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Budget padding: Refer matter to EFCC, ICPC — SERAP urges Senate president

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…Calls for reinstatement of Sen. Ningi

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has urged the Senate President Mr Godswill Akpabio to “urgently refer the allegations that lawmakers padded the 2024 budget by irregularly inserting projects worth N3.7 trillion, to appropriate anti-corruption agencies for investigation and prosecution.”

SERAP urged him “to immediately reinstate whistleblower  Sen. Abdul Ningi who was recently suspended from the Senate over his allegations that the lawmakers padded the 2024 budget by inserting projects worth N3.7 trillion.”

SERAP also urged him “to make a public commitment to discontinue the patently unlawful constituency projects in the next budget cycle.”

In the letter dated 16 March 2024 and signed by SERAP deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, the organisation said: “Referring these allegations to appropriate anticorruption agencies would be consistent with the lawmakers’ oath of office and the letter and spirit of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended].”

SERAP said, “What Senator Ningi has done is a positive act of good citizenship. No whistleblower should ever be penalised simply for making a public interest disclosure.”

The letter read in part: “Without inside information, corruption is hard to detect, prevent and combat. Rather than suspending Senator Ningi, the Senate ought to have used his allegations as a trigger for addressing the lingering problem of budget padding and corruption in the implementation of constituency projects.

“Referring the allegations to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would improve public trust in the ability of the leadership of the Senate to ensure probity and accountability in the budget process.

“We would be grateful if the recommended measures are taken within seven days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then, SERAP shall consider appropriate legal actions to compel you and the Senate to comply with our requests in the public interest.

“By exercising strong and effective leadership in this matter, the National Assembly can show Nigerians that the legislative body is a proper and accountable watchdog that represents and protects the public interest, and is able to hold itself to account in the management of public resources.

“Encouraging whistleblowers to speak up improves public services and strengthens public accountability. Promptly referring the allegations to  the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for investigations and prosecution would serve the public interest.

“Investigating and prosecuting the allegations of budget padding and corruption would end the impunity of perpetrators. It would improve transparency and accountability in the National Assembly, and build trust in democratic institutions with the ultimate aim of strengthening the rule of law.

“SERAP is concerned about the opacity and lack of accountability in the spending of public funds on constituency projects since the return of democracy in 1999.

“SERAP is seriously concerned that years of allegations of budget padding and corruption in the implementation of constituency projects have contributed to widespread poverty, underdevelopment and lack of access to public goods and services.

“Allegations of budget padding and corruption in the implementation of constituency projects have also continued to have negative impacts on the fundamental interests of the citizens in several communities and the public interest.

“SERAP is concerned that despite the country’s enormous oil wealth, ordinary Nigerians have derived very little benefit from the budget primarily because of budget padding and corruption in the implementation of constituency projects and the entrenched culture of impunity of perpetrators.

“Combating budget padding and discontinuing constituency projects would serve the public interest, improve access of Nigerians to basic public goods and services, and enhance the ability of ministries, departments and agencies to effectively and efficiently discharge their constitutional and statutory responsibilities.

“SERAP notes that Section 15(5) of the Nigerian Constitution requires public institutions to abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power.

“Section 16(2) of the Nigerian Constitution further provides that, ‘the material resources of the nation are harnessed and distributed as best as possible to serve the common good.’

“Section 13 of the Nigerian Constitution imposes clear responsibility on the National Assembly including the Senate to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of Chapter 2 of the constitution.

“Section 81 of the Nigerian Constitution and sections 13 and 18 Fiscal Responsibility Act constrain the ability of the National Assembly to unilaterally insert its own allocations in the budget without following the due process of law.

“Nigeria has made legally binding commitments under the UN Convention against Corruption to ensure accountability in the management of public resources.

“Articles 5 and 9 of the UN Convention against Corruption also impose legal obligations on the National Assembly including the Senate to ensure proper management of public affairs and public funds.

“Article 33 of the Convention requires government institutions including the Senate to ensure the protection of whistleblowers against any unjustified treatment. These commitments ought to be fully upheld and respected.

“The National Assembly has a constitutional responsibility to combat corruption, waste and abuse in its own spending if it is to effectively exercise its oversight functions and hold the government to account.

“It is a travesty and a fundamental breach of their fiduciary duties for members of the National Assembly to arbitrarily increase their own budget and to use the national budget as a tool to satisfy the lifestyle of lawmakers, and for personal gain.

“SERAP also urges you to put in place transparency and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the trillions of naira budgeted for constituency projects are not embezzled, misappropriated or diverted into private pockets.

“Lawmakers should feel safe to freely raise public interest concerns, just as Senator Ningi has done in disclosing information on alleged budget padding and corruption in the Senate.

“Senator Ningi is a whistleblower, who is protected under article 33 of the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party. Senator Ningi is a whistleblower because of his public interest disclosures on alleged budget padding and corruption in the Senate in the context of carrying out his work as Senator.

“He is entitled to raise concerns about allegations of budget padding in the National Assembly to address the negative effects of corruption on access of millions of Nigerians to basic public goods and services and enjoyment of human rights.

“The allegations by Senator Ningi amount to public interest disclosures and can contribute to strengthening transparency and democratic accountability in the Senate in particular and the country as a whole.

“Suspension of Senator Ningi by the Senate followed a seriously flawed process and it amounts to retaliation. Senator Ningi’s status as a whistleblower is not diminished even if the perceived threat to the public interest has not materialised, since he would seem to have reasonable grounds to believe in the accuracy of the allegations of budget padding and corruption in the Senate.

