Concerns as 9th Senate lowers the bar of budget defence

Any parliamentary reporter would always be conversant with the word, “closed-door session or executive session”.

During closed-door or executive sessions, non actors in parliamentary discussions excused themselves for the parliamentarians to deliberate on confidential issues. During this time, issues discussed are expected to be with ‘utmost fidei’ such that nobody should hear about it.

The confidentiality of the subject matter varies, depending on the sensitivity, particularly issues that bother on national security, or issues that are presumed to be causing a crisis among the citizens.

This is no doubt a privilege made available to lawmakers anywhere in the world that practises bicameral or unicameral legislature and its abuse depends on a set of laws that allow access to information. In Nigeria, Freedom of Information (FoI) Act allows citizens access to information. The liberality or accessibility, though, shouldn’t be to the extent of causing injury or harm to the nation.

In Nigeria, there are two legislative Houses, which operate independently, but with the same ‘modus operandi’ in terms of legislative debates. Within the ambit of investigative powers of lawmakers of the upper and lower legislative Chambers, there are ‘Standing and Ad-hoc Committee sittings’ in common. Activities of the panel and Committee of the whole are strictly guided by the parliamentary rules and traditions. Also, joint committees of both Chambers are purposely meant for accelerated hearing.

On Friday, 7th October, 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari presented his last budget of N20.19 trillion to the joint session of lawmakers and since then panel sitting has commenced. Prior to the budget presentation, there were knocks by the Senate Committee on Public Accounts chaired by Senator Mathew Uroghide, a Committee that is traditionally headed by an opposition lawmaker, while on the other hand, investigative hearings on Ministries, Departments and Agencies often conducted by the Chairman of Senate Committee on Finance, Senator Solomon Adeola Olamilekan has uncovered looting with reckless abandon by some heads of agencies of government.

Olamilekan had raised concern of abuse of certain provisions of the Public Procurement Act by some heads of agencies to the extent that the lawmaker threatened to report the affected officials to anti-graft agencies.

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In that euphoria, expectations were heightened that the 2023 budget document would be critically perused until recently that it became glaring that the process of budget defence by Senators and members of the ninth National Assembly leaves much to be desired.

In President Buhari’s item 74 of his speech, he promised to make security a priority as he winds down his administration. True to his words, he made a whopping sum of N2,562,522,726,788 for security in 2023 being the highest sectoral allocation.

Unfortunately, the security budget was being discussed away from the prying eyes of journalists. The budget discourse on security has been held behind closed-door all through. The closed-door cuts across Senate Committees on Army, Air force, Navy, Defence, Internal Security and that of Interior, hence, reporters were kept in the dark and may not track departmental allocation for purposes of holding officials in charge to account.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Navy chaired by Senator Sekibo conducted its budget defence, but shortly after the stage was set with the presence of journalists and Naval officers, the presiding Chairman ordered everyone out and dissolved the meeting into a closed-door. Since then, nothing has been heard until it was time for Senator Jibrin Barau-led Committee on Appropriation to receive reports of the various Committees preparatory for the general legislative debate.

Amid the concern of closed-door issues, Senator Elisha Ishaku Abbo representing Adamawa North Senatorial district and a member of the Committee on Navy in an interview with journalists said the Committee had no ulterior motive. He explained that some agencies didn’t properly arrange their documents and they will be asked during a closed-door to properly tidy up their documents.

While reacting he said: “The closed-door session with the Navy wasn’t for any ill-motive. We asked them to go back and properly arrange their documents and come.

“Secondly, there are issues so sensitive that should not be discussed in public in the interest of national security.”

DAILY POST observed that some heads of agencies of government who have issues during panel meetings often go to the Committee Chairman’s office to resolve issues before leaving the premises of the National Assembly.

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Meanwhile, there are about 59 Standing Committees in the Senate with each Committee expected to conduct budget defence. The defence provides an opportunity for heads of government organisations to give the previous year’s budget performance in office. Oftentimes, some agencies’ abysmal budget performance has raised anger in meetings.

Even as Committees strive to conduct budget hearings within the expediency of time, the challenge of heads of agencies of government not honouring their invitation has been an issue.

While reacting to delays by some Committee Chairmen, Senator Jibrin Barau severally warned that the Committee on Appropriation may go ahead to submit its report to the Committee of the whole as they don’t have the luxury of time to wait for any Committee.

His reaction was at the backdrop of the fact that the budget would have to be passed into law before legislators embark on Christmas and new year break and for President Buhari to assent, which would pave the way for the implementation to begin in January, 2023.

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