The row between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the House of Representatives over the power the latter granted heads of Nigerian Missions abroad to expend their capital allocations without further approval from the ministry is yet to settle.
And if President Muhammadu Buhari does not wade into the matter and bring it under control, it may degenerate into a situation where the grass bears the consequence of a fight between two elephants.
As things stand, the House of Representatives believes it is exercising its constitutional checks and balance function on the executive. But the Ministry sees the actions of the lower chamber of the National Assembly, through its chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Yusuf Yakub Buba, as an intrusion into the duties of the Ministry.
In fact, the motion moved on the floor of the House last Friday by Kasimu Bello Maigari representing Jalingo, Yorro and Zing Federal Constituency, was a pointer to the fact that the lower chamber was poised for a battle with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, over what the lawmakers perceived as strategic move to end the lingering plights of Nigerian Missions abroad.
In recent years, there have been news of Nigerian representatives abroad being neglected by the Nigerian government represented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While some were owed salary arrears in countries they were neither citizens nor expected to engage in other activities to earn a living, others complained of infrastructure decay and sometimes, lack of work tools.
Worried by the unpleasant news from abroad, the House felt that giving express power to Missions to spend their budget without recourse to the ministry could bring lasting solutions. Hence, the alleged insertion of Clause 11 into the 2022 Appropriation Act, which tends to eliminate any unforeseen bureaucracy on the part of the supervising ministry. Unfortunately, the move was resisted by the ministry for fear of financial recklessness.
From indications, Nigerian representatives abroad may now be at their wits end as to whose instruction to obey, as both parties now issue out orders.
However, the lawmakers have called on the federal government to mandatorily compel the Ministry to implement the provision of that Clause 11. The controversial clause titled, “Power of Nigerian Embassies and Missions” provides that “Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law in force, Nigerian Embassies and Missions are authorised to expend funds allocated to them under the capital components without having to seek approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
As if that was not enough interference in the duties of the Ministry, Buba has backed the Clause with a letter dated January 19, wherein he instructed the Heads of Missions on behalf of “the House of Representatives and indeed, the National Assembly,” to halt the process of seeking approval of the Ministry before expending their capital allocations.
The letter reads: “The House of Representatives and indeed, the National Assembly, has noted with great concern, the continuous practice where extra approval of the Ministry headquarters is required by our nation’s Missions abroad before funds under Capital Allocation in each year’s Appropriation Act are expended.”
Titled, “2022 Appropriation Act and the need for missions to expend capital allocation without the Ministry’s approval, the lawmaker noted that the practice of seeking approval of the Ministry, “which in the light of its negative effects on the development of the foreign missions, has left most of our mission’s infrastructure in total state of dilapidation, has portrayed a poor image of our nation across the world.
“Official vehicles of Diplomats and representatives of Mr. President are mostly grounded or obsolete even when funds are, for up to three years in some cases, lying idle in the banks while attracting unnecessary charges.
“The 2022 Appropriation Act has therefore made provisions for Missions to spend their capital Allocation without having to seek approval from Headquarters henceforth.
“However, Heads of Missions should be aware that the Auditor General of the Federation and both committees on Foreign Affairs of the National Assembly will periodically check the books of the Missions and also, deploy the wrath of the law where any Mission is found wanting.”
Aware of the implications of such powers, especially with several allegations of abuse of power and financial embezzlement by some heads of missions, the Ministry moved swiftly to stay action on the Clause through a counter letter, dated January 20 and signed by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Gabriel Aduda.
Aduda, in the letter, directed the Missions to stay action on the implementation of the Clause 11 of the Act pending clarification from the presidency and the Senate given the need for a unified action on the memo under reference.
Perhaps, further enquiries by the Minister, which may have absolved the Senate and the Presidency of any involvement in the Clause 11, necessitated the memo addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari by Minister Onyeama.
Titled, “The Power of Nigerian Embassies and Missions”, the Minister called for an outright repeal of the clause by the National Assembly in the amendment to the 2022 Appropriation Act.
Onyeama, in his letter, indicted the House of Representatives when he accused them of inserting the said Clause 11 into the 2022 Appropriation Act without any recourse to his Ministry.
