A Nation’s Budget Blues
EARLY in my career, I was invited to dinner by my Second Republic state governor, Professor Ambrose Alli. I was to share his company at table with two major pillars of my profession, both now deceased: Tom Borha (Tom Bee) and Aikhen Uduehi.
The invitation came as a surprise: I was barely one year old as a journalist. But I wrote two columns per week, and had perhaps attracted some attention.
The professor said he wanted our counsel on the affairs of the state. Had I been with my own friends, I would have had tears running down my face with laughter. My counsel?
The governor swiftly put my worries aside, asserting upon learning I had come for the food that if he didn’t respect my opinion I would not have received his invitation.
He had a few of his officials, notably his leading speechwriter, present. For the discussion that followed, however, we could not but notice that gentleman as he spent most of the time sleeping in a corner.
Professor Alli was in Lagos to confront the federal government of the ruling National Party of Nigeria over its environmental policies in the south of the State. His hostile press statement in that regard was ready for his use the following morning.
But none of the journalists he had invited to dinner supported him. We thought that although the press conference would yield wonderful headlines, it was guaranteed not to yield what the state needed: federal reversal of its activities. We told him that if that was what he wanted, it was not worth the cost of a trip to Lagos.
I was not used to the ways of power, but Governor Alli agreed with us and following a spirited discussion, woke up his Director of Information as we and demanded that a replacement speech be prepared for the press conference in a few hours.
Evidently, that speechwriter could not have been happy with his boss’ dinner guests, but what I learned was how quickly an official position could change.
I do not know if Professor Alli had a chance to review the new draft, but he did deliver a conciliatory statement that yielded the policy shift that was more important than politicking.
I learned that a busy chief executive can step up to a speech podium with a prepared address he may not have read ahead of time, confident it is the speech he wants to make. In theory, that is.
In practice, is that what happened to the 2016 Appropriation Bill President Muhammadu Buhari sent to the National Assembly in December?
Few budget proposals in history have been as scandalous in preparation, presentation, substance or management.
Advertised as ‘The Budget of Change,’ it has emerged as ‘The Budget of Shortchange’ and an embarrassing exposure of poor control in the administration.
Here is a budget prepared as the anti-budget, as the antithesis of budgets preceding it: a document supposed to demonstrate an emerging and better Nigeria but which, instead, showcases where top members of their administration intend to lounge and luxuriate.
Here is a budget prepared for implementation on the basis of foreign loans but which turns out to be loaded with priority confusion, with the presidency the focus of proposals that would have embarrassed even a PDP government led by Lawrence Anini, Nigeria’s most famous armed robber.
As last week progressed, there were indications that the document was being disowned by the administration. At least two Ministers had publicly questioned the proposals for their Ministries. Within the presidency, voices were whispering words of sabotage.
The budget is a large document. The breakdown by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), available at http://tinyurl.com/h9pqe5l, is 1810 pages long.
Long, but not interminably so. In addition to a full review by the presidency, this is a document that could and should have been thoroughly and professionally reviewed block by block at the Ministerial level, but appears not to have been.
That it could have been sent to the National Assembly with such amateur duplication and padding is inexplicable. This is indefensible, especially for a government, which came to power wielding the broom as a symbol of its determination to sweep clean.
The kindest thing that can be said about what has happened here is that, despite all of the expression of intent at the top levels of the administration, the structure for change has yet to be put in place.
In other words, the lesson here is that the yam-and-goats era may be gone but the goats have not been informed.
That leaves the truth to be told: We can blame the rats and goats as much as we like, but an Appropriation Bill is not a dinner address or a speech to the Nigeria Bar Association. It is a political, philosophical and economic summary that contains elements of all of the other speeches that came before it.
That is why it includes actionable numbers. Those numbers should not alarm the citizenry. That is what this budget has done.
It is sufficiently shameful, for instance, that the same popular Toyota Hilux van that the Gashaka Gumti National Park wants to buy for N1.2 million is the same model the Foreign Service Academy wants to buy for N15.9m and the Federal Government Girls’ College, Kazaure, for N27.6m, after all, these are relatively low-profile institutions. With Kazaure’s money, Gashaka would buy 23 vans!
Here is what is worse: when the presidency wants N3.8 billion for the State House Medical Centre, along with N308 million for a new VIP wing in the facility; N436m for feeding and related items; 22m for Aso Rock “rent”; N904m for new cars; and N387.9m for renovation of the Aso Rock Guest House, these numbers are a loud confession that nobody read the budget that was presented to the National Assembly.
Furthermore, while this budget also curiously provides for nearly N5million for books for the Vice-President, the 2015 provided N7.5 million for the same purpose.
In other words, there is something else these numbers also say: that this is how business has been done on federal and state budgets in the past.
However, this budget draft came about, it is an insensitive and embarrassing eye-opener and a public relations disaster, and the presidency must accept responsibility for it, and work hard to reclaim public confidence.
The National Assembly comes must scrutinize the document closely and rid it of all malfeasance.
And if the executive insists that this nonsense is not of its making, it must not only break up and reinvent the system that makes it possible, it should interrogate all recent federal budgets, and recoup all of the loot.