Political actors of different divide are all digging deep as the 2016 budget imbroglio threatening the once peaceful House of Representatives rages. Indeed, speculations are not in short supply, especially with assertions that battle-tested external forces have not jettisoned their plans to extract their pound of flesh by unseating Yakubu Dogara as Speaker of the Green chambers. With claims that these forces will effectively deploy the budget padding arsenal to assuage their frayed nerves over the lost Speakership position, MUSA SIMON REEF and NSA COBHAM report on the unfolding behind-the-scene drama in the lower legislative chamber
Brilliant, radiant and dazzling in erudition, former chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibril, was once an epitome of loyalty upon which supporters of Yakubu-Dogara-for-speaker bandwagon found a rallying point.
As members the House fiercely engaged in electing who leads them in the 8th National Assembly, Jibril frontally threw his hat in the ring, insisting that he had what it takes to lead the Green chamber. Against passionate calls by the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) on their members to support Hon Femi Gbajabiamila for Speakership, the Kano-born lawmaker was at the forefront of those that manifestly dared and defied party’s stand.
However, few days to the House’s inauguration, Jibrin agreed to step down his ambition for a strong coalition with Dogara’s supporters to crush the party’s choice for the speakership. Interestingly, Jubril only struck this swift political realignment after the Gbajabiamila group refused him the Deputy Speaker position as a bargaining chip for his support. And despite obvious protestations and threats from the APC top hierarchy, the Bauchi-born lawmaker defeated his rival, Gbajabiamila, by a slim margin of eight votes. No thanks to what many then described as the backstabbing activity of Jubril against his party.
So, by the circumstances of his emergence, Dogara, who had been chairman of the Customs Committee in the 7th Assembly, knew the task ahead was enormous. Many did not need any prophet or crystal ball to know Mr Speaker was sitting on a keg of gunpowder. With constant reminder of the huge responsibilities of his new office, Dogara understood that success would depend largely on how he meanders through the maze of intrigues among internal forces and shrewd maneuverings by external political juggernauts seeking to interfere or hijack the affairs of the House.
Consequently, in a move to pacify party chieftains and massage their egos after his hotly-contested election, Dogara facilitated the emergence of Gbajabiamila, his arch rival, as the House Leader. And those who worked openly and behind-the-scene to ensure success in the chancy race were also rewarded with juicy chairmanship positions. For Jibrin, who stepped down for Dogara, chairing the all-powerful 36-member House Committee on Appropriation was his immediate reward.
While the public perception was that of Dogara being fully in charge, internal bickering among members brewed against Jibrin, who was accused of hijacking the budget process that attracted angst from members of the public. It would not be long for the internal grumblings from the lawmakers to generate tension and eventual sack of the Kano-born lawmaker.
On July 20, 2016, the threatening clouds of tension rumbled into a thunderstorm, sweeping Jibrin off his coveted seat in the Appropriation Committee. According to investigations by this magazine, the event of the day that eventually consumed Jibrin was fraught with mediating measures by Dogara to resolve issues without causing public uproar.
On five occasions, according to a House member, the Speaker pleaded with members to exercise patience and avoid open confrontation. Regrettably, sources hinted that Jibrin’s disposition to members never helped matters as he deliberately avoided his colleagues in the Appropriation Committee.
The legislator disclosed that, “When President Muhammadu Buhari refused to assent the 2016 Budget, the National Assembly was in turmoil to resolve all problematic issues and return the budget for assent. At that instant, Jibrin relocated to only-God-knows where. All efforts by both members and the House leadership to locate him proved abortive. However, after completing his assignment without inputs from committee’s members and other committee chairmen, Jibrin sent out text messages to heads of committees and their deputies in the House. In the text shown to this magazine by a concerned lawmaker, Jibrin informed members of certain amendments they may not be privy to, but urged them to defend the budget in the media and the public space so that the House is seen as a united front.
•The Conspiracy Theory
Following what insiders describe as subtle re-enactment of intrigues that took place during the leadership tussle, the conspiracy theory seems to be gaining that outside forces are still working to unseat the Speaker and re-align forces in the NASS. Here, some political commentators are even propounding many dodgy theories to explain the current travails of Dogara and his loyalist in the House.
