The Senate on Tuesday drilled the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, for some hours for spending N19 million on international travel and N23 million on local travel before the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and subsequent lockdown.
The Senator Danladi Sankara, All Progressives Congress, APC, Jigawa North West led Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation was baffled when the Minister at 2021 Budget defence disclosed the amount spent by the ministry as contained in its 2020 budget. After the minister’s presentation, the Senate Committee expressed surprise how the ministry could spend such amount particularly when the country was on a lockdown due to the global pandemic. Recall that the first phase of lockdown in Nigeria began on the 30th of March.
Trouble started when the Vice Chairman of the Committee, Senator Francis Onyewuchi, PDP, Imo East questioned the Minister to explain how such sums of money could be expended on travel against the backdrop that the COVID- 19 did not only affect Nigeria, but the entire world. Senator Onyewuchi asked Lai Mohammed thus, “Let me take you on this your 2020 overhead. You have here on Local travels and transport appropriated is N30 million you expended N23 million on local transport you received N96 million as appropriated as released you expended N90 million.
“On International travels and transport, you had N43 million, you expended N19 million. So I am wondering this period of lockdown where nobody was able to go to any country during the 2020 appropriation how were you able to embark on international travels and you expended N19 million? So we need to look at that critically and you also tell us here in parliament how you were able to do that?
“Most part of the year we had travel restrictions. I am sure you will remember you did a lot of enlightenment programmes on this and I am sure you will remember that most of us were prevented from moving into other states; so I don’t know how you also had the luxury of spending the entire amount that was appropriated on those travels so those are the information we need to get from your expenditure.”
In his response, the Information Minister who noted that the amount was spent when they travelled for international summits alongside an advocacy done in the United Kingdom before March, said, “You will notice that N43m was budgeted but less than 40% was spent precisely because of the COVID-19 and before then remember that we had travelled to attend several international summits starting UNWTO conference, UNESCO in Spain, in the UK. We have done advocacy in the UK at the same time.
“All before the Lockdown, I think our last trip was actually in Addis Ababa when we accompanied the President to the AU that was about March before the lockdown, the lockdown came at the end of March.
So whatever we spent here was before the lockdown.” Consequently, the Committee asked the Information Minister to forward to it, details of its local and international travels in the 2020 budget, just as it also questioned the Ministry for huge increase in its proposed 2021 budget. In the Ministry’s 2020 budget, N4 billion was proposed, but N2.9 billion was appropriated while in 2021, N400 billion has been proposed. In his explanation, Mohammed said that the increment was due to the reviewed national minimum wage.