Avoidable controversy of Calabar-Lagos rail

Senate

The old order changeth yielding place to new
And God fulfills Himself in many ways
Lest one “good” custom should corrupt the world.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

One has followed with some disquiet, even trepidation the controversy generated by the non-inclusion of the Calabar-Lagos rail project in the budget details transmitted to Mr. President for signature. And, given the proper level of cooperation, experience and understanding between the executive and legislature, this type of controversy is entirely avoidable.

In fairness to the National Assembly, given the importance of the issue at hand, at the time that the Hon. Minster of Transport defended his budget before the relevant committees of the Senate and the House, with the rail project included, the Committees could have accepted the inclusion of the project as they rightly did. But the minister could also have been advised (perhaps in conjunction with his other cabinet colleagues facing similar situations and the Budget office which omitted the projects in the first place) to persuade the President to send further communication to the National Assembly detailing the omissions and requesting their inclusion. Important matters of this nature are best handled through his kind of formal communication. But there again, one can appreciate possible hesitation to adopt this approach in view of the initial embarrassment and uproar occasioned by the clandestine handling of the budget after it was laid by the President.

Having said this, the situation in the National Assembly has brought to the fore, a serious problem that has existed in the Assembly for a long time and has been begging for resolution. This is the need for a clearer definition of the powers and responsibilities of the Committees on Appropriation vis-à-vis other standing Committees. By the rules of the Senate (as well as the House) the Committee on Appropriation is required to assemble and collate sectoral budgets finalised by the various standing committees into an integrated, well-ordered national budget.  But from the inception, the penchant of the Committee on Appropriation to alter submissions of other Standing Committees has gone on unchecked.

The question, therefore, is: does or should the Appropriations Committee have the power to alter sectoral budgets finalised and submitted to it for collation by standing committees without reference to the relevant committees concerned? I think not.

The old order in Tennyson’s words must now change. And it appears that God may be showing himself through the Buhari administration to drive the needed change. The leadership of the National Assembly must as a matter of urgency define more clearly, and without ambiguity the role of the Appropriations Committee in Budget preparation. And, the Standing Committees must be afforded the protection needed to safeguard them from undue mutilation of their work submitted for collation by Appropriation.

This is not the first time things like this will be happening to Cross River State. Some years ago, the State’s National Assembly Caucus agreed to put together all the provisions allowed them for constituency projects and apply the total amounting to about 2-3 billion towards the rehabilitation of the Calabar-Itu Road and the Calabar-Ikom road both of which were in deplorable conditions as they still are today. The entire  sum disappeared at the Appropriations Committee. It had been taken out and applied elsewhere and in spite of protests from members of the Caucus in the two chambers, nothing was done about it and Cross River lost out.

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Water Resources for four years, one was constantly confronted with badly mutilated water resources budgets which came out of appropriation very different from that agreed with the Ministry and submitted for collation. Yet, the fact is that the standing committees are the ones that interface with the Ministries and Agencies of Government. Such interface provides the opportunity to understand the thinking of Government as it relates to any given sector. It also provides the opportunity for members of the National Assembly to raise issues of concern or interest and ensure that they have an effective input into the final budget of the Ministry or Agency involved. If after this, the Appropriations Committee can unilaterally alter the budget worked on and concluded by a Standing Committee without reference to the Committee in question, then it stands to reason that the Committee is irrelevant and its existence purely academic. It might as well be scrapped as it serves no useful purpose.

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transport was spot on when he decided to make the position of his Committee clear. The ensuing controversy in the wake of the omission of the rail project is quite capable of calling to question the effectiveness or competence of his Committee as indeed it has for the members of the National Assembly from Cross River. Not many people are familiar with how the National Assembly operates. And certainly very few are aware of the fact that in practice the Appropriations Committee can alter budgets submitted by Standing Committees without reference to the relevant Committees, let alone any other members of the Senate or House.

But our representatives must know that they have a duty to evolve strategies to ferret out information and follow up on issues affecting their state. Their prime responsibility is to help attract resources to complement and support the effort of the State Government. In doing this, they must not be afraid, but find the courage to sometimes risk displeasing some of their colleagues in the pursuit and protection of the interests of their state.

Others are doing so as has been amply demonstrated in the rail project story. And, unless they do the same, they will find to their bewilderment, that those they try to avoid offending will shunt them aside and take even the little that is due them without hesitation or remorse. With deep and sincere gratitude to President Buhari for taking a principled position on this matter, it is hoped that the project will be reinstated and implemented as conceived. Our representatives must ensure that they apply themselves effectively to achieve this. Cross River has suffered enough deprivation and injustice and this rail project, if allowed to vanish, will amount to another very big loss. It should now be clear to all that experience, clout, seniority, courage and ability to network are indispensable for effectiveness in the National Assembly.

• Henshaw served as a two-term Senator between 2003 and 2011, and is the immediate past Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission.



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