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$496m Tucano Jets Purchase: Matters arising

$496m Tucano Jets Purchase: Matters arising

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Economic Renaissance by Henry Boyo [email protected] 08052201997

the proceedings at the two chamber of the National Assembly became rather agitated on Thursday, April 26, 2018, after President Muhammadu Buhari’s letter, which sought approval for $496m, which had been spent on 12 fighter jets, was read by Senate President Bukola Saraki (APC) and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara (APC), to members in their respective chambers.

President Buhari’s letter confirmed that $496m had been withdrawn from Excess Crude Account, as payment for 12 super Tucano aircraft, in a purchase agreement between Nigeria and the United States.

The problem, however, according to Senator Mathew Urhoghide, Chairman, Committee on Public Accounts, was that this payment is clearly a breach of Section 80 of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates that “any amount of money that has to be spent from the Federation Account must first be appropriated by the National Assembly.” “This one”, according to Urhoghide, “has not been appropriated and therefore breaches the position of the constitution”, and “there are serious consequences for such violation”. Urhoghide therefore recommended that, “as a committee, the only thing that we can draw from this is that, we call on you (Senate President) to evoke Section 143 of the Constitution”, as “this matter does not need to be investigated, it is clear that this offence has been committed by the President.”

Similarly, Senator Shehu Sani (APC Kaduna) described the reported expenditure as a “gross abuse of the constitution”. Although Sani did not support impeachment, he, however, suggested that “the payment be refunded, so that the transaction be started afresh to allow due process.” This recommendation, however, seems like another variant of the presently, very unpopular, plea bargain with treasury looters. Nonetheless, Senator Sani did not explain how the US government could be made to simply refund $496m, without heavy sanctions and serious financial penalties for Nigeria.

In retrospect, barely six years ago, the same US government had accused Nigeria’s government of human rights violation and therefore rejected the country’s offers to procure a modest caché of arms to combat the spread of Boko Haram, whom the US government refused to recognise as terrorists at that time.

Incidentally, Buhari had explained in his letter, that the $496m was paid without legislative approval, because “the US government had given a payments deadline for the aircraft purchase, otherwise the contract would lapse”. It is not clear why full advance payment was demanded for aircraft which will be delivered in 2020.

Furthermore, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (PDP) also noted that “there is no name to call this (disbursement), except an impeachable offence and we cannot allow that”. “We cannot stay here and this assembly and Nigerians will be taken for granted. It should not be so, I, (therefore) rise and support the motion for impeachment”.

Conversely, however, Senator Abu Ibrahim described the call for impeachment “as a PDP conspiracy” and wondered whether any state governor sought approval from their respective state Houses of Assembly, before spending previous disbursements from the ECA allocations. Senator Samuel Anyanwu, however, countered Ibrahim that the issue “was about respect for government institutions and not about politics”.

Nevertheless, Deputy Majority Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC), suggested that Buhari “might have considered Section 83(1-2) of the constitution, which “allows the President to make extra budgetary spending in an emergency situation”. Ultimately, the Senate President concluded that there were (actually) two substantive issues: “The spate of insecurity and the flawed process through which government wanted to tackle it”. Consequently, in view of the dissension amongst members, the lawmakers referred probe of the $496m expenditure to the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters.

Furthermore, some House members also kicked against any motion to include the $496m in the 2018 Appropriation Bill, which is still pending before the legislature. The Chairman, House Committee on Ethics and Privileges, Nicholas Ossai, observed that, “by the rules of procedure of the House, the request for appropriation was belated, because Buhari had already spent the money”, whereas “Section 80(3) of the 1999 Constitution states that “no funds could be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the federation, except, in the manner approved by the National Assembly”. Ossai therefore rejected any motion to rehabilitate the unapproved $496m in the 2018 budget, “as this money has already been spent”. “Consequently”, Ossai concluded, “this matter cannot be discussed at all”. Some other House members, including Deputy Minority Leader, Chukwuma Onyema (PDP), also agreed that “the request was belated”, and warned that “trying to bend the House rules to accommodate the $496m withdrawal either by a motion or fresh money bill would amount to self-indictment.” Ultimately, in view of divergent opinions, Speaker Dogara ruled that debate on such a motion should “be suspended.”

It would be extremely charitable, constitutionally, to ignore the $496m withdrawal by President Buhari, as an impeachable offence. Nonetheless, in practice, it would be an uphill task to impeach a President, with a significant party majority in parliament, unless, of course, the present absence of a common amalgamating philosophy tears the ruling party asunder, during the political negotiations leading to the February 2019 elections. If, however Buhari is unexpectedly impeached, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo may not have the requisite political following and the critical mass that will guarantee his election as President next year, especially if, the northern power bloc also insists that a northern candidate should complete Buhari’s slot for a second term in office.

It is however regrettable that the payment process for the $496m was shrouded in such inconsistencies; for example, on January 25, Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali reported that the payment deadline for the purchase of the aircraft was February 2018. Ali also observed that government had rejected the related Purchase Terms, because these were stringent and clearly skewed in favour of the US. However, the minister did not confirm, thereafter, if the contentious stringent conditions were, later, favourably reviewed, before the minister’s announcement barely two weeks later, on February 5, that government had already paid $496m to the US government, for the Tucano jets, without also revealing that the funds were actually withdrawn from the Excess Crude Account without legislative approval.

Ultimately, in response to public outcry on the colossal expenditure, the President’s Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang (APC) reported on April 9 that Buhari had not yet given approval for the withdrawal of $1bn, which he earlier requested from the legislature, to enhance Nigeria’s security apparatus. Enang had noted that “as of now, the process of approving the money for this use is inchoate and still undergoing Executive Standard Operating Procedure, before laying the same before the National Assembly for appropriation”.

Ironically, Enang’s explanation has also been exposed as “inchoate” by President Buhari’s later confirmation of the withdrawal of $496m from the ECA in his April 13 letter to the National Assembly.

Nonetheless, a simple cost benefit analysis would have revealed that Nigerians would not get any value whatsoever from this huge expenditure until the 12 jets are delivered in 2020. In this event, the jets will make no contribution whatsoever to tackling the current menace of Boko Haram and other such insurgencies (if that is what the planes were acquired for) for another two years or more.

Besides, it is also arguable that the security situation would improve if the Armed Forces welfare receives greater attention. Recent international media reports confirmed that the Association of US Veterans accounts for a budget of over $200bn annually. Invariably, the depth of our army and our people’s parlous state are certainly cut in stark relief by this unfortunate and depressing reality and relatively average Federal Government’s budget below $25bn. The expenditure of N150bn could alternatively also provide up to 15 modern barracks facilities, strategically scattered around the federation. It is certainly not rocket science to know on what the military’s rank and file would collectively choose to spend $469m in order to enhance their commitment and performance.

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