The National Assembly is up in arms against President Muhammadu Buhari for permitting the withdrawal of $496 million from the Excess Crude Account for the purchase of a special brand of jet fighters from the United States without the authorization of the National Assembly as required by law. Senior government officials explain that the expenditure had to be incurred because the sourcing and purchase request for the jets had been long standing, but the orders were turned down by the American government. Agents of the suppliers in Europe were also not keen. Indeed, efforts to acquire them date back to 2015, during the Administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, but these were unavailing. This time there is a window of opportunity which is also time bound. It was, therefore, urgent that funds should be committed. In view of the emergency brought by the serious security challenges menacing the country, Buhari had to authorize the withdrawal and disbursement in anticipatory approval of the National Assembly.
The law requiring the President to obtain authorization of the National Assembly is to prevent the engine of public spending from breaking loose. Both the President and his handlers all seem to appreciate the fact that on the basis of law the legislators are on firm ground, but that the Executive has inherent powers in cases of emergencies. Ita Enang, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Legislative Matters in the Senate said what the President forwarded was a request to include the sum in the 2018 budget before the Legislature. Besides, “the law and the constitution recognize contingencies. The question of Section143 is not what is pending before the legislature.”
But the legislators are not impressed. There is division in the polity; there is division in the Assembly in which the President’s party members are in the majority. They are looking for a pound of flesh. No one is buying the Doctrine of Necessity that Festus Keyamo is disingenuously providing as cover. What undermines the argument of the Executive apologists is that the aircraft cannot be picked from the shelves. What is ordered won’t be ready until 2020. So, if it is meant to quell the insurgency in the North East, can we wait for another two years? Even if the law provides for very extenuating circumstances and this was one of such, what would it have cost the President to reach out to the leaders of the National Assembly and say, “Gentlemen, we have this emergency on our hands. If we miss this opportunity we should just forget it. Yet, the insecurity challenges are festering.” How long would it have taken everyone, experts and all, and the finance lady, to assemble at the Villa? In my view, it is the same accustomed arrogance of the Villa that was on display.
What does the law say? Section 80(2) of the Constitution states as follows: “No moneys shall be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation except to meet expenditure that is charged upon the fund by the Constitution or where the issue of those moneys has been authorized by an Appropriation Act, Supplementary Appropriation Act or an Act passed in pursuance of Section 81 of this Constitution.” The power of the National Assembly is further reinforced and explicit when the law says in Section 80(3): “No moneys shall be withdrawn from any public fund of the Federation, other than the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation unless the issue of those moneys has been authorized by an Act of the National Assembly.”
The President cannot seek refuge under the umbrella that while the budget is being considered he can withdraw money from the kitty for six months so that the services of the government would not grind to a halt. It is the owners of the umbrella who are crying foul! That part of the law states: “If the Appropriation Bill in respect of financial year has not been passed into law by the beginning of the financial year, the President may authorize of moneys from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation for the purpose of meeting expenditure necessary to carry on the services of the Government of the Federation for a period not exceeding six months or until the coming into operation of the Appropriation Act, whichever is earlier…”
The intendment of that section cannot be for the government to use money meant for the running of government services—to meet overhead costs and maintenance bills, to cover general administration—to order for the importation of war planes that would not be ready in two years. Come to think of it, the transaction did not even permit of part payment. It will be interpretation of the section taken too far, as my senior lawyer friends are wont to tell me.
Should the President be impeached for what legislators are describing as “gross misconduct”? Me thinks not. We cannot use one recklessness to cure another. Chairman of the Committees on Public Accounts in the National Assembly—Kingsley Chinda (House of Representatives, PDP, Obio/Akpor Constituency, Rivers State) and Senator Matthew Urhoghide, (PDP Edo South in the Senate) are pressing that the President must go. They have moved their respective Chambers to commence impeachment proceedings against the President. The motion by Senator Urhoghide was seconded by Chukwuka Utazi (PDP, Enugu North).
Even if all the hurdles erected in the Constitution can be surmounted such as meeting two-thirds majority, which is doubtful, the circumstances of our land today does not conduce to taking such an ultimate step. The country has not been this divided as we have it today since the civil war. The division is both ethnic and sectarian. By the time the processes kick start, all manner of motives outside the infraction of the law and undreamt of factors supposedly driving the move, would be imported into the exercise. Without the spectre of impeachment hanging like the sword of Damocles, a large swath of the country has been turned into a killing field for a while. There is bitterness; there is mistrust in the land. To add the sword of impeachment to it would amount to insensitivity and crass madness. Are we not in this country? Is it so difficult to see that it would heat up the already charged polity uncontrollably? Given our low level of our political sophistication, impeachment in the present atmosphere is totally unwise. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi is likely to ask, “Who is in control of the streets in certain parts of the country?” As if to prove him right, already there was an attack on Senator Urhoghide on arrival at Benin Airport said to be by APC youths. Impeachment is not like a coup d’état by a band of soldiers who would arrest a head of state and keep him locked up away, cut off from any counter influence whatsoever. The exercise should be dropped. The country has less than a year to decide whether Buhari should go or stay for another four years. At this stage, an orderly and transparent transfer of power through the ballot box is by far preferable. The dust the possibility of the impeachment has kicked sky-high is enough warning that we are now a nation of laws and not a nation of strong men. It will not always be in theory as it is as of today. A King would one day arise that would not know Joseph.