One such proposition is the suspected egotistic interest of the Senate leadership. It is being canvassed that certain interests are distraught and uncomfortable with the palpable serene atmosphere in the Green chamber as against the poor public perception of the Senate as a ‘Theatre of commotion and cockpit of sleaze’.
With this disturbing perception of the upper legislative chambers, insiders claimed there has been serious scheming aimed at spoiling the ‘good boys’ tag of the House of Representatives as part of plans to distract and take away public attention from the Senate even if on a temporary basis.
Forefront gathered that the idea of giving Dogara and his men Friday a black eye in the public domain became a very attractive venture for some undertakers and close associates of the Senate leadership. According to our sources, what may have courted trouble for Speaker Dogara is his perceived closeness to the presidency. “The supposed grouse is that Mr Speaker’s conviviality with President Buhari, especially at most State functions where the Senate President, Bukola Saraki is always conspicuously missing in action, has not helped the Red chamber’s case in the public space”, another source revealed.
Detailing further briefs, the source said, “By the undertakers’ calculations, the easiest way for the presidency to be circumspect and possibly distance itself from any individual or institution is through allegations of corruption, laced with verifiable claims to be interrogated and investigated by anti-graft agencies. Sadly for Dogara and his trusted hands, Jibrin’s Appropriation Committee saga readily provided required leeway for the Senate’s henchmen to strike and perfect their plans of seeing this venture fly as a suitable sore point for the Reps.”
•External Hands in Dogara’s Sack Plot
Also closely tied to the rumbling in the lower House is allegations that external hands are engineering the crisis. According to a member, who spoke to Forefront on condition of anonymity, the fallouts of the leadership race are visible in the unfolding events.
There are insinuations that external forces that backed Femi Gbajabiamila’s botched Speakership ambition may have come up with this new scheme to extract their pound of flesh from the Dogara-led House leadership. A concerned House member, who pointedly fingered obvious delay by the Party’s structure to intervene in the matter as deliberate, submitted thus: “Some members are wondering why Jibrin has decided to keep sealed lips over the alleged padding as it may affect the constituencies of Gbajabiamila and ardent supporters of his Speakership bid. For some of us, there are so many questions for Jibrin to answer. If indeed he was serious about tackling and fighting corruption in the House, why is he just talking now? Why did he leave the House Leader out of the accusations saga? Why concentrate on only the four leaders said to have kicked against his perceived arrogance in carrying out assigned responsibilities?”
“What Jibrin has done is to introduce an issue that can be used to nail Dogara and other accused persons. With the House resumption from recess still about a month away, political analysts are already predicting uncertain times ahead for the embattled leadership. Though the APC has belatedly called on Jibrin to cease further media war against Dogara and other accused members, not many believe this is an enforceable order. The recent interaction of Mr Speaker with the police is already heightening tension in the polity of a bitter jostling for political power in the coming days.
•Likely Beneficiaries of the Crisis
Following accusations that he may be behind the current travails of Speaker Dogara and the three House leaders, the House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, who has so far failed to out-rightly deny the claims, said in a message to his colleagues that he had been working alongside the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, for peaceful co-existence among members. As a key House officer not mentioned in the budget padding allegations, sources hinted that the Lagos-born lawyer turned politician and his backers are being fingered as the brain behind Jibrin’s present onslaughts on the House leadership.
But in a statement considered as ‘a smokescreen’ by some political watchers, Gbajabiamila said as far as he was concerned, all those mentioned by Jibrin for alleged corruption were innocent until proven otherwise. Hear him, “This should be our guide. I plead with all members, the mudslinging must stop. I was determined to keep in place the glue that holds an otherwise fragmented House, protect its integrity and at same time avoid eroding the little confidence and vestiges of hope Nigerians have in us. Unfortunately, the controversy has now taken a different turn following the rather strange, if not comical text making the rounds amongst members about my complicity in this rather sordid matter. I am being dragged into an arena I tried very hard to stay out of only for the good of the House.”
