By Bolaji Akanni
Things seem to be looking up and brighter this year in the often stormy relationship between the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing -the “Infrastructure Ministry” , as some will call the three-in-one establishment, on which so much hope is pinned for the nation’s economic recovery. That is, if the rare and unusual encomiums heaped on the Minister, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Works on January 17th to defend his ministry’s 2018 budget, is anything to go by.
The minister had, at the session, reported a 2017 budget performance leap from 15 percent in the first quarter – for which his ministry was seriously berated by the lawmakers sometimes last year- to 71.58 percent as at the day of the budget defence, noting that it was the first time ever that the Federal Government had notched up such a highly impressive budget performance. Senator Kabir Gaya, Chairman of the Committee, applauded the Minister for the outstanding feat. He said he could not recall a similar achievement in the history of budget performance in the country.
Going by what transpired at that budget session, 2018 promises to herald a new phase of the finest tradition in parliamentary relationship between the Ministry and Committees of the Senate and a much welcome departure from the tempestuous and volatile interface between the two establishments last year.
Indeed, 2017 was another story entirely. For example, following a sarcastic denigration of its N10 Billion Energising Education Programme (EEP) of for 37 universities and seven teaching hospitals by the Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy as a mere “solar-powered street lights” proposition late in 2017, the Ministry had excoriated the lawmakers for being “unpatriotic’ and deliberately hindering the socio-economic development of the nation. The Senate’s uncharitable branding of what was easily the ministry’s flagship social intervention scheme last year, was actually a parting shot from the nation’s higher legislative house to the ministry in a drama which has featured rapid exchange of rebukes and repartees between some Senate committees and the ministry all through the year.
At first blush, it would seem that the Senate was only carrying out, with passion and a diligence which its critics may describe as uncharacteristic, its constitutional legislative oversight functions over the critical “infrastructure ministry.” After all, so much hope is pinned on the ministry’s performance of its mandate to ensure the resurgence of the nation’s prostrate industrial and manufacturing sectors. However, when one takes a closer look at the content of most of the salvoes launched by the Senate against the ministry in 2017, especially on power issues , it becomes very hard not to come away with the conclusion that there was an underlying agenda, beyond supervision, for the strident and often vicious opposition to Fashola’s efforts to achieve and sustain delivery of Incremental Power – the first stage of his ministry’s resolve to prove everyone wrong that some sustainable solution could be found to Nigeria’s endemic power problems.
Take the case of the Energising Education Programme (EEP) for the universities and teaching hospitals. Was it really difficult for the Senate Committee to establish the true objectives and scope of the project before dismissing it as “a solar-powered streetlight scheme for nine universities” as contained in media reports on the budget defense meeting of the Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy featuring the Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Agency, Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi? Had the Committee not been overly concerned with portraying the ministry in bad light for ostensibly wasting huge public fund on campus streetlight projects to the detriment of other projects with greater benefits to the populace, that particular budget defence session ought to have been one where Fashola and his ministry are showered with encomiums.
For, as the ministry would later explain to the lawmakers, the EEP was designed to guarantee, for the first time ever, uninterrupted electricity supply to 37 Federal Universities and seven (7) Teaching Hospitals across the country, through the provision on Independent Power Plants (IPPS) on the forty-four sites with the highly laudable primary objective to rejuvenate the nation’s educational system.
In the words of the ministry, “Far from being a “streetlight” project, the EEP in fact seeks to rejuvenate the education system through electrifying a total of 37 federal universities and 7 university teaching hospitals, with Independent Power Plants, IPPS, which will boost effective learning, innovation and advancement through uninterrupted power supply. In addition to helping to extend electrification to rural and underserved areas in which the institutions are located ultimately, the Programme will enable the institutions benefit from world-class training schools, for the training of students in renewable energy, as well as provide optimized security, for the safety and wellbeing of students and staff, through the installation of streetlights on campus which is only a small component of the Project.”
In terms of sheer absurdity and deliberate mischief however, the attack by the Senate on the ministry that takes the cake in 2017 was the one starring Senator Dino Melaye, the politician representing Kogi West Senatorial District. Now, with Melaye, you can never be sure of what you get – the serious or the comical. Indeed, the politician who is presently embroiled in a bitter recall process initiated by his own constituents, has earned a well-deserved reputation as the poster-boy of unparliamentary utterances and strange public conduct. Indeed, the lawmaker’s exertions on the floor of the Senate on Thursday 2nd November 2017, took the mockery of parliamentary privileges to new heights. I am referring to a motion by Melaye alleging “monumental fraud” to the tune of $1.350 Billion at the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.
