The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, has expressed deep concern over the recourse of the National Assembly’s spokespersons to name calling over his observations on the 2017 budget, stressing that the personal attacks on him by the lawmakers failed to address the issues he had raised in the national interest.
He also more or less called them ignorant for their “very stark and worrisome gaps in knowledge” of the budgeting process.
Fashola’s media aide, Mr. Hakeem Bello, who was responding to the legislature’s criticism of the minister’s remarks on the alterations made to the budget, said in a statement Monday that the minister was worried that the National Assembly spokespersons failed to address the fundamental points about development-hindering whimsical cuts in the allocations to several vital projects under the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing as well as other ministries.
Fashola had in a recent interview acknowledged the need for legislative input from the representatives of the people to bring forward their developmental aspirations before and during the budget production process.
He, however, observed that it amounted to a waste of tax payers’ money and an unnecessary distortion of orderly planning and development for the lawmakers to unilaterally insert items not under the exclusive or concurrent lists like boreholes and streetlights after putting ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) through the process of budget defence.
Fashola had listed the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Bodo- Bonny Road, Kano-Maiduguri Road, the Second Niger Bridge, and the long drawn Mambilla Hydropower Project, among others, as projects that the National Assembly materially altered the allocations in favour of scores of boreholes and primary health care centres, which were never discussed during the budget defence.
But in their responses both spokespersons of the Senate and the House of Representatives accused the minister of spreading “half-truths” and making “fallacious” statements, adding that he should have known that they only interfered with projects that had concession agreements and private sector funding components.
They also accused the minister of wanting to hold on to such projects in order to award contracts.
But in dismissing the allegations Monday, Fashola said it was sad that the lawmakers would resort to name calling even without understanding the facts.
The minister insisted that there was no subsisting concession agreement on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, adding that what the Infrastructure Construction Regulatory Commission (ICRC) has is a financing agreement from a consortium of banks, which is like a loan that still has to be paid back through budgetary provisions.
“There is no fallacy or half truth in the allegation that the budgets were reduced. The spokespersons admitted this much and now sought to rationalise it by a concession or financing arrangement that has failed to build the road since 2006. The biggest momentum seen on the road was in 2016,” said the minister.
In the case of the Second Niger Bridge where one of the spokespersons alleged that the provision in 2016 budget was not spent and had to be returned, Fashola said that their argument displayed “very stark and worrisome gaps in knowledge” of the spokespersons about the budget process.
According to him, a budget is not cash but an approval of estimates of expenditure to be financed by cash from the Ministry of Finance.
“The Ministry of Finance has not yet released any cash for the Second Niger Bridge, so no money was returned. Three phases of Early Works of piling and foundation were approved and financed by the previous government in the hope that a concession will finally be issued, which has not happened because concessionaires have not been able to raise finance,” Fashola said.
According to him, the continuation of Early Works IV could not start in May 2016 when the budget was passed because of the high water level in the River Niger in the rainy season.
He added that the contract was only approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in the first quarter of 2017, while the contractor was awaiting payment.
Further dismissing the allegation that the ministry under him was holding on to projects that could be funded through public private partnerships so that he could award contracts as a tissue of lies, the minister said on the day he assumed office, he made it clear publicly and privately that his priority would be to finish several hundreds of projects he inherited, which had not been funded for close to three years.
Also responding to the issues that the funding for the Mambila power project was slashed because it contained a “whooping N17 billion” for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the minister said there was indeed a mis-description of that particular expenditure head, which could have happened during the classification of so many thousands of budget heads in the budget estimates.
According to him, what was described as a budget head for EIA was actually the nation’s counterpart funding to the China EXIM loan to fund the building of the Mambila project, adding that this was brought to his attention only after it had been slashed.
He argued that if the intention was not to slash arbitrarily it should have been brought to his attention to explain.
“At a joint meeting convened at the instance of the budget minister when I complained that the budget was slashed, the issue of EIA was brought to my attention and I explained what it was meant for,” Fashola said.
On the N20 billion provision in the ministry’s budget, which the National Assembly spokespersons alleged that the minister failed to give details of, Fashola said “the spokespersons were hiding behind a finger”.
He explained that it was a very basic principle of good planning to make provisions for unforeseen contingencies, adding that in the 2016 budget, a similar provision enabled the ministry to respond to the failures of the Tamburawa Bridge in Sokoto and the Ijora Bridge in Lagos, among others.
According to the minister, being an institutional and not a personal issue, “it won’t be out of place to seek a resolution of the conflict at the Supreme Court in order to protect the country’s future, because it is a clear conflict about how best to serve the people”.