“SERAP notes that freedom of expression is a constitutional and internationally recognized human right in Nigeria, and the country has enacted the Freedom of Information Act which grants Nigerians the right to seek and receive information such as the information about budget padding being disclosed by Senator Ningi.

“Whistleblowing is a fundamental aspect of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and is important in tackling gross mismanagement of Nigeria’s commonwealth. Whistleblowing can act as an early warning to prevent damage as well as detect wrongdoing that may otherwise remain hidden.

“According to our information, Senator Abdul Ningi Mr Ningi, the Chairperson of the Northern Senators Forum (NSF), recently told BBC Hausa that the lawmakers sought the service of a private auditor and discovered irregularities in the budget.

“Senator Ningi reportedly said, ‘For example, we had a budget of N28 trillion but after our thorough checks, we found out that it was a budget of N25 trillion. How and where did we get the additional N3 trillion from, what are we spending it for?.’

“According to BudgIT, a total of 7,447 projects culminating in N2.24tn were indiscriminately inserted in the 2024 budget by the National Assembly. 281 projects worth N491bn, and 3,706 projects within the range of N100–500m, worth 759bn were inserted in the budget.”

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Politics

Edo Assembly recalls suspended lawmaker, Iyamu

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Edo House of Assembly on Monday announced the recall of one of the three suspended lawmakers, Mr Bright Iyamu.

Iyamu (PDP-Orhionmwon South) was suspended on May 6, alongside two others over alleged plot to impeach the speaker and other principal officers of the assembly.

The two lawmakers, who are still on suspension, are Donald Okogbe (PDP-Akoko-Edo II) and Adeh Isibor (APC-Esan North-East I).

Announcing the lifting of the suspension during plenary in Benin, the Speaker, Blessing Agbebaku, said that the house had found Iyamu to be remorseful.

Shortly after Iyamu’s recall, other lawmakers took turns to appeal to the speaker to consider lifting the suspension of the two remaining lawmakers.

The speaker, in his reaction, however, said that Isibor had taken the matter to court.

One of the lawmakers, Nicholas Asonsere (PDP-Ikpoba-Okha), thereafter, passed a vote of confidence in the speaker and an unalloyed support of the assembly to him.

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Former Rivers LG chairmen defy police order, stage protests

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The former chairmen of 21 out of the 23 local government areas in Rivers State staged a protest on Monday at their various council areas.

The former council bosses loyal to the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nyesom Wike, protested in their local councils despite an advisory against protests issued by the state Police Command.

In Buguma, the council headquarters of the Asari-Toru LGA, former Chairman Onengiyeofori George, alongside his supporters, marched through the streets of the town as they gyrated to songs in Wike’s solidarity.

They waved placards with inscriptions asking the police to continue occupying the council headquarters. Some of the inscriptions read, “Sim Fubara Can’t Continue to Act As He Likes” and “There’s No Vacancy in Asari-Toru Council”.

According to Channels Television, at Asari-Toru LGA, the protest almost turned violent when some men believed to be operatives of Asari Dokubo’s private military company, known as Amama soldiers, attempted to attack the protesters.

The Amama soldiers were swiftly restrained by policemen who were very alert. The demonstrators later presented a protest letter to the police.

Also, in Abonnema, the Akuku-Toru LGA council headquarters, some persons staged a protest, backing the continued closure of council premises by the police.

Recall that the police took over the 23 LGA council secretariats of the oil-rich South-South last Tuesday following the crisis that erupted over the three-year tenure expiration of the former LGA chairmen. Three deaths were recorded in the wake of the crisis.

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Rivers political crisis: You’re not the Reps caucus leader — Abiante tells Deekor

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Barth Ndubuwah, Port Harcourt

The political crisis rocking Rivers State has taken a new dimension, as Federal lawmakers of the State in the Lower House of the National Assembly have taken sides and started exchanging words as to who is the caucus leader and otherwise.

This stems from utterances attributed to member representing Khana/Gokana Federal Constituency at the House of Representatives, Hon Dumnamene Deekor over his attack on Hon Ikenga Ugochinyere, over the Rivers State political crisis.

In a statement issued by the member representing Andoni, Opobo-Nkoro Federal Constituency and Caucus Leader in the House of Representatives, Hon Awaji-Inombek Abiante  in Port Harcourt, he stated clearly that Deekor as a two term lawmaker is not qualified to assume the leadership of the Caucus of the Green Chamber when other senior members are there.

He said Deekor is not competent to challenge the Coordinator of the G-60 lawmakers and Imo State legislator for his comment on Rivers State political crisis of democracy in general.

“For the records, Deekor was properly elected in 2019 having lost his seat in 2015 at the Court of Appeal, which barred him from being a member of the 8th Assembly.

“He was recently re-elected in 2023 to serve his second term in the House. This alone disqualifies him to jostle for the leadership of the Rivers State Caucus.

“We call on the general public to discountance Dum Deekor’s statement as vituperations of a gord being,” Abiante said.

He told Deekor to note that the House of Representatives is not a village council meeting where anybody can assume any position and contribute to issues, noting that Hon Ugochinyere has the right as a responsible Nigerian to air his views on any national issue, including that of Rivers State.

“The National Assembly is not guided by Village Council’s rules and as such everyone reserves the right to make contributions in line with his innate conviction. Hon. Ugochinyere has in the estimation of right thinking Nigerians proven himself in the act of quality representation,” Hon. Abiante reiterated.

He therefore advised Deekor to hold his ‘self-serving stands’ to himself as he has never been elected as the Caucus Leader in Rivers State.

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