By Ini Ekott
Finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who took the center stage of the budget implementation controversy with variant statistics credited to her, calmed an anticipated stormy senate meeting that earlier threatened her with sanctions Thursday, satisfying the lawmakers’ concerns, but barely putting in new statistics to disprove facts that spending performance remained abysmal.
The minister confirmed that while the recurrent budget had been fully implemented, the capital expenditure, which funds developmental projects, remained at about 14 per cent of the total capital.
Of the total N1.3 trillion capital budget, she said, N404 billion had been approved for release while N324 billion had actually been paid out (cash-backed). Of that figure, only N184 billion has been utilized by government ministries and departments.
The same figures had been credited to Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala in previous reports, but she told the lawmakers who mandated her appearance on Thursday, that the statistics available in the news media are largely misleading.
She said even when her office put out such figures in the form of press releases, “sections of the media still twisted them.”
She however reminded the senators the implementation schedule of the budget stood at just four months, having been signed into law in April. As such, she claimed, N404 billion of N1.3 trillion was fairly appropriate.
“I have to make it very clear that there is no difference between what the National Assembly wants to do and what the executive is trying to do with the budget,” she said. “We are only ensuring there is good utility of the released funds.”
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been threatened with impeachment by the House of Representatives over the budget, has met with officials weekly to press for efficient use of released funds.
Ahead of the meeting, the senators had been angered by remarks purported to have been made by the minister blaming the tardy fund releases and use on the illicit constituency projects smuggled into the Appropriation Act by the legislators.
A touchy subject, the question of constituency project has earned federal lawmakers severe criticism in the past, and has been constantly cited by the executive as reasons budgets failed.
In 2009, after late President Umaru Yar’adua threatened to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention, both arms agreed that N100 billion be set aside for lawmakers annually, to cover projects named by the 469 lawmakers for their constituencies, according to Senate leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba.
Even with the agreement, the procurement, contracting and execution of the chosen projects, were, and are still carried out by the executive.
Mr. Ndoma-Egba said it was troubling then why N100 billion worth of projects should be blamed for the failure of a N4.7 trillion budget.
“We have always been the scapegoat of the Nigerian politics, but what we will certainly not accept is to take the blames of others,” said Mr. Ndoma-Egba, who represented the Senate president, David Mark, at the meeting.
“If, and when others fail in their duties, they should accept the failures; we should not be blamed for it.” He warned the session was not to be regarded as a “family meeting”, but a “market square meeting.”
“We have always worked with the executive, but that does not mean we should be pushed to a situation where we have to invoke our full constitutional powers,” he said.
But the fury ebbed after Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala apologized for her absence at past invitations citing “miscommunication”, and blamed the media for “mis-educating’ the people.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala denied the executive had issues with the constituency projects, declaring for the first time it posed no challenge at all.
“We have absolutely no problem with the constituency projects,” she said.
She said, instead, the trouble lied with how funds had been re-assigned across projects and ministries by the lawmakers during appropriation, and the delay ministries faced at carrying out design and procurement for various projects.
The minister assured the budget will be well implemented before year end, and said the executive will not seek the usual extension.