Nigerian activists on Sunday faulted the embattled Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, for saying that “budget padding is not a crime under Nigerian law” and called for his immediate resignation.
Padding the budget remains a very confusing concept in Nigeria with many saying it is the practice of inflating the budget, hiding money in the budget or duplicating projects to make money for a few lawmakers and government officials away from public scrutiny.
But even those who try to explain often need to re-explain as the more they explain they more Nigerians try to understand by asking many questions. And very few people can really say when is the budget “padded” – whether it’s done by government officials or in the National Assembly by lawmakers breaking the law.
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Mr. Dogara, who has been at loggerheads with another House of Representatives member, Mr. Abdulmumin Jibrin, has been accused by the latter of trying to pad (inflate) President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 budget in connivance with some government officials.
Mr. Jibrin claimed the plan had almost succeeded but for his intervention. Mr. Jibrin resigned in July as House of Representatives Appropriation Committee Chairman, a very important Committee in the National Assembly.
Mr. Dogara and his supporters in the House had said Mr. Jibrin was ousted and was viciously attacking the Speaker and his colleagues in anger, but the latter claimed he resigned to expose wrongdoing and evil at the House of Representatives.
Since his sack or resignation, Mr. Jibrin has blasted Mr. Dogara in the media, including some principal officers in the 360-member House, releasing statements after statements, accusing them of massive corruption, and claiming recently that the Speaker bribed some of them to try to disparage him.
Last week, reports said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, had stepped in to investigate allegations and counter-allegations made by Mr. Jibrin and the other side, and President Muhammadu Buhari called for a meeting with Mr. Dogara.
After that meeting last week, Mr. Dogara was quoted as telling news men that padding the budget is not corruption under the Nigerian law.
“Budget padding is not an offence. What is padding? I studied law and I have been in the legislature and all this period I have never heard of the word padding being an offence under any law…Why should I be worried. As far as I am concerned, I am not worried over anything,” he said.
The reacting was immediate outrage, especially from members of the House who opposed his election in the first place in June last year. The All Progressives Congress, APC, had anointed a Lagos lawmaker to be elected Speaker last year after the party defeated the then ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, of Mr. Goodluck Jonathan. But Mr. Dogara emerged Speaker against the wishes and blessing of his party. Since then, he ha been opposed by many in the House, the same way, Senate President, Mr. Bukola Saraki emerged winner against the wishes of his party last year also, angering many who have continued to oppose him till date.
Many other Nigerians, especially on the social media condemned the Speaker for his statement, alleging that he was trying to cover up corruption allegations against him and his colleagues.
On Sunday, some activists joined, calling for him to resign to allow an unbiased and external investigation.
In a statement to TheSimonAtebaNews, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) faulted Mr. Dogara, saying that budget padding is “in-fact corruption”.
SERAP executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni, who released the statement, said, “Budget padding in fact is corruption, as it is implicit in corruption offences such as abuse of office, attempt to embezzle, divert, and misappropriate public funds, conspiracy to act corruptly, and illicit enrichment”.
He said “the allegations against Mr Dogara and other principal officials of the House of Representatives also suggest a subversion of the budget process, which in itself is a crime but also a fundamental breach of constitutional provisions and an affront to internationally recognized human rights.”
He added: “A prima-facie case of corruption is established when elected officials are allegedly influenced to act contrary to their obligations of office by the prospect of financial gain to themselves. Budget padding also amounts to corruption as the action is against the public interest. Any appearance of corruption in the budget process can result in a cynical public to losing interest in political participation altogether. And democracy can’t work unless Nigerians have faith in those who govern.”
“If Mr Dogara refuses to resign to allow for effective and transparent investigation and the allegations of budget padding are swept under the carpet, the ability of the House of Representatives to function as a watchdog and credible guardian of the public interest would be seriously compromised.”
But, even as the activists tried to explain, it was not clear if they were saying corruption took place or could have taken place in the 2016 budget. Under the Nigerian legal system, suspects are innocent until proven guilty and Mr. Dogara and other officers remain innocent until a court of law proves them otherwise, many say.
Many were also confused, with some alleging that budget padding is committed by Mr. Buhari’s government officials and not lawmakers who are just watchdogs.
President Buhari sacked his Director of Budget early this year following evidence that the budget had been inflated by the officials.
With that, many Nigerians were still expecting to hear more and know whether President Buhari’s men or lawmakers or both had inflated the budget for personal gains and how they do it.