At last, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami yesterday honoured the Senate’s invitation to appear before it to answer questions relating to the forgery trial against its president, Alhaji Abubakar Bukola Saraki, his deputy, Chief Ike Ekweremadu and others.
He told the Senate panel on the issue that he had constitutional powers to investigate and prosecute anybody.
Also, the Federal Government has declared that it could not fully implement the N6.06 trillion 2016 budget.
Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Babachir David Lawal, yesterday told the Senate that the revenues of the Federal Government had dropped by 50 to 60 per cent.
The Senate had on Tuesday passed a resolution, summoning Malami to appear before its committee on judiciary, human rights and legal matters to explain the reason for the forgery case filed against its two presiding officers. It threatened to invoke Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution to compel Malami to appear.
But during yesterday’s meeting with members of the committee, the AGF maintained that as the law enforcement officer of the country, he had the duty to institute a criminal trial against anybody.
Members of the committee had argued that since the legislature was an independent arm of government, the action was taken in error.
Chairman of the Committee, David Umaru, told Malami: “On Tuesday, the 21st day of June, 2016, the Senate rising from its plenary, considered a matter of public national importance which is of immense threat to our democracy. The mover of the motion, Dino Melaye, alleged that the charges against the presiding officers of the Senate portended grave danger to our democracy. That is why we have invited the AGF to have this interaction.
“The Senate has insisted that the Senate Standing Rules (document) was not forged. We received a letter from you asking for an adjournment in order to enable you prepare. At the last meeting, you were not here.
“I would like to state that the purpose of our inquiry is neither to look at the criminal case of forgery, nor are we looking at the civil matter which is pending in a Federal High Court.
‘‘Our concern is with Section 174 of the 1999 Constitution. The powers conferred on this committee by Section 88 and 89 of the Constitution and Order 97, Rule 37, read together with Section 62 give the Senate the powers to make rules to govern its own proceedings.
“These are the powers given to the committee to look at the way and powers you gave effects to Section 173. We have two situations. The first one is the time before the action was preferred. We are not going into the issue of forgery. It is not our mandate. We feel that the AGF owes a duty to the Senate and citizens of Nigeria to know if that power was exercised in public interest without any abuse.
“The AGF has the powers to institute or discontinue any criminal proceedings. We want to know if the AGF considered public interest.”
In his response, Malami said: “I am in receipt of a letter dated 21st of June, 2016, titled: ‘Imminent threat to Nigeria democracy’ inviting me to appear before the committee.
‘‘I have a clear obligation to do whatever should be done within the context of the constitution to sustain the democratic process.
“The issue that constitutes the basis of this invitation is a criminal case instituted against certain members of the Senate. It is an act that predates my appointment. There are series of suits. The date of interest is 23rd of July, 2015.
“I was appointed on the 12th of November 2015. That is four months after the investigation was concluded by the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).
“The action was not taken to truncate any democratic process, but was taken to protect democracy. There are now two pending cases in court. One is a civil case instituted by some, the other a criminal case instituted by the office of the AGF. These two matters are subjudice. When a matter is before a court of law, nobody is entitled to look into it.
“I am guided by the Senate Standing Rules 53. One of the cases was instituted by the office of the AGF. It will be wrong to make any comments on a case still in court. The two matters are pending. Based on that, I will not say more.
My inability to come was not out of arrogance or anything. I was out of the country when the invitations were sent.
“The National Assembly has powers to regulate its own procedure. But the basis for filing my case was that the position taken was not that of the Senate.
The Senate Standing Rules allegedly amended in 2015 did not follow the traditional way of amendment. It can, therefore, not be the position of the Senate.
That is where my quarrel comes in.
“If there are certain persons that did not allow the process of amending the Senate Standing Rules go through the constitutional process, we have a responsibility to act by way of initiating a criminal proceeding against those involved. In the public interest and the need to ensure that no abuse is allowed, I have to take the step to prevent that.”
Meanwhile, members of the committee who are from both factions of the Senate, Like Minds and Unity Forum clashed during the hearing.
Senator Babajide Omoworare from Osun State who is a member of Unity Forum, while quizzing the AGF, maintained that he had the powers to institute any criminal case against any Nigerian, including Saraki and Ekweremadu.
He was still speaking when he was countered by Senator Chukwuka Utazi from Enugu State. The brief disagreement was eventually resolved by the committee’s chairman.
The meeting lasted for about two hours. The committee is expected to report back to the Senate today for further deliberation and final decision.
The SGF who spoke when he appeared before a joint Senate committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions/Appropriation and Finance, to defend his comments in an interview he granted to a national daily that the Federal Government may not implement constituency projects in the 2016 budget, blamed the drop in revenue on activities of militants in the Niger Delta region.
He said the oil benchmark of the Federal Government has been drastically dislocated and grossly affected by activities of militants, lamenting that at a time the country was producing about 800,000 barrels per day.
Asked whether he declared that constituency projects would not be implement, Lawal said: “The statement is correct. That is my statement; we cannot guarantee the implementation of constituency projects in the 2016 budget. As a government, constituency projects are championed by members of the National Assembly. Like the legislature, members of the executive are politicians who canvassed for votes.
“Lawmakers are aware that oil barrels had dwindled to about 800,000 per day. This has led to the inability of government to finance the budget. It is the duty of government to prepare the minds of Nigerians ahead that there will be challenges in implementing the budget.”
He added: “Government based its principle on zero budgeting this year. Funds will be released to finance key projects in line with the implementation plans of the government. I will explain why it will be hard for the government to implement the budget.
“I spoke with the Minister of Budget this morning (yesterday) and I asked him the revenue base of the government. We are now receiving about 50 to 60 earnings from what we projected.
“Some Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) might find it impossible to implement projects appropriated in their budgets. We have to re-prioritize. I like us to understand that this is the background upon which I made that statement.’’
Earlier, during his introductory remarks, the SGF had an altercation with lawmakers. He had complained that the notice extended to him to appear before the joint committee was too short.
He had also expressed his dissatisfaction with some aspects of the letter of invitation sent to him, claiming that he was being threatened.
He remarked:”I only saw this letter this morning. I thought it was going to be Wednesday next week. I wanted my permanent secretary to write to request for another date, knowing that Wednesdays are for Federal Executive Council meetings. You gave me very short time to prepare.
“Taking together the lateness of the letter and the threat at the bottom of it shows that it was not done in good faith. We should respect each other and give each other the time to appear.”
He was immediately countered by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, Samuel Anyanwu, who said: “This is a joint committee meeting. Our committee days are usually Wednesdays. The Senate is expected to go on recess next week Wednesday and because of the urgency of the issue, we had to send the letter. We want the aspect of that your statement withdrawn.”
Anyanwu’s position was supported by John Enoh who demanded a retraction: “We take exception to the word ‘bad faith’. The comments imply that the Senate committee in extending an invitation to you acted in bad faith. If we sent the letter to you in bad faith, it means you are also here in bad faith.”
Again, the SGF retorted: “The freedom of expression is a right. While I excuse your position, but I want you to note the threat in your letter. I want to put it on record that you forced me to withdraw my statement.”
The joint committee is expected to report back to the Senate today for further deliberation.