Again as it was in the EEP episode, Melaye’s request on the floor of the Senate would have appeared to the unwary observer as an endeavor by a duly elected representative of his constituency to dutifully engage in an oversight function of the upper legislative arm designed to keep the Executive in check and prevent, as much as possible, the abuse of due process. But going by the unbridled vitriol in the language used and a deliberate disregard for dates as well as facts readily available to the Senator, there was clearly more to his endeavor that was far from it. As reported by The Guardian of November 3rd 2017 under the steamy headline “Senate to Probe Alleged $1.35 billion Fraud in the Power Sector”, Melaye had urged the Senate to allow him present a substantive motion on his discovery of executive malfeasance in Fashola’s strategic infrastructure powerhouse.
According to the report, the Kogi State lawmaker had declared that “In July 2013, the Federal Government raised $1billion from Eurobond issue from which $350 million was given to NBET (Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) Plc) in 2014. This money was stolen in instalments.” Since neither the Senate nor the showy Senator himself has ever denied bit about the alleged progressive pilferage of the funds, one wonders whether it is within the protected rights and privileges of even a Senator of the Federal republic to make a categorical statement imputing theft of public funds by a ministry, and by implication, the minister in charge, without even suggesting that he, the lawmaker, was in custody of some evidence to substantiate the allegation? Anyway, Melaye got the nod from his colleagues to present a substantive motion on the alleged malfeasance by the ministry.
Two days after Melaye made the wild allegations of fraud against the power Ministry on the floor of the Senate, the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, the federal agencywith the mandate to manage excess budgeted funds and building a savings base for the nation, faulted the allegations in a statement. The $350 was not “stolen in instalments” as alleged by Melaye, nor stolen at all, the NSIA said. Rather, after the money was taken out of a $1 billion Eurobond sourced by the Goodluck Jonathan administration and given to NBET, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Minister of Finance, in her wisdom and to prevent the money from diversion and theft by politicians hungry for campaign funding, directed that it be placed with the NSIA. That was in January 2015, when Babatunde Raji Fashola was busy rounding off his second term as the pacesetting Executive Governor of Lagos State.
According to the NSIA, by the end of September 2017, two months before Melaye cried wolf on the fund, the $350 million had earned a tidy interest of $30 million with the balance standing at $380.148 million. Speaking to a newspaper on the matter, a government source had said ;”I think the Senatorshould have been more diligent by asking for details from the appropriate ministry or agency instead of raising false alarm that the Buhari administration has spent the $350 million. He could as well invoke the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act) to obtain all the relevant documents. Melaye simply misled his colleagues by saying that the cash had been withdrawn and shared.”
Perhaps it can be argued that one would be expecting too much to think that our politicians would go as far as turning to the FOI Act to verify information when they are engaged in what the late Italian author Oriana Falaci called “the politics of politicians” where the objective is to smear and inflict maximum reputational damage on a minister who apparently knows his onions and has a proven track record for transparency and diligence. Still, the clarifications by the NSIA, should, in normal circumstances, have sufficed to put the matter to rest. But our distinguished senators were unmoved. Days after the NSIA dismissed the unfounded fraud alarm, Melaye was still allowed to present a substantive motion on the matter on the floor of the senate. Clearly, the motive could not have been honourable.
Fashola, the obvious target of the vicious allegations noted as much in his timely statement on the matter headlined “Before Perception Becomes Reality”. According to the minister “The Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) had on Monday 6th November 2017 issued a statement on the Front Page of The Nation Newspaper explaining that the money was not missing stating also that the $350 million had been invested and that interest had accrued on the money. If there was no ulterior motive for the allegation, this was enough reason for a reconsideration of the presentation of the Motion on the Floor of the Senate on the 8th of November 2017.”
The public, eager for the well-articulated plan of the Power Ministry for a semblance of normalcy in power supply to materialize speedily, should be worried about the “ulterior motives” that have fuelled the incessant and highly disruptive and frustrating attacks on the Power Ministry by the Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy under the guise of “oversight” activities. The attacks, including the ill-informed ambush of the Afam fast Power project, will, if unchecked, slow down Fashola’s frenetic drive towards attaining and sustaining the Incremental Power phase of the restoration work the minister and his team have diligently implemented so far. That should be prevented at all costs by well-meaning Nigerians.
***Akanni, is an Abuja-based Public Affairs Analyst.