He further warned that the decision of the House to “without concurrence from the Senate, insert in the Appropriation Act 2022, the clause, which empowers Missions to expend capital project funds without recourse to the Ministry particularly, when it has gone ahead to write Missions, will undoubtedly impact negatively on the established practices of effective administration and management of the Nigerian Missions abroad, and the overall operational structure of the Nigerian Foreign Service.”
Citing instances of mismanagement by some heads of Missions in the past as well as myriad of cases pending before the country’s anti-graft agencies, he expressed fear that the removal of the administrative control instrument will certainly attract more negative outcomes than what the enactment may have sought to achieve.
“This is especially regarding due diligence as enshrined in the “Policy of Due Process,” which determines the appropriate value for government money on Capital Projects abroad.”
The Minister did not only use the opportunity to refute allegations of deteriorating states of government properties in Nigerian missions abroad, he also attributed his perceived poor performance to lean budget.
The Minister catalogued how the Ministry, under his leadership, has suffered under-funding for several years.
“This was evidenced in the progressive decline of the Ministry’s capital budget, informed by the envelope system,” he stated.
According to him, the budget nosedived from N20.198 billion in 2018 to N7.616 billion in 2019; N6.638 billion in 2020, N7.994 billion in 2021 and N6.909 billion in the current financial year.
“This is spread across the Ministry’s Headquarters, 110 Missions, five parastatals and the Foreign Service Academy. This had warranted the Ministry’s repeated appeals for interventions and reach out to all relevant offices, including the National Assembly for additional budgetary allocations.
“In this regard, the state of the Missions as alleged by the House Chairman is not because of failure of leadership on the part of the Ministry with regards to its control mechanisms, but due to consistent inadequate funding.”
Still justifying the need for approval before capital allocations are spent by the Missions, the Minister stated that it was basically to safeguard against mismanagement, ensure that due processes are followed and that project(s) are executed in line with relevant Financial Regulations and Extant Circulars.
“The importance of this is to avert any unforeseen disasters emanating from poor implementation of construction, renovation and remodeling of government structures wherein failures could attract tough sanctions by host countries. Thus, the Ambassadors are guided by the Ministry in consultations on issues of national interest, including procurement.”
Adding: “You may recall, Your Excellency, that in your budget speech 2022, you expressed reservations about many of the changes the National Assembly made to the 2022 Executive Budget proposal, some of which were the changes to the original Executive proposal in form of new insertions, outright removals, reductions and or increases in the amount allocated to projects.
“You signed the 2022 Appropriation Bill into law to enable its implementation to commence on 1st January 2022, then revert to the National Assembly with a request for amendment.”
The Minister consequently called on Mr. President to take judicial note of the controversial Clause 11 of the Appropriation Act, and the fact that the attached memo, which was sent directly from Honourable Buba to the heads of Nigeria Missions abroad, seeking to enforce the above provision without recourse to the ministry, amounted to “intrusion of an arm of the legislature into what is purely executive function.”
The minister also emphasised that the insertion “which is inconsistent with extant financial regulations and the Public Procurement Act had no concurrence from the Senate.”
If the minister was right in exonerating the Senate from such action, the implication is that Buba may not have stated the obvious when he stated in his letter to the heads of Missions that he acted on behalf of both chambers of the National Assembly.
But while the Minister is appealing to Mr. President for the repeal of the clause in the expected amendment, the House is, on the other hand, exerting its powers on the Ministry by compelling them to expressly comply with the provision of the clause and report such compliance to them within a week.
The Ministry has also been directed to withdraw its earlier letter countering the directives given to the Missions by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The sponsor of the motion had noted that for a very long time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters has been immersed in various practices, actions and inactions that have negatively affected quality service-delivery in the Ministry and its foreign missions where the nation’s image has been questioned by negative media reports that revealed the inability of heads of missions to meet up with their financial obligations.
Other reasons given for their actions include the fact that “Nigerian foreign missions and service officers have been at the receiving end of the negative effects of the actions and inactions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters, which have sometimes resulted in hiring taxis for diplomats on official duties and in the forceful ejection of Ambassadors, High Commissioners and other foreign service officers from rented apartments with their personal effects and other property thrown into the streets of capital cities of the world even when they have budgeted capital funds lying unutilised in various bank accounts.
