Senate President , Dr. Bukola Saraki, has revealed that there was ample time for President Muhammadu Buhari to seek the approval of the National Assembly for the withdrawal and payment of $496million for the 12 Super Tucano aircraft procured from the United States Government.
This is as senators called for the impeachment of Buhari for his willful violation of sections 80 (1-4) of the 1999 Constitution.
However, reprieve came the way of the president as the National Economic Council (NEC) Thursday in Abuja backed the decision of President Buhari to withdraw $469million from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) without the approval of the National Assembly for the purchase of 12 Tucano aircraft from the United States to fight insecurity
Saraki, in his remarks on the perceived breach by the executive arm of government, said there was already prior knowledge that Nigeria’s request to purchase the jets would be granted, as early as September 2017.
“It was August last year, we were on recess when I got the message from the US Ambassador that the Senate Committee at the Congress of the United States, wanted to visit us, because they got a request from President Trump to approve the payment of Tucanos, but they need approval. Their congress wanted to come to Nigeria to speak with their counterparts, and we all had to come back from our vacation, and I led the team with the House of Representatives members, and members here, and we met the members of Congress on this issue.
“So definitely, we were aware at that time of this issue. Between September (2017) and February (2018), with all due respect, there was ample time for the executive to have carried us along on this issue,” Saraki said.
Nevertheless, Saraki said it is important to examine the circumstances which may have informed the breach of the constitution by the president.
He referred the matter to the Committee on Judiciary to consider and provide legal advise, for the next line of action.
Saraki made the remarks as plenary heated up when lawmakers debated whether the president had violated the constitution, or whether his action could be excused in the face of mounting security challenges.
The lawmakers were seemingly divided along party lines.
“So the arguments for and against; I think these arguments are valid and I don’t want us to bring it down to partisanship issues. These are not partisan issues. There is the suggestion by the leader (Senator Bala Ibn N’Allah) that we should send it to the judiciary (committee) to advise if the constitution has been breached, the circumstances surrounding the breach of the constitution, and the justification.
“What do we do going forward, in trying to even appropriate because the funds have already been spent? Do we go under what the leader has come under (section 83, on contingency spending) or we start the whole process of appropriating?” Saraki asked.
The Senate President, however, pointed out that from the president’s letter, it could be inferred that there are security concerns in Nigeria and that there is a breach of the constitution.
“The question is, what are the circumstances surrounding the breach of the constitution, whether those circumstances justify the breach of the constitution,” Saraki added.
“I don’t think this exercise is worth it itself, because we endorsed it to the US Congress. It was after we agreed in September, that the US government now went back to give approval to the executive, to pay to their own government so they can go ahead and sell this equipment to Nigeria,” he said.
He directed the committee to submit its report in one week.
Earlier, Senator Matthew Uroghide (Edo PDP) urged the Senate to invoke the provisions of Section 143 (on the procedure to impeach a president) on grounds that while the objective for the expenditure was well established, the procedure was wrong.
“This constitution has been violated, and the role of the National Assembly has been taken away,” he said.
Uroghide added that the Defence Minister (when he appeared before the Committee on Appropriation on Wednesday) admitted that the expenditure was wrong and that the executive had ample time to seek approval for the expenditure of the money.
Senator Chukwuka Utazi (Enugu PDP) also argued that since the 2018 appropriation bill is yet to be concluded, the expenditure by the president cannot be categorised into a supplementary bill.
He also noted that the expenditure is not the first time the Buhari-led government has committed constitutional breaches, noting that the appointments of the service chiefs and the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) were done without recourse to the National Assembly.
“If we have a Chief Executive, who does not want to follow the constitution, we follow the constitution to handle him, and there is no other name to call it, this is an impeachable offence. If you are a man, stand up and be counted,” Utazi said.
Similarly, Senator Samuel Anyanwu (Imo APC) called for consequences for Buhari’s action. He recalled that the late Senate President Chuba Okadigbo was removed from office for giving anticipatory expenditure.
“When you say the truth, you become a target, but we do not fear to say the truth. An infraction has been committed, we have nothing to do, than to follow the constitution,” he said.
Senator Shehu Sani (Kaduna APC) said if the current infraction is allowed to stand, the National Assembly would have set a bad precedent.
“You cannot appropriate what has been spent. We take the risk of endorsing what happened, it would be gazetted and be part of the history of this Senate,” Sani said.
He, however, argued that the monies spent for security is worth it, and therefore does not call for the impeachment of the president.
“We should insist the money should be refunded, we should be calling for a refund of that money, and then due process be followed,” he said.
Senator Abu Ibrahim (Katsina APC) said the president has done a ‘fundamental thing’ by seeking anticipatory approval for the expenditure in the first instance.
He said previous presidents of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have drawn from the ECA without recourse to the National Assembly.
“What do you want the president to do? Wait until we approve it? Part of it belongs to the states and the governors approved it. So he should not even bring it here. He should only bring 53 per cent,” Ibrahim argued.
The Deputy Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, in his contribution, said while the constitution notes certain responsibilities for the president, it does same for the National Assembly.
He cited sections 83 (1-2) of the constitution and urged that the matter is referred to the Committee on Judiciary, to properly advise the Senate.