[TR News] Integrity on trial in the Green Chamber

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THE House of Representatives had yet to recover from a sex scandal when it ran into the budget padding scandal. The latest scandal came as a shock to many Nigerians, given that the House has always touted its will to fight corruption in line with the anti-corruption stance of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.

Since the nation returned to democracy in 1999, the different sessions of the House of Representatives have thrown up different controversies. The Sixth House of Representatives under Patricia Etteh buckled under the House renovation scandal that culminated in her removal as Speaker. Her successor, Dimeji Bankole, got his own bite of the bug after he was accused of inflating the cost of cars and questionable loans up to the tune of N10 billion. The case was taken up by the anti-graft agencies.

The scandal in the Seventh House under Aminu Tambuwal consisted of political turmoil caused by contending claims of Speakership and the political shenanigans that lingered.

But the current scandal in the Eighth House probably takes the cake. A smouldering allegation of budget padding has gradually turned into a conflagration that threatens to consume all, following the removal of the Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Abdulmumin Jibrin.

The scandal has since morphed to a level where Rep members speak in embarrassment at the mention of their membership of the Green Chamber.

The allegations

On July 20, 2016, Jibrin addressed a press conference in room 0.19 at the Reps side of the National Assembly where he announced the resignation of his committee chairmanship. At the same time, the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, announced at Plenary that Jibrin had been relieved of his position and replaced.

In the wake of the passage of the 2016 budget, Jibrin was accused of allocating 20 projects worth N4.3 billion to himself without the consent of committee members. A separate N40 billion worth of projects was said to have been surreptitiously allocated to the leaderships of the appropriations committees of both chambers of the National Assembly which was allegedly shared without the consent or knowledge of other members.

Irked that Dogara said he was sacked on the basis on “sundry acts of misconduct, incompetence, total disregard for his colleagues and abuse of the budgetary process, among others,” Hon. Jibrin alleged that Dogara and three other principal officers superintended the ‘paddings’ or ‘insertions’ in the 2016 budget of sums that that ran into billions. Only 10 of 96 House committees, said the former appropriations committee chair, “inserted N284 billion into the 2016 budget.”

Jibrin also claimed that Dogara sited a federal government project on his farm in Nassarawa State, among other allegations.

Dogara has debunked all the accusations.

Since the original allegation, Jibrin has continued to spit fire. At intervals, the lawmaker issued unnerving breakdown of the alleged illicit appropriation. The ‘revelations’ took up eager media space with mainly negative comments flooding the social media.

Nigerians expressed disappointment in the legislature with many calling for thorough investigation of the matter. House members have also expressed anger and frustration at the negative perception by the public, pointing out a deep sense of shame that encompasses them whenever they visit their constituencies.

Jibrin had also approached anti-graft agencies with information to help them nail the “quartet” of offenders and others adjudged to have helped in padding the budget.

An internal affair of the House?

Different views have been expressed on the issue. On July 28, federal lawmakers from Gombe State swung to the side of the Speaker. They claimed that it was an internal matter. The North Central, North West, North East as well as Ekiti State caucuses were all on the same page with Gombe, saying the House should be allowed to exhaust its internal mechanism before external bodies got involved.

Members of the Committee on Appropriations, led by the Deputy Chair, Chris Azubogu, in a briefing said that the matter was an internal one that could not be investigated by external agencies. A self-styled group, the Transparency Group, also came up with its position that the issue had grown beyond the House and external agencies should step in to investigate the budget padding allegation.

A coalition of Media and Civil Society groups called Africa Media Roundtable Initiative, however, advised Jibrin and other aggrieved lawmakers that rather than take the matter to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Crimes Commission (ICPC), they should proceed to court.

The issue has, at the moment, snowballed. Dogara, the Deputy Speaker, Yussuff Lasun, the Chief Whip, Alhassan Ado Doguwa, and the Minority Leader, Leo Ogor, were expected to heed the summons of the Special Investigation Panel set up by the Acting Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris. They were to state their role in the alleged padding of the 2016 budget. Anti-graft agencies have also been alerted and are waiting to swoop.