“That the rot and official bottlenecks, which have continued to perpetuate all the negative things that go on in our foreign service and missions across the globe may, despite the magnanimity of Mr. President and the efforts of the National Assembly to make things better, would continue if this House fails to do the needful.
“That a section of the 2022 Appropriations Act, which was carefully crafted by the Legislature and assented to by Mr. President to address the rot, lethargy and official inertia that have been identified as bane to the development of our foreign service and missions is now being challenged by some officials of government and unpatriotic individuals at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters.”
The House also expressed worries that “if the effrontery and impunity of those officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that are so flagrantly challenging a law signed by Mr. President, using diverse means, including writing of letters to counter provisions of an existing piece of law, are allowed to go unaddressed, we may wake up one morning, God forbid, to hear that the National Assembly has been sacked by the mere letter of one senior government official in one Ministry of government.”
But a source from the Ministry has described the drama as enacted by the lawmakers as “unfortunate and an aberration.”
“Where in the world, except Nigeria, can a lawmaker write expressly to the heads of Missions, directing them on actions without any recourse to the supervising Ministry?” he asked.
Adding: “This is a clear breach of separation of powers. The lawmaker is dabbling into executive functions and has no right to instruct or deal directly with Missions without coming through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“In fact, it was also reported that the House Committee Chairman even sent his email address to Heads of Missions for direct communications with them in future.”
The power tussle between the legislators and the leadership of the Ministry came to the fore when Buba applauded the House for including the Clause 11, on the grounds that it will allow for greater development in Foreign Missions by ensuring that bureaucratic bottlenecks that impeded development at the Missions were removed.
According to him, capital expenditure appropriated directly for Foreign Missions are meant for the procurement of official vehicles, renovation of Embassy buildings, repairs on dilapidated or decayed infrastructure as well as execution of other projects captured under the capital component in the fiscal documents of each year.
He therefore decried a situation where such projects are unexecuted for the failure of the Ministry Headquarters to grant approval.
The House, while speaking on the motion, accused the Ministry of suffocating Nigerian embassies through existing instructions not to spend their budget until approval and consent are sought and obtained from the headquarters.
The House took exception to the counter directives by the Ministry, stressing that such was a violation of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, which states that no money shall be spent except in a manner prescribed by the National Assembly.
The House insisted that rather than flout the law, the Ministry should lobby for an amendment. Yet, there is need for embassies to begin implementation of the Clause 11.
The Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, also condemned the counter directive by the Permanent Secretary, describing it as a violation of the laws of the land while directing Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs to invite the Minister and the Permanent Secretary to a meeting in his office over the issue tomorrow.
He said: “I don’t want to believe that this is happening – that any Ministry would have the effrontery to write and say, ‘Don’t obey the law.’ I refuse to believe that it is happening. If you disagree with the law, there are ways and processes.
“The question is, ‘what was the reason for this law in the first place? Why was section 11 included in the law? I have gone round several Embassies and this House has a Chairman of Foreign Affairs. Go round a few Embassies and you will be aghast with the stories you hear.
“What does the Constitution say about laws passed by the National Assembly? I thought the constitution said that no money should be spent except in a manner prescribed by the National Assembly.
“This is the manner the National Assembly has prescribed. I have seen personally situations in our Embassies and it is a shame, and the National Assembly is trying to make things better.”
House Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, is of the opinion that the Ministry was violating Appropriation Act by disallowing Embassies from implementing the capital budget until they are given approval by the Headquarters.
“I want to say that there should be an investigative hearing and the letter written by the Permanent Secretary should be brought before that hearing to ascertain that a Permanent Secretary would have the audacity to circumvent the law.
“It is a very grievous offence and he would need to explain because I know that when circumventing the law, there is a penalty for that. It is not just enough for us to say, ‘Direct the Embassies’, we should go further to ensure that the man that has committed that crime is brought to book.”
The steps taken by the House to forestall further embarrassment in Nigerian missions abroad could be a wake-up call on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reclaim the past glory of the Ministry.