Quick to dismiss Gbajabiamila’s denial of his alleged involvement in the sack Dogara’s saga, an insider told Forefront, “We, members of the House, are shocked at the behaviour of Jibrin. In the heat of this crisis that led to his eventual removal as the Appropriation Committee chairman, many of us tried to reach Jibrin, but he refused to respond to calls, even from Speaker Dogara for over five days. There must have been a reason why he went incommunicado for such number of days. I think Jibrin is afraid of his shadows. Only the guilty are afraid. If indeed, Jibrin is on the right path, why is he acting alone without the cooperation of any member of his former committee? That tells you he is simply acting out an agenda only him and his sponsors are aware of. It is important for him to come clean on why he did not add Gbajabiamila, who is the House leader, to his list of those that allegedly inserted ‘senseless’ projects into the 2016 budget.”
•Banana Peel’s Experience
Though more than a year has gone by since that turbulent House leadership tussle heralded Dogara’s emergence as Mr Speaker, competent sources told Forefront that current happenings only confirmed fears in some quarters that the battle might have been won but the war was not yet over.
It was gathered that the outward peace after the storm may have made Dogara and his cohorts a bit unmindful of the proverbial ‘banana peel’ that had in the past consumed some National Assembly’s leadership, both Senate and House. According to insiders, working on the erroneous assumptions that all is well, the Dogara’s camp thought their antagonists have sheathed their sword permanently.
“But how wrong they were as the unfolding budget narrative is fast becoming their albatross”, one of our sources said, adding, “Though the Gbajabiamila’s group backed off in the heat of that mêlée, events are now laying credence to the conjecture that it was only a tactical move for public glare.”
Stretching his submissions further, the source said, “From all indications, I can firmly argue that the ‘warriors only went back to the trenches, plotted new strategies and patiently waited for an opportunity to strike back more forcefully for their pound of flesh. And sadly for the Speaker and his men, that time seems to have presented itself in a most auspicious circumstance now.”
How Dogara Tried To Save Jibrin
Information pieced together by this magazine revealed that before the advent of heady moments in the House, Dogara had intervened severally to douse tension and save Jibrin from the wrath of members. Sources hinted that the Speaker had even reached out to President Muhammadu Buhari to draw his attention to the urgent need for equity in the budget allocation.
“When Dogara and others discovered that the budget estimates presented to the National Assembly was tilted to favour a particular geo-political zone, he promptly drew the attention of the President. In a bid to rectify the problem, the presidency moved fast to ensure the problem was tackled. It was the attempt to rectify the budget estimates for all zones that speculations were rife that the 2016 budget was missing.
“After the budget was adjusted to reflect equity, it was returned to the National Assembly. As Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Jibrin superintended over a budget process that was based on exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Attempts by members of the House to access him on some issues became an impossible mission, as he got holed up in an island of non-connectivity. Even the Speaker tried reaching him, but it was impossible.”
A source privy to the behind-the-scene maneuverings in the House told Forefront that the Speaker attempted to get across to Jibrin to clarify certain aspects of the budget, but he was nowhere to be found, adding that; “several calls to his phone by Dogara were not responded to, just as he did not return the evidently several missed calls from the Speaker.”
Another member, who pleaded anonymity said; “in the heat of controversies trailing the 2016 budget passage, the House sought to have an audience with Jibrin and also provide an opportunity for him to clarify certain grey areas. Members even threatened Dogara that if no punitive measure was taken against Jibrin, they would insist on the Speaker’s impeachment. Such was the angst of the lawmakers who had accused Jibrin of taking the House for a ride.”
•Jibrin Disowned by His Members
Members of the House Committee on Appropriation have debunked Jibrin’s allegations of budget padding against Dogara and three principal officers and some members. Accusing the sacked Chairman of hijacking the budget process and turning it into a one-man business, Deputy Chairman of the Committee, Chris Azubogu (PDP, Anambra) said Jibrin completely shut them out of the 2016 budget consideration process, such that they had to demand his removal.
