The two chambers of the National Assembly on Tuesday took a swipe at the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, accusing her of using her comments on the lingering 2013 budget crisis to blackmail them, and incite Nigerians and the Executive against lawmakers.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, while appearing as a guest on a radio programme on Monday in Abuja, had warned that the Federal Government might not be able to meet its obligations of paying workers’ salaries by September, as well complete projects approved under the 2013 Appropriation Act, if the lingering budget impasse is not resolved immediately.
“The country has been running from January up until now and we have been implementing the budget that was passed,” the Minister said during the programme. “But, we have got to a point where some amendments have to be made and this is why Mr. President sent this amendment to the National Assembly. We can continue for a little while longer but at some point, we need the amendment to pass because, come September/October, we may not be able to pay salaries. We would need to restore about N32 billion for salaries that were moved around. We also need it for the SURE-P programme, which is experiencing some difficulties now, [in order] to continue the community services programme that [are] creating jobs.”
However, during the plenary session on Tuesday, the House of Representatives frowned at the Minister’s statement describing it as insulting and a blatant blackmail calculated to incite the public against the lawmakers.
In a motion by deputy minority whip, Samson Osagie (ACN, Edo State), the lower chamber was told that a similar threat last year led to the actual removal of the fuel subsidy which grounded the nation and almost crippled the economy for nearly a week; warning that the House cannot continue to accept such disparaging insinuations from a minister who was not elected but appointed into office. Mr. Osagie urged the leadership of the House not to treat the matter with kid gloves.
Consequently, the deputy speaker, Chukwuemeka Ihedioha, who presided over the proceedings, ruled that the committees on Finance, Appropriation and Legislative Complaints should meet with the minister, demand an explanation, and report back to the House within one week.
In its reaction, the Senate accused the Minister of an attempt to pitch the National Assembly against President Goodluck Jonathan over the lawmakers’ refusal to consider and approve several contentious amendments to the approved 2013 Appropriation Act.
Describing Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s statement as alarmist, the Senate, through the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Media and Public Affairs, Enyinnaya Abaribe, said lawmakers would not take it lightly.
“The feeling of the Senate and of course, the National Assembly has always been that we do not expect Ministers of the Federal Republic and appointees of the President to make comments that tend to give the impression of a collision course between the executive and legislature because we are all working towards the same purpose, which is to make sure that we take care of the welfare of Nigerians,” Mr. Abaribe said. “Therefore, we find it not to our liking when a comment is made that tends to say that government will shut down if the National Assembly doesn’t do anything. We do not agree with that.”
Accusing Mr. Jonathan of reneging on an earlier agreement which stated that legislators would approve an immediate follow-up amendment that would be sent to them if Mr. Jonathan signed the 2013 budget, Mr. Abarbe told reporters that what the president forwarded were “voluminous” amendments as opposed to specific alterations agreed under the deal thus prolonging legislative consideration.
“What we got from the President, which is actually the third Amendment, is a sort of document amending the budget,” the Senate spokesperson said. “Now, we found that these documents are even larger than the budget itself. There is absolutely no way that the Senate and even the National Assembly can consider amendments of this nature during the short time that we have, until we come back from our vacation this year.”
He added that the main bone of contention was not the differences in the amended report but the additions to it that expanded it even further.