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Bailout: Lawmaker, Activist Challenge Constitutionality

President Muhammadu Buhari’s unilateral decision to grant the petition of governors particularly on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for financial bailout may have set him on a collision course with some members of the National Assembly, reports Peterclaver Egbochue

Irked by the recent decision of President Muhammadu Buhari, to yield to the pressure by indebted state governors particularly those on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), for a bailout, some members of the National Assembly appear poised to challenge the action. The president had, in an effort to provide temporary relief to debt-ridden states approved a package of measures designed to salvage the situation. The states with cash-flow problem would be allowed to draw from a soft loan worth N250 billion to N300 billion provided by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

The Debt Management Office (DMO) will also help the states to reschedule the over N660 billion debt that they owe commercial banks and extend the life span of such loans while reducing their debt-servicing expenditures. In addition, the federal government and the states had shared the $2.1 billion tax and dividends recently paid to the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company (NLNG). But a member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Igariwey Iduma Enwo, thinks otherwise.

Enwo had dragged President Buhari to an Abuja High Court challenging the legality of the bail out of N413.7 billion for payment of backlog of salaries to civil servants. He is seeking for a declaration by the court that Buhari’s approval of the bailout funds was “unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful and null and void.” He is also seeking an order of perpetual injunction restraining the President from further allocation, distribution, and disbursement of public revenue from Nigeria’s distributable pool account to federal, state and local government without the prescription of the National Assembly.

Enwo who represents Afikpo North/South Federal Constituency of Ebonyi State on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), faulted the action of the president without recourse to the National Assembly when he single handedly took the decision. Also joined in the suit alongside President Buhari are the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, the federal ministry of finance, the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, the Accountant General of the Federation as well as Auditor General of the Federation. The lawmaker is praying the court to determine whether President Buhari can by way of fiat issue a lawful directive to the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th defendants to appropriate, distribute, allocate and disburse public revenue from the distributable pool account to the federal, state and local governments without prescription from the National Assembly.

He is also seeking to know whether having regards to the combined effect of section 162, 163, 164 and 168 of the 1999 constitution as amended, the president could carry out such an action without National Assembly approval. Speaking to newsmen in Abuja on Thursaday, he explained that his decision to sue the president was not “political” but in defence of the constitutional provision for separation of powers. He insisted that the power of appropriation rests squarely with the National Assembly and that the federal government could not appropriate public funds without recourse to the National Assembly.

According to him, “To do so will be for the federal government to act in a cavalier or perfunctory manner and I believe that that is not what the drafters of the constitution intended when the constitution of this country was predicated on the separation of powers. “Section four of our constitution clearly vests the power of appropriation on the National Assembly. Section five vests the Executive with its   own powers and Section six vest the Judiciary with its own powers. So, there is a clear separation of powers.” Relying on the Constitution of the country, he said section 160 of the Nigerian constitution clearly made it mandatory for the National Assembly to be involved in any form of revenue distribution in the country.

He said for President Buhari to have unilaterally taken the decision on the bail out amounted to boycotting the parliament and alienating it in the scheme of things in a constitutional democracy. His words, “I am doing this because I feel that this is a constitutional democracy. If you allow this kind of thing no matter the good intention of the federal government, the country’s democracy will be threatened. This is a country of laws. Everything the government does ought to emanate from the 1999 constitution of Nigeria. Every step the government intends to take must be backed up by the constitution.

“Any day we set ourselves away from the constitution we will be inviting anarchy. What I am saying is that you cannot sacrifice constitutionalism on the alter of political expediency. The constitution does not say that our president should be a Father Christmas. Our president is a democratically elected president who swore to abide by the dictates of the constitution. “We did not elect an Ayatollah or a monarch who would sit in his office and do good to,all manner of men the way he or she desires. Every act of the president, the legislature or the judiciary must emanate from this constitution and other statutes and legal instruments. No matter how well intentioned the action of government may be, the moment it is not backed up by the constitution it is a nullity.”

He said that the president may have earned himself his first impeachable offence, if indeed he had released such money without the approval of the lawmakers. Though he said it might be too early in the life of the administration for the lawmakers to engage the president in a constitutional issue, he insisted that the senate would be failing in its responsibilities if it refused to point out the breach now. Some PDP senators, a source alleged, might have also planned to raise the said constitutional breach on the floor of the Senate when the lawmakers resume session next week. In a related development, a rights activist, Chief Ifeanyichukwu Okonkwo, has given President Buhari and the National Assembly fourteen days to return the bail-out funds disbursed and paid out to the governors of the 36 States. In a pre-action notice, Okonkwo vowed to pursue the legal proceeding against the government at the expiration of the ultimatum.

However, Okonkwo, who also is the founder, Movement of Voice for Democracy, maintained that the disbursements of the funds was in flagrant breach of Sec. 164(1) of the 1999 constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). He said he joined the National Assembly, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives as the 2nd, 3rd and 4th defendants for negligence to protect the funds of Nigerians under the consolidated Revenue of the Federal Government. According to him President Buhari had breached Sec. 164(1) of the constitution in less than two months of his presidency when he disbursed the bailout funds to states without recourse to the National Assembly for approval.

Parties are Ifeanychukwu Okonkwo as plaintiff whereas President Buhari, the National Assembly of Nigeria, President of the Senate and the Speaker Federal House of Representatives are the defendants. However, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), human rights activist, on Monday took a swipe at President Buhari’s critics on the bailout funds for state governments owing workers’ salaries. While faulting those criticizing Mr. Buhari’s bail-out, which in his assessment would go a long way in ameliorating the plight of civil servants in states owed several months of salaries, Falana asked them where they were when the Federal Government doled out over N7tn as bailout for the ruling class in the last five years, but ended up spending the money for personal purpose. As the debate on the legality of President Buhari’s financial intervention rages, political watchers urge state governors who received bailout to utilize the funds judiciously to avert a re-occurrence in the nearest future.

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