National Assembly, NDDC trade words over allegations of budget padding

The Senate and the House of Representatives have reacted to allegations of budget delay and budget padding of the 2019 budget of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

The Acting Managing Director of the Commission, Kemebradikumo Pondei, and the Executive Director, Project, Cairo Ojougboh, made the allegations in separate interviews.

The duo claimed that the lawmakers inserted over 500 projects into the 2019 budget of the commission and are arm-twisting the Interim Management Committee (IMC) from carrying out a forensic audit as directed by President Buhari.

Mr Ojougboh also said the House of Representatives “vandalized and raped” the 2019 budget by adding ₦85 billion to the budget.

They also claimed that the “overbearing stranglehold” of the National Assembly’s panels was responsible for the delay in the passage of the commission’s 2019 budget.

Senate reacts

In his reaction, the Senate spokesperson, Ajibola Basiru, said the commission was exhibiting ignorance about the constitutional power of the National Assembly to perform oversight functions over all entities that expend national funds, particularly to prevent or detect corruption.

He told ThisDay Newspaper that the Senate is acting within its constitutional mandate and the appropriate forum to challenge any perceived infraction by the National Assembly is to challenge the same in a court of law and not by wild claims on a television station.

He said the National Assembly would wait to see if the NDDC will fail to honour the invitation to be extended to it by the ad hoc committee probing the alleged N40 billion fraud at the commission.

On his part, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Peter Nwaoboshi (PDP – Delta North), said all allegations levelled against the National Assembly are mere fabrications.

He told journalists on Thursday that the ongoing probe of the finances of the commission by both chambers of the National Assembly triggered the open media attacks against the National Assembly by the IMC.

While he said the National Assembly’s response is to correct the misrepresentation, he called on the EFCC, police and ICPC to investigate the claims.

“What we are seeing is a case of a man sent to catch the thief but instead of catching the thief, he starts stealing too.

“If members of the IMC know that their hands are clean, they don’t need to pannick or resort to blackmail which would not in anyway deter the already mandated investigative committees of the National Assembly from carrying out their legitimate assignments.

“Their lies have short legs and unfortunately cannot run fast or fly. IMC must be ready to submit itself for thorough investigation by committees already assigned for that by both Chambers of the National Assembly,” he said.

The lawmaker explained that the National Assembly refused to treat the request to amend the 2019 budget of the NDDC because there was a breach of the procedure for requesting budget amendment.

House of Reps reacts

In the same vein, the House’ spokesperson, Benjamin Kalu, described the allegations as untrue and a deliberate mischief to deceive Nigerians about the financial improprieties of the commission.

Mr Kalu, in a statement, said in reality, it has been the House pushing the commission to do the needful. He said for more than 13 months after the time required by law, the commission deliberately failed to submit its 2019 budget to the National Assembly for approval, choosing instead to engage in illegal and unauthorized spending of billions of naira. He said in December 2019, the commission failed to appear with its 2018 budget performance report and sent a letter on May 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as excuse for their failure to provide their 2019 performance report.

The lawmaker further said the NDDC’s claims that the House of Representatives “vandalised and raped” the 2019 budget by adding ₦85 bilion are not only false, but paint a rather disturbing image of the executive director’s emotional state as well as his relationship with facts and reality.

Contrary to the allegations of padding, the lawmaker said the House was forced to cut down the budget estimates from ₦409 billion to ₦345 billion when it was discovered that the commission’s projected expenditures were unrealistic, having exceeded its revenue source by ₦63 billion.

He also denied claims that the House of Representatives is against the ongoing forensic audit of the commission. He said the House has always expressed its total support for the forensic audit ordered by the president.

This, he said, is further evidenced by the fact that it was a House committee that added a provision for the forensic audit in the 2019 budget after discovering that the commission’s original budget estimates failed to include a line for the forensic audit.

The back and forth between the legislative arm and the NDDC has been on for months with both sides dishing out allegations and counter-allegations.

The Senate had on May 5, set up a seven-member ad-hoc committee to investigate the “financial recklessness” of the IMC of the commission.

It was specifically asked to probe the IMC for allegedly squandering N40 billion in three months and seek account for other financial transactions within the period.

Since its creation in 2008 by former President Umaru Yar’adua, the NDDC has little to show for the billions of naira it has received.

Many Nigerians believe the NDDC has largely failed in its mandate and has since become a platform for compensating loyal politicians. Former heads of the agency have gone on to contest political offices amid allegations they used the agency to raise political war chests.