BUDGET PADDING: WAS THE SENATE RIGHT TO SUSPEND NINGI WITHOUT INVESTIGATION?

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By Bello Galadi,
 
It all started on Saturday, 9th March, 2024 when Sen. Abdul Ningi (PDP, Bauchi Central), Chairman of the Northern Senators Forum (as he then was), during an interview with BBC Hausa, alleged that the national budget for the 2024 fiscal year was padded to the tune of N3.7 trillion.


As expected, the leadership of the Senate, the presidency and some senators of the Northern Senators Forum denied the allegation.

Barrister Bello Galadi is a former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Gusau Branch (covering Zamfara State). He is the President of Bello Galadi Foundation.


The Chairman, Appropriations Committee of the Senate, Sen. Solomon Olamilekan Adeola (APC Ogun West) clarified that the N3.7 trillion was under the government- owned enterprises (GOCs) and first- line charge.

The questions are: Is it correct that the N3.7 trillion was for statutory transfers and GOCs? Is it also correct that statutory transfers and GOCs do not go with breakdown?


On Tuesday, 12th March, 2024, there was another drama in the Senate when Sen. Jarigbe Agom- Jarigbe (Cross River) alleged that each senator got N500, 000, 000.00 (five hundred million naira only).
The Senate Leader, Sen. Michael Opeyemi Bamidele (Ekiti Central) promptly countered Sen. Jarigbe and argued that the N500, 000, 000.00 (five hundred million naira only) was for constituency projects for the senators.


If the funds are truly for constituency projects as argued by Sen. Bamidele and further confirmed by the Senate Chief Whip, Sen. Ali Ndume on Thursday, 14th March, 2024, then, the allocations and the disbursements of the funds should be made public.

The ICPC should collaborate with CHRICED and other related civil society organizations to closely monitor the execution of constituency projects across the country and expose fraudulent practices of the bad eggs amongst the lawmakers.

 
At a resumed sitting of the Senate on Tuesday, 12th March, 2024, Ningi, in his defence, argued that he had been quoted out of context in the interview due to the language barrier as he had conducted the interview in Hausa language.

Instead of the Senate to investigate this fundamental defence, by referring the matter to its Standing Committee on Ethics and Privileges, so as to give him the opportunity to defend himself, it hurriedly announced his suspension for three (3) months, after a voice vote, on the ground of breach of privilege, in clear breach of Section 36(1) of the Constitution which
In my humble view, the suspension was unjust, hasty and unconstitutional. Sen. Ningi is entitled to fair hearing by the Senate, in line with Section 36(1) of the Constitution.


The suspension was a coordinated cover-up by the Senate to conceal the truth and divert the attention of the public from the real issues. It is a clear attempt to discourage whistleblowing.


Sen. Ningi was a member of the House of Representatives for eight (8) years and rose to become a House Leader. He was later elected a Senator for eight (8) years and rose to become a Deputy Senate Leader.

A man with this experience, cannot be so reckless to say what he cannot defend. The last time I checked, he was one of the finest lawmakers.
I have the privilege to read the Senate Standing Rules and I could not see anywhere it was categorically stated that a sitting senator cannot question the decision of the Senate in his private capacity as a Nigerian.

Even if there is that provision under the Rules, it is null and void under the inconsistency rule. Section 1(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) provides: “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void”.


Like every Nigerian, Sen. Ningi has the right to hold his opinion and express his opinion on matters of governance. Section 39(1) of the Constitution provides: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.


I am of the humble opinion that the use of the word “every person” in the Constitution, includes Ningi by virtue of his status as a Nigerian.

The suspension had deprived his constituency the right to be represented at the Senate, in line with Section 48 of the Constitution.


Similarly, Article 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides: “Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law”.


I think, if all options fail for Ningi, he should consider litigation as the last resort, so as to determine whether or not the Senate has the power to suspend him for expressing his opinion on a national issue.


Senate is not an executive council where the actions of the leader cannot be checkmated by his subordinates.

In advanced democracies, lawmakers are not stooges. They object, challenge, disagree and even attack, where necessary, to assert their interests.


The transparency concerns in the 2024 budget raised more questions than answers. For the first time in the history of democracy in Nigeria, the 2024 budget was debated and passed for the 2nd reading without availing the lawmakers the breakdown of the fiscal document.

This point was confirmed by the Director and co- founder of the BudgIT, a civil organization focused on the Nigerian budget and public data, Seun Onigbinde on Wednesday, 13th March, 2024.

He said that there was no detailed allocation for some agencies involving N3.7 trillion in the 2024 budget.


I am therefore appealing to the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, to always avail the lawmakers the full budget breakdown in good time to digest and analyze ahead of debates in future.


President Tinubu had presented N27.5 trillion budget proposal to the joint session of the National Assembly on 29th November, 2023. The Senate had passed N28.7 trillion budget after increasing it by N1.2 trillion in record 31 days. President Tinubu signed the budget into law on 1st January, 2024.


Sen. Akpabio, being the President of the Senate, is the primary suspect as far as the Ningi’s allegation is concerned. Logically, he was not supposed to preside over the 12th March 2024 proceedings of the Senate at which Ningi’s issue was debated by the Senate because he is an interested party.

Instead of recusing himself, Sen. Akpabio presided and made himself a judge in his own case, contrary to the principle of “Nemo judex in causa sua”, which means, you cannot be a judge in your own case.


As a concerned citizen, I am appealing to President Bola Tinubu, to constitute a high- powered committee to investigate the allegations raised by Sen. Ningi. The committee should comprise forensic and finance experts, police, ICPC, EFCC, NGOs, religious and community leaders, retired judges, lawyers, academics and persons of impeccable character.

The committee should not include members of the Federal Executive Council, Judiciary and the National Assembly because they are interested parties in the case. The report of the committee should be made public.
 
Galadi is a former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Gusau Branch (covering Zamfara State). He is the President of Bello Galadi Foundation.


He can be reached on:
Muhammadbel_law@yahoo.com and muhammadbellaw80@gmail.com and twitter handle:@bello_galadi1
 

 

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