National Assembly’s many frivolous probes – Punch

Grilling of ministers, heads of government agencies and individuals doing business with public institutions is a familiar ritual at the National Assembly. Budget defence, perceived infractions in the Ministries, Department and Agencies, or outright cases of treasury looting, could provoke it. The Minister of Power, Works, and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, passed through this furnace when he appeared before a House of Representatives Joint Committee on Power and Public Procurement last month to defend an alleged contract fraud in the ministry.

The traducers had charged that due process was side-tracked in the ministry’s award of a N42 billion contract for a rural electrification scheme in eight federal universities. The investigation proceeded because the minister had not heeded the House directive to halt the execution of the contract in its December motion. The lawmakers cited not just the alleged non-adherence to public procurement imperatives, but an inflation of the said contract.

But at the hearing, it was evident that the lawmakers had goofed again. The ministry got an approval to award a N38.9 billion contract, and not N42 billion, as the inquisitors tried to make heavy weather out of the issue. Besides, Fashola showed an approval document from the Bureau of Public Procurement and reminded them that they only provided N9 billion in the 2017 budget for the project.  The Director of Energy Procurement at the BPP, Babatunde Kuye, was there to affirm that the agency issued a “Certificate of No-objection” to the ministry; a practice that clears the coast for any agency of government to go ahead with projects that fall within a financial threshold it could handle without recourse to higher authorities.

Summonses or probes like this and their attendant embarrassment to the parliament have become commonplace. The two chambers share the guilt. Decorum should supervene: the legislators should always get their facts right. A minister’s invitation should only be when it is absolutely necessary – on critical issues or policy matters beyond the ken of permanent secretaries. Otherwise, the hearings assume a distractive nuance. With their busy schedule, ministers should be allowed to do their work. This explained why Fashola told them, and rightly too, that instead of conducting the public hearing, a simple letter would have resolved the issue.

No doubt, Section 88 of the 1999 Constitution empowers the parliament to summon public officials or conduct investigations. However, there have been instances when it discharged this statutory role with aplomb – such as in the 2012 probe that exposed the N1.7 trillion petroleum subsidy scam and the N270 million contract for cutting grass at the Internally Displaced People’s camp, which indicted the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and ultimately claimed his scalp.

Also, the third-term agenda of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration would have been a fait accompli but for the vigilance of the majority of the lawmakers, just as the Doctrine of Necessity, which ended a leadership logjam sparked by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s ill-health, was an intervention of note.

Conversely, the legislators waffle on many, especially when ill-motivated or pecuniary-driven. Interestingly, some of their unwilling victims refuse to be arm-twisted, harassed or intimidated. Such were the experiences of Arunma Oteh, as the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission; a former Senate President, Pius Anyim; Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali; and the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu. Ironically, even altruistic engagements such as the subsidy scam probe and ministerial screenings were soiled by bribery.

Anyim, for instance, had alleged that a chairman of the House Committee that investigated the $18 billion Centenary City Project solicited bribe from him with a request that he should be “seen in private.” As a result, Anyim advised him to excuse himself from the hearing to pave the way for his deputy to preside. “I want you to know that nobody will see you privately, and we are here for the hearing…,” Anyim thundered, to the chagrin of all. But when the said lawmaker continued to grandstand, Anyim walked out on the committee, and it adjourned its proceedings thereafter. This is the height of indignity no parliament with integrity would want itself to be entangled with. Again, the Senate got the rough-edge of Itse Sagay’s tongue in March last year when it dared to summon him over an unsavoury statement credited to him. Sagay referred the senators to the constitution for them to be abreast of people they have powers to summon.

As a ministerial nominee, Nasir el-Rufai, who later became the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, revealed in his book: Accidental Public Servant, how some senators told him to release N54 million to them, to be shared among 54 out of 109 senators to “soften the ground” for his clearance.

If Nigeria’s MDAs are delinquent for which their heads are subjected to intermittent summonses, with vacuous results, it is simply because the parliament is complicit:  our legislators have failed woefully in carrying out their oversight functions. But unlike in the United States, their less paid Congressional counterparts monitor the treasury through monthly bank statements of account, say, for the Disaster Relief Fund, and the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, among others. A public treasury under such surveillance will be difficult to be raided, the way it happened to our treasury under the Goodluck Jonathan Presidency.

However, it beggars belief that a parliament that should act as a check on public expenditure looks the other way when audit reports are submitted to it for consideration. This was a damning charge the immediate past Auditor-General for the Federation, Samuel Ukura, levelled against them in 2015.

A total of 14 of such annual reports submitted to the Public Accounts Committee were not passed to the plenary session, “let alone passing them to the Executive for implementation,” the AGF lamented.  Furthermore, out of the N1.5 trillion in special accounts, N1.04 trillion was grossly abused. David Mark, presiding over the Seventh Senate, said as a matter-of-factly, “if we had done well since 2002, this should not have happened.”

Enough, therefore, of these egoistic and ill-conceived probes that achieve nothing under the guise of oversight.

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