The matter took a new turn when Jibrin further accused the Speaker of inducing members with money to sway them. First, it was $20,000 for pro-Dogara members to address the press. Then it was $25,000 for members to sign a vote of confidence register. The main facilitator of the inducement, said Jibrin, was the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Speaker, CID Maduabum. But the latter refuted the claim, saying that it was a figment of Jibrin’s imagination.

“I wish to state that I did not at any time meet or hand over any money of any sort to any member of the House Appropriations Committee,” Maduabum said. “This accusation is not only a lie but pure fiction; a figment of his imagination. It is true that he loves mentioning my name, but is he so unintelligent not to notice a pattern? Hon. Abonta disagrees with him on national television, he immediately adds his name in a petition to EFCC; Hon. Jagaba grants an interview against him, he adds his name in the charge sheet which he carries about.

“The Appropriations Committee members disown him, he immediately alleges inducement of $20,000; the whole House rises against him, then immediately everyone is given $25,000 each. Can he not see that no one needs to be induced when he is on a one-man riot squad to denigrate all members of the House and pull down the institution of the National Assembly? Once again, let me re-state that the Hon. Speaker, Rt. Hon. Dogara Yakubu, did not give me or anyone any money to give to any member of the House of Representatives.

“This charge, as usual, exists in the demented and diseased imagination of the drowning Abdulmumin who is desperately grasping at every straw in his deception, campaign of calamity, demagoguery and propaganda which he has unleashed on innocent public officers whose sole offence is that they fatally misjudged Hon. Abdulmumin’s instability of character and unsuitability to hold public office.”

A source who would not be identified said Jibrin might have chewed more than he bargained for by the tactics employed to fight his removal as chairman of a committee. “This will definitely consume Jibrin because, while the House cannot expel him, it can use internal mechanism to discipline him. Presently, he is the lone voice calling for the House to reconvene so that the matter can be resolved.

“This is to show that he is all alone. Besides, he is trying to play a sentimental one on President Buhari by playing up the anti-corruption fight. What I want to let Nigerians know is that President Buhari is not a novice to the antics of politicians because this same Jibrin made a promise to him, which he failed to keep. I don’t want to say more on that until the right time.”

Other lawmakers like the Chairman, Basic Education, Zakari Mohammed, who were alleged to have aided the Speaker in the padding, took turns to defend themselves. Mohammed said his hands were clean and dared Jibrin to make good his threat to take the matter to court.

Can Dogara be removed?

This is the question on the lips of many. The likely answer is that a removal would be difficult in the circumstance. A cumulative number of 240 members of the 360-member House is needed to remove the Speaker.

As head of the select committee that picked Chairmen and Deputies, it is safe to assume that Dogara’s loyalist may include 96 chairmen of standing committees and the 96 deputies. Besides, others loyal to Dogara would move in his direction if push comes to shove. The answer is no; the anti-Dogara forces cannot crank up the figures in their man’s favour.

The moral question

Some have argued that in a normal society where honour counts in public office, those accused by Jibrin would have resigned their position and subjected themselves to any investigation required to clear their names. But others are of the opinion that there is no need for those accused by Jibrin to step down as he is on a vendetta because he was sacked. Dogara and others merely carried out their duty, they claimed.

The budget padding saga can only end in one of two ways. The first is that members will rally round each other to protect the institution of the House of Representatives. Many of them are already pained at the manner in which the House has been portrayed.

Although Jibrin and a few others who want to remain anonymous are supporting the call for an urgent re-convening of the House in order to deal with his allegations, some of those calling for the shortening of the recess appear to do so for different motives.

While Jibrin is calling for it so that those accused would step down and external investigations commence, the members on Dogara’s side would love to see Jibrin further sanctioned. The plan would be simple. A member would stand under privilege and say that the institution has been desecrated by Jibrin’s allegations and call for his suspension.

Recall that Dogara now has sweeping powers under the new House rule for which a member, Ali Madaki, took him to court. If allowed, Dogara can suspend Jibrin for the remainder of the Eighth session.

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The alternative finish is to see Dogara and others step down and call for an investigation. From National Assembly experience, that is unlikely to happen.

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