OpinionOPINION: Senate Budget Padding Scandal: Tinubu/Akpabio Bungled it by Suspending Ningi

OPINION: Senate Budget Padding Scandal: Tinubu/Akpabio Bungled it by Suspending Ningi

GTBCO FOOD DRINL

March 24, (THEWILL)- Yes, the Senate may have suspended Senator Abdul Ningi, but the issues he raised concerning the N3.7 trillion, not specifically attached to any project in any location, are not going away any time soon.

Senator Abdul Ningi, the Chairperson of the Northern Senators Forum (NSF), recently told BBC Hausa that the lawmakers sought the service of a private auditor and discovered irregularities in the budget.

He reportedly said, “For example, we had a budget of N28 trillion, but after our thorough checks, we found out that it was a budget of N25 trillion. How and where did we get the additional N3 trillion from, what are we spending it for?’

Ningi had, in the interview, alleged that the budget passed by the National Assembly for the 2024 fiscal year is N25 trillion, while the one being implemented by the Presidency is N28.7 trillion.

He was quoted as saying: “For the first time in Nigerian history, today we are operating two different budgets. One budget was approved by the National Assembly and signed by President Bola Tinubu and the one was implemented by the presidency.

“The one approved by us is N25tn while the one operated by the Federal Government is N28.7tn.”

Without inside information, corruption is hard to detect, prevent and combat. Rather than suspending Senator Ningi, the Senate ought to have used his allegations as a trigger for addressing the lingering problem of budget padding and corruption in the implementation of constituency projects or rather “zonal intervention vote”.

So far nobody in the Senate has denied that the N3.7 trillion is not pinned down to any specific project in the 2024 budget. Nobody can even deny that because it has been established. Even BudgiT, the Civil Society Organisation (CSO), specialising in national budget analysis, has backed the position that the said amount of money isn’t traceable to any project in the budget.

Why is the Senate not proving Ningi to be the liar by coming out clean to give a detailed explanation of why the N3.7 trillion is hanging? Why is the Senate excommunicating Ningi; to shut him up instead of coming clean on the alleged budget padding and hanging costs?

Rightly as said in a media interview by Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, the national coordinator, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), it is increasingly becoming clearer that what happened was that the senators allocated a huge sum to themselves. Some of the senators got N200 million; some got N500 million; and the leadership got theirs in billions of Naira. As we have seen so far, most of the senators have been coming to the media to explain this. So nobody is going to deny anything again.

The senators, unwittingly shot themselves in the leg, by suspending the person who exposed the rot in the Senate when they should have handled it better in a way such a thing has been handled before. But unfortunately for them, they kicked out the man and the whole thing is now out in the open.

In fact, almost all the senators have been coming out with revelations of what they got and why they got what they got. How do you explain that? And Nigerians were not aware of all these, not until the senator from Bauchi State opened the cankerworm.

What is the justification under the law or any convention for the senators to allocate certain sums of money to themselves in the name of Zonal Intervention? They are not parts of the budget. Had it been they were parts of it, there wouldn’t have been one N3.7 trillion that will be hanging, which they are now beginning to explain to us.

But come to think of it, have you ever heard of the zonal intervention project or vote, as they call it? What we have always known is the constituency project, which itself has been very disputable. This is because the job of a senator is not to award contracts. He is a lawmaker and not a contract-awarding executive. So it is an aberration constitutionally. But this time, the senators call it zonal intervention. Whatever they meant by that it’s only known to them.

It is outright heartless that our senators could hang N3.7 trillion for themselves in what they wittingly called zonal intervention in a budget that is running a deficit financed by external borrowing. Sad indeed!

Whether the lawmakers accept this or not, a majority, if not even all Nigerians, believe Ningi and see his suspension as a ploy to suppress the truth of the matter.

In all, Tinubu is going to be the biggest loser in what’s happening at the Senate, which definitely is going to trickle into the House of Reps.

As already made clear to the leadership of the Senate by SERAP, Senator Ningi is a whistleblower because of his public interest disclosures on alleged budget padding and corruption in the Senate in the context of carrying out his work as Senate. He is protected under Article 33 of the “UN Convention against Corruption” to which Nigeria is a signatory and a state party. His action amounted to pure public interest disclosures that can contribute to strengthening transparency and democratic accountability in the Senate in particular and the country as a whole.

Without mincing words, the suspension of Senator Ningi by the Senate followed a seriously flawed process and it amounts to retaliation. Senator Ningi’s status as a whistleblower is not diminished, even if the perceived threat to the public interest has not materialised, since he would seem to have reasonable grounds to believe in the accuracy of the allegations of budget padding and corruption in the Senate.

But why is President Bola Tinubu silent and comfortable with the leadership of the Senate over the ongoing mêlée at the nation’s upper legislative chamber?

Curiously, immediately after the sitting to suspend Senator Ningi, the entire senate leadership drove into the villa to see President Tinubu and to tell him that his order had been carried out to the letter. If not, does the Senate, the legislative arm of government report to the president, the executive arm on its activities? The Senate leadership was not even patient enough to allow some time to lapse before meeting with Tinubu.

What Senator Ningi has done is a positive act of good citizenship. No whistleblower should ever be penalised simply for making a public interest disclosure.

Referring the allegations to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would improve public trust in the ability of the leadership of the Senate to ensure probity and accountability in the budget process. ‘A word is enough for a fxxl because the wise does not need any word. God bless Nigeria!’

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Ifeanyi Izeze, THE WILL
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