The controversy over the non-inclusion of the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the 2016 budget has pitted southern senators against their northern counterparts, with the former throwing their weight behind President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to withhold his assent on the budget.
In the view of senators from the southern section of the country, the president should not sign the Appropriation Bill until the joint Appropriation Committees of the National Assembly include the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the budget.
THISDAY learnt wednesday that senators from the South-west and South-south geo-political zones met in their respective caucuses on Tuesday night where they concluded that the project was deliberately removed because it is a southern project.
Their position may have been strengthened by reports that the Appropriation Committee headed by two northern lawmakers diverted allocations to some projects in the north.
The southern senators therefore vowed to resist any attempt to deprive the people of the south access to such a major project.
Besides the Tuesday meeting of South-south and South-west senators, South-south and South-east senators were also said to have met at a secret venue wednesday while the South-west senators also met in the residence of Senator Gbenga Ashafa (Lagos East).
The southern senators were said to have rejected the call for the supplementary budget on Tuesday, describing it as an attempt to deny the southern region of the rail project.
At the South-west caucus meeting on Wednesday, the senators backed the statement issued by Ashafa on Monday that the Land Transport Committee recommended the rail project to Appropriation Committee but did not know at which point it disappeared from the budget.
A senator informed THISDAY: “Personally, I see no reason why the funds in the Ministry of Transport should be moved completely to the Ministry of Works for the construction of roads which belongs to state governments without engineering designs.
“We are seeking the reversion of this decision because the Calabar-Lagos rail project is very viable and it cuts across states in the South-south and South-west and it would galvanise the social and economic activities of the both regions.
“Apart from this, the project is a joint venture between Nigeria and China and it is time bound. Any attempt to leave it out of the budget this year, will affect the execution of the project,” he said.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives wednesday said it would re-examine the budget passed by the National Assembly about two weeks ago.
The Speaker of the House, Hon. Yakubu Dogara made the announcement after the lawmakers concluded a two-hour closed-door session.
He explained that the re-examination is in the interest of Nigerians to ensure an implementable budget.
“In view of the prevailing economic situation and in the interest of our people, we have resolved to re-examine the budget with a view of ironing out any differences with the executive.
“This is for the overall interest of the country in order to have a workable budget that is implementable,” he said.
However, the speaker did not make reference to the Calabar-Lagos rail project, which has pitted the Senate against the executive arm of government.
Plenary in the lower legislative chamber started later than usual yesterday at 11.56 pm and dissolved into the executive session.
Briefing newsmen after the session, the Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Abdulrazak Namdas explained that the executive was yet to formally communicate with the National Assembly on what the issues of concern in the budget are.
He added that the speaker has been designated to liaise with the executive to identify areas of concern, “and if they are of national interest, we are open and we would accommodate them so we can move forward”.
Namdas however did not clarify if any additions would only be entertained through a supplementary budget, or in the 2016 Appropriation Bill, which is yet to be signed into law by the president.
“If we look at it, and are convinced 60 per cent (of the budget) is okay, we would urge the president to sign it and let’s start implementing the 60 per cent. Then let’s accommodate others in the supplementary budget,” Namdas said.
Namdas however noted that the House was not working at cross-purposes with the Senate.
“Let’s wait and see what the president would say, and then we would know how to go about the modalities,” he said.
The House spokesman also refuted reports that the Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumin was being asked to resign, adding that he, Abdulmumin briefed the lawmakers during the closed-door session.
Abdulmumin was accused of unilaterally allocating unplanned constituency projects to the tune of N4 billion to his constituency, Bebeji/Kiru Federal Constituency in Kano State.
Namdas further reiterated that the contentious Calabar-Lagos rail project was not in the budget estimates presented to the National Assembly, even though it is a viable project.
“We know some presidents send ministers to present the budget, but this president brought it himself, so we could not accept any other document through the backdoor.
“If we allowed it (Calabar-Lagos rail project) to be smuggled in at the committee level, next year others too will wait for their budget to be at the committee level, and smuggle in all kinds of things. Then the National Assembly will be accused of padding the budget,” he added.
Speaking on the latest feud over the budget, the Minority Leader of the House, Hon. Leo Ogor, in an interview with THISDAY, said the executive should stop resorting to the blame game on issues it can resolve through dialogue, instead of being confrontational.
“Nobody can take away the power of appropriation from the National Assembly. If anyone thinks he can bring a budget to the legislature and it would be returned to him the same way, he must be dreaming,” he said.
Ogor added that the impasse must quickly be resolved in the interest of Nigerians.
Speaking in the same vein, Hon. Daniel Reyeneiju (Delta PDP) said it was unfortunate that the 2016 budget continues to be enmeshed in unnecessary controversies.
“The heads of the executive and the legislature must quickly meet to resolve this. Whatever power tussle we are engaged in, is not in the interest of Nigerians, in whose interest we must exercise our constitutional powers,” Reyeneiju said.