According to members of the committee; “For the avoidance of doubt, we wish to state that a comprehensive collation of the reports of the budget from the various standing committees of the house was done by the appropriation committee which was in the process of deliberation when the ousted chairman unilaterally hi-jacked the entire budget to a hideout with his consultant without the Committee’s consent. That was the last time the Committee saw the budget only for Hon Jibrin Abdulmumin to resurface about three weeks later, with a report purported to have come from the Committee.
“In his calm and peaceful manner, Mr. Speaker sought to resolve the matter amicably in the overall interest of the House and the nation. But in his usual recalcitrant manner, Hon. Jibril preferred the confrontational approach which irked members and this led to the request for his urgent removal from office and the request was overwhelmingly supported by the entire House.
“In response to this demand by members, Mr. Speaker had no choice than to act accordingly in order to maintain the integrity of the whole house. We therefore request that Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumin should tow the path of honour and conduct himself in a manner befitting an Honourable member of the House of Representatives,” he concluded.
•Will Dogara Survive Jibrin’s Onslaught?
There are no doubts Jibrin’s allegations against Dogara and 13 other members over the budget padding have slowly snowballed into a storm that is swinging public opinion against House leadership. Aside from already deposited documents with all the anti-graft and security agencies, not helping matters is Jibrin’s non-stop allegation songs and releases of damning documents as well as facts to the public despite the APC’s admonition that both camps should cease fire for a family intervention.
•Presidency Denies Budget Padding
Surprisingly, the narratives have an interesting angle that many see as taking the wind off Jibrin’s allegations with the Presidency denying knowledge of any padding in the 2016 budget. Articulating the Presidency’s position, Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang and his House of Representatives counterpart, Ismail Kawu, insist Mr President did not signed for implementation a padded budget as being speculated in the public domain.
According to the two presidential aides, “There is nothing, to our knowledge, like padding of the budget. The budget as assented to by the President is the budget passed by the National Assembly and it is being executed.” Their submissions came on the heels of a meeting with the All Progressive Congress (APC) leadership in Abuja after which they told journalists that the party is handling the matter as “a domestic and party issue,” adding that, “All of us have been told not to make public comments because the matter is still under consideration.”
•Transparency Group Disagrees
Disagreeing with the Presidency, a group of legislators with the tag ‘Transparency Group’ maintained the executive arm of government cannot excuse itself of culpability on the issue. Drumming support for Jibrin, the group insists the allegations must be investigated, even as one of its members, Baballe Bashir said the so-called National Assembly’s zonal intervention projects have exposed the “rot” in Nigeria’s budgeting process.
“With his vast experience as a former parliamentarian, what Enang should do is to advise the President to clean up the country’s budgetary process. This is not just about whether there is padding or not. Our budgeting process has problems that must be addressed. So, let him advise the President appropriately, looking at the allegations raised by Jibrin,” Bashir posited.
•There is nothing to Probe – Dogara
The Speaker, Yakubu Dogara is not perturbed by the raging controversy with his insistence that there was nothing to probe because legislators enjoy certain degree of immunity from prosecution when exercising their legislative functions.
According to him, existing laws governing the National Assembly make nonsense of arguments by those canvassing prosecution for his alleged padding and manipulation of the 2016 budget.
Explaining that he’s not guilty of any wrongdoing and that such calls are out of sheer ignorance, Dogara said, “It doesn’t even make sense and they have forgotten about Section 30 of the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act, and others” which says “most of the things we do in the National Assembly are privileged.
He dismissed as a wild goose chase any moves by anti-graft agencies or the Police to probe him, saying, “They cannot be grounds for any investigation on the procedure or proceedings to commence against a member of parliament, either the Speaker or the President of the Senate, once they are done in the exercise of their proper functions.”
However, with Dogara’s firm grips of the House still intact, it is obvious that the perceived external forces operating behind the scene may intensify their campaign to unleash collateral damage on his personality and the House leadership.
But surviving this epic battle of his political career will depend on how deftly he confronts his traducers who seem to hold the aces in swinging public opinion against the National Assembly.