just to further increase their allocation for constituency projects, wondered how much could be enough for the lawmakers.

In a statement he issued in Abuja, the special adviser to the president on media and publicity, Femi Adesina, said it became necessary for the presidency to make certain clarifications following attempt by the National Assembly to justify its distortion of the 2018 budget.

He said, “Throughout the budget consideration process the executive, through the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, was in touch with the National Assembly. The executive was approached by the National Assembly, which indicated that they intended to increase the benchmark price by US$5, from US$45 to US$50.

“Out of the $5 increase the National Assembly informed the Executive that they intended to utilise $2 (amounting to about N170 billion) for projects selected by themselves. They asked the Executive to suggest important projects that could be accommodated with the funds arising from the balance of US$3.

“After some consideration, the Executive was of the view that an increase in the benchmark price of crude oil to US$50 was not unrealistic and the President decided to accept this in the spirit of compromise required for a successful budget exercise.

“The Executive had, in that spirit, suggested that from the additional funds arising out of the US$3 increase, $1.25 from the increase should not be appropriated as expenditure, but utilized to reduce the deficit in the budget.

“The Executive therefore restricted itself to submitting, for the consideration of the National Assembly, important items that could be funded from US$1.75 of the US$3 increase.

NASS eventually raised the benchmark price to US$51, apparently to accommodate the additional allocations to Health and NDDC”.

Maintaining that the lawmakers selfishly tinkered with the budget, the presidential spokesman said, “The Executive is therefore surprised that with an additional sum of N170 billion Naira available for the National Assembly to spend on Constituency Projects, together with the sum of N100 billion Naira, already provided for in the Budget, that the National Assembly should feel it necessary to cut allocations to important national projects, and thereby distort the Budget, in order to further increase their allocation for Constituency projects. How much is enough!

“The President’s position is clear from paragraph 12k of the President’s speech, where he said “About 70 new road projects have been inserted into the budget of the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. In doing so, the National Assembly applied some of the additional funds expected from the upward review of the oil price benchmark to the Ministry’s vote. Regrettably, however, in order to make provision for some of the new roads, the amounts allocated to some strategic major roads have been cut by the National Assembly”.