“Sleep no more! Macbeth hath murdered sleep!” This is an ever memorable line from one of Shakespeare’s plays in which Macbeth himself, an otherwise gallant soldier and Thane of Cawdor, ended up assassinating Duncan, his king, goaded by his wife, all in pursuit of his vaulting ambition to mount the throne of Scotland. After this gruesome act, Macbeth degenerated into a state of metaphysical melancholy almost bordering on mental incapacitation. He started to hear voices at night. He could no longer sleep. Senator Ningi may not have been propelled by inordinate ambition, but like Macbeth, he is now probably hearing voices at night, having already been suspended for three months. He has stirred the hornet’s nest and his honourable colleagues would have none of it.

Distinguished Senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi representing Bauchi Central senatorial district under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party had alleged that the 2024 budget being implemented by the President Tinubu-led executive arm of government is N28.7 trillion whereas what was approved by the National Assembly was N25 trillion. In effect, he was quoted as insinuating that the budget was padded with a surplus of over N3 trillion which cannot be accounted for. In an interview, Ningi had claimed that the Federal Government is operating two versions of the 2024 budget and that the N28.7 trillion budget passed and signed into law by President Bola Tinubu was skewed against the North. Further allegations were made that some senators were given as much as N500 million for constituency projects while some got far less than that, an indication that “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. The implication of Ningi’s suspension is that he would forfeit all his house privileges and entitlements within the period of the suspension.

Now, Ningi may have been dealt a bloody nose, and he would naturally feel hard done by. But did he actually murder sleep like Macbeth? Was the allegation true or false? Was the budget actually padded; and if so, for what purpose?

First, what exactly is budget padding? From standard records, it is defined as ‘a situation in which a budget is made bigger than the original estimate through an increase in the value of items or the introduction of new items into the budget. It occurs when individuals or departments request more resources than they actually need with the intention of using the surplus for other purposes. This is considered unethical practice as it can distort resource allocation, create inequity and disaffection, leading to inefficiency in resource management.’

By this singular act of accusing his honourable colleagues to the point of fingering the 15th President of the Nigerian Senate, Distinguished Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio CON, as the kingpin of the so-called padding, Ningi seemed to have upset the applecart beyond utterance. ‘How dare you eat your cake and have it; a piece of cake that fell from the president’s table? You must be the Macbeth of modern Nigeria!’ That is the voice Ningi is probably hearing at night right now. To his opponents, that allegation amounted to taking political sagacity — or shall we call it political recklessness? — to the extreme. In its reaction to the allegation, the PDP called on the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, to step down, stating that “he is not fit to continue as senate president”.

Looking at it from a moral or ethical point of view, George Plunkitt, a high-ranking political leader in New York City, about a century ago, was cited as having made a distinction between what has now become ethical padding and unethical padding, or what experts of that era referred to as “soft corruption” and “criminal corruption”. Plunkitt categorized it into “honest graft” and “dishonest graft”. Brendan Byrne, one time governor of New Jersey, went further to capture the distinction thus: “If somebody wants a permit from a local government, and he goes to the mayor and gives him $10,000 cash in an envelope, he’s guilty of a crime. But if he handles it right and makes a campaign contribution, which is perfectly legal, it gets him exactly the same result.” This line of thought may have informed the counterclaim by the anti-Ningi camp that there was indeed no such thing as padding in the 2024 Appropriation. So what actually happened? Was it Plunkitt’s “honest graft” that Senator Akpabio and his men were alleged to have committed? Can one say categorically that Senator Akpabio had ulterior motive if he considered it expedient to joggle the budget in order to achieve equity? After all, he has a duty as President of the Senate to ensure that the budget is balanced and implementable.

But away from the dialectics of honest and dishonest graft or ethical and unethical padding, the fact remains that padding is padding. And in the present case, the nation’s commonwealth has been tampered with in a manner unbecoming of honourable men. To make matters worse, the entire issue was handled in such a manner that, as one of the senators put it, the house proceeded “to wash their dirty linen in public”, thereby further tarnishing the image of the Nigerian legislature.

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Of course, Ningi should have known that the old bugaboo of banana peels, impeachment and suspension was always lurking around the hallowed chambers waiting for a victim, and here he was with his eyes open, falling plump into its slippery jaws! From the days of ‘wise’ Okadigbo to ‘stubborn’ Saraki, the history of the Nigerian Senate is replete with sobering experiences of legislators who had suffered the wrath of their colleagues for daring to touch the untouchables. Even Nnamdi Azikwe, Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo with all the armoury in their political war chest could not have plunged themselves into such a fatal suppuku as Ningi appeared to have done! They would have slept no more in the Parliament of their time which, of course, was not a place for political neophytes.

Be that as it may, from the point of view of patriotism, many commentators believe that what Senator Ningi did was to prick the conscience of the nation, rightly or wrongly. Looking at it from that perspective, he might well be a misunderstood patriot. Otherwise, how could he have thrown spanners in the works of the hallowed chambers in which he has been an active participant, thereby shooting himself and his colleagues in the foot, as it were? He does appear to cut the picture of a cow whose tail has been cut off by fate. Only the God he serves may be able to help him ward off flies from that wound. For citizens watching from the gallery, to accuse him of being self-righteous might just as well amount to beating the eye in order to spite the nose, which in itself is an exercise in futility. Ningi is certainly not a small fry in Nigerian politics, having served as Senate Deputy Majority Leader in the past. So, when he made the allegation, he knew he was playing with fire; but again, who would have done it better than an experienced insider? Of course, iron sharpeneth iron. It is the Senate that will purge itself of its own underbelly should any filth be found there; the electorate may cry foul, but the reality on ground is that voters whose lot has all along been short-circuited within the sorry sobriquet of “bloody civilians” inherited from the nation’s chequered military past cannot now be expected to exert the kind of influence necessary to chastise a legislature that is ‘still looking for clean water to flush its toilet’, so to speak.

Ningi may have the right to shout but as far as his political opponents are concerned, even if he must shout, he must do so with his mouth closed! Apparently, he is not that type of senator. Indeed, it might well be that he was truly sacrificing his own interest for the greater good of the entire nation.

There are cases in recorded history where leaders self-immolated in order to save the larger community. A perfect example is the Biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. It is recorded that Christ subjected himself to torture and death in exchange for the redemption of mankind, yet our world is filled with persons who do not want to know him. Similarly, in 1963, a certain seventy-three-year-old Vietnamese monk called Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death to draw the world’s attention to the atrocities that were going on against Buddhists in South Vietnam. Yasir ibn Amir, a close companion of Prophet Muhammad, and Sumayya his wife were both tortured to death for no other reason than their devotion to their Islamic faith.

So the point being made here, in the simplest of terms, is that something good can come out of a bad situation. In other words, padding or no padding, Ningi’s allegation, whether true or false, is another wake-up call for the legislature as well as the entire federal apparatus to redeem its image in a manner that engenders hope for a brighter future for the masses. As Charles Dickens said in his Tale of Two Cities, a “spring of hope” can spring from this “winter of despair”. Whether Senator Ningi and his honourable colleagues can seize the sad momentum created by this budget padding saga to rekindle that hope, only time will tell.

*Anthony-Spinks writes from Asaba, Delta State.