I spent the better part of last night thinking through the Lagos Calabar Rail Project and whole budget mess…the allegations and counter allegations flying from different angles.
I particularly thought through the Lagos Calabar Rail Project, which has become a very controversial subject over the last two to three days.
From all indications, and from the statements so far released, one can see that the Lagos Calabar Rail Project WAS NOT included in the original budget proposals sent by the President to the National Assembly.
Senator Gbenga Ashafa who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transport said it clearly. He however said that it was during the budget defence session between the Transport Minister and his Committee that the “omission” was brought to their attention.
Lagos Calabar Rail Project: The Budget
According to the Senator, the Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi “LATER BROUGHT A SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATE OF HIS MINISTRY’S BUDGET WHICH NOW CONTAINED THE CALABAR LAGOS RAIL PROJECT AND THE COMMITTEE ACCEPTED IT”.
I decided to put those words in capital letters because they raise serious questions of Constitutional Law.
One major question which I invite my learned colleagues to ponder over is the propriety or otherwise of a Minister sending a supplementary budgetary estimate to a Committee of the National Assembly. Is it correct?
I don’t think so.
Lagos Calabar Rail Project: The Law
By our Constitution, the powers to present budgetary estimates to the National Assembly resides with the President and no one else. Once the President presents the estimates to the National Assembly, no other person can alter it.
Please note that the Powers of appropriation lie with the National Assembly, meaning that while the Executive cannot alter the contents of the budget once sent to the Parliament, the Parliament has the full powers to tinker with the budget.
If the President and his Team realize that there was an omission in the original estimates sent to the National Assembly, the only remedy open to them by law is to send a supplementary estimate and this can only be done through the original route, which is from the President himself.
He usually does this by writing a letter which captures the new estimates to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The letters are read on the floor of the house during full plenary sessions and decisions will be taken on them.
It is at this stage that the leadership of both houses can request the relevant Committees to look at the contents of the supplementary estimates sent and consider them on their merits.
Another remedy is to completely withdraw the original appropriation bill and send in a completely fresh one.
The budgetary estimates come by way of a bill. It is called the Appropriation Bill. Once the parliament commences the consideration of a bill sent by the President, any alteration or clarification which the executive seeks to make can only come through another bill properly initiated.
Lagos Calabar Rail Project: My Views
Therefore, it is my humble but very firm view that the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi was in grave error when he unilaterally sent in new budgetary estimates for his Ministry without such coming by way of a supplementary appropriation bill from the President.
The Minister acted illegally when he sought to usurp the powers of the President in this direction.
Equally, the Senate Committee on Land Transport fell into an even greater error when they purported to accept fresh budgetary estimates from the Minister. By doing that, the Committee Chairman illegally assumed the position of the Senate President while the Committee members illegally took over the functions of the full senate in plenary.
No Committee of the National Assembly has the powers to accept any alteration of the original budgetary estimates sent by the President. Committees of the National Assembly do not have an independent existence. They owe their life to the Senate or House of Reps. They cannot take full blown decisions on their own.
They always work based on clear terms of reference given by the entire house. Indeed, when committees complete their work, they must report back to the House for a consideration of their report. Please note also that the full house has the prerogative to either accept or reject the recommendations of any committee.
Therefore, the National Assembly was sadly right in expunging the Lagos Calabar Rail Project from the budget because it was not included in the original budget sent by the President and the President has not sent in any supplementary bill which captures that project. A Minister cannot do that!
Lagos Calabar Rail Project: Beyond the Law
Now beyond the Constitutional Law issues, this matter raises another issue, namely the fact that the 2016 budget was prepared haphazardly by the Presidency.
From all indications, the budget lacked depth and coordination. Perhaps, most embarrassingly, the budget preparation process was completely bereft of the needed synergy between the Executive and the Legislature since they are both controlled by members of the same party.
I personally expected a lot of behind the scene meetings between the two arms of Government being members of the same party on this issue but what do we see?
This is very sad.
Very sad indeed.