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Buhari, budget, BudgIT, and Nigerians

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari leaves after addressing delegates at the start of a conference to tackle corruption at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London on May 11, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari leaves after addressing delegates at the start of a conference to tackle corruption at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London on May 11, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL

“The budget is intended to signpost a renewal of our commitment to restoring the budget as a serious article of faith with the Nigerian people… Through the 2016 budget, aptly titled ‘Budget of Change,’ the government seeks to fulfil its own side of the social contract.” – President Muhammadu Buhari, May 6, 2016.

Contrary to the general feeling that we can now heave a sigh of relief with the signing into law of the 2016 Appropriation Bill, I believe that we have now entered into the toughest stage of the budget process: implementation.

A good budget signed into law with poor implementation is a huge failure. That is why the whole mechanism for implementing the budget matters. Since most of the implementation passes through the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government, there ought to be an inter-ministerial synergy signalling the collective commitment of all heads and members of government bureaucracy towards making the 2016 budget work.

Tied to the effective implementation of the budget is the willpower to continue the fight against corruption, wherever it exists and whichever guise it assumes. Corruption is the single most critical factor that destroys any budget, because it diverts funds meant for both recurrent expenditures and capital projects into private pockets. Through corner cutting, sharp practices, and project cost inflation, corruption makes nonsense of a government’s commitment to improve the welfare of the people through the budget. Here is why all hands must be on deck.

Since the budget, as President Buhari has said, is “a serious article of faith with the Nigerian people,” a signpost of the social contract between the government and the people, both “contractors” must fulfil their part in making the budget achieve its desired effect.

President Buhari hinted at the intrinsic connection between budget implementation and fighting corruption in his remarks at the signing of the 2016 Appropriation Bill into Law on May 6, 2016.

He said: “Our determined fight against corruption is resulting in improvements in the quality of public expenditure. The work of the Efficiency Unit, as well as other public financial management initiatives, is also contributing in this regard.” To push this pledge from rhetoric to reality, there ought to be greater openness, transparency and accountability on the part of the government in enforcing the proper mechanisms of generation, disbursement and utilisation of public funds.

On the part of the Nigerian people, there ought to be seen a commitment to effectively scrutinize and carefully ‘police’ how public funds are spent. Here is where civil society can offer a great service to the Nigerian people.

In his research paper, “Budget Analysis and Policy Advocacy: The Role of Non-Governmental Public Action” (2006), Mark Robinson, a research fellow and governance team leader of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, examines the impact of independent budget analysis and advocacy initiatives that are designed to improve budget transparency and government expenditure priorities.

Robinson’s research findings draw upon six case studies of independent budget groups in Brazil, Croatia, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Uganda, including non-governmental organisations, research institutions and social movements. “The findings demonstrate that the most significant impacts achieved by independent budget groups include improvements in the transparency of budgetary decisions and the budget process; increased budget awareness and literacy; and enhanced engagement in the budget process on the part of legislators, the media and civil society organisations. While the structure of the budget process makes substantial changes in expenditure priorities difficult to achieve, budget groups can directly contribute to positive impacts on budget allocations and implementation.”

“The case study findings provide evidence that the analysis carried out by independent budget groups can directly lead to positive improvements in budget policies. The documented impacts take the form of increased allocations of budgetary resources for reproductive health in Mexico, child support grants in South Africa, and tribal development expenditure in Gujarat, India.

These important precedents demonstrate that budget advocacy has the potential to influence decisions to introduce new programmes and to leverage additional financial resources for programmes that have already received legislative sanction.”

According to Robinson, civil society groups can help “to improve budget outcomes through advocacy work designed to influence budget priorities (allocations between major items of expenditure), the quality of implementation (the targeting of expenditures and the proportion of the allocation actually expended) and the utilisation of expenditures (how far budget allocations translate into physical outcomes, and the efficiency and effectiveness of expenditures).” This only goes to show that civil society plays a great role in promoting social awareness, understanding of public budget processes and broadening of societal participation.

In Nigeria, no other civil society group fulfils this role of an effective watchdog in budget analysis and advocacy like BudgIT, “a civic organisation that applies technology to intersect citizen engagement with institutional improvement to facilitate change.”

Founded in 2011, its work is the meeting point of modern digital technological tools, data, and social advocacy in “matters of public spending for citizens, with the primary aim of raising standard of transparency and accountability in government.”

It is helping ordinary Nigerians on the streets to understand the mechanics of the budget in a way that the Ministry of Budget and National Planning is not even doing. Its work is thus a powerful way to empower citizens to use budget data and information in demanding improved service delivery.

In addition to efforts to influence budget policy, independent budget groups undertake a range of activities designed to promote awareness of budgets, improve budget transparency, and deepen participation in the budget process. Awareness-building work mainly focuses on legislators and civil society groups with a view to improving understanding of the importance of budgets as a critical policy instrument and building budget literacy among a range of actors in political and civil society. Budget groups carry out these activities through training and capacity-building initiatives to broaden the actors and organisations that are engaged in deliberations on budget priorities.

In many developing countries only a small proportion of legislators and ordinary citizens are actively involved in budget debates, partly on account of limited understanding of the significance of the budget and unfamiliarity with technical content. Budget groups assist legislators and citizens in becoming more conversant with budgets in several ways: by organising special training seminars, providing information about budget policies in an accessible form, and responding to queries about the nature and content of budget proposals.

The positive impact of this kind of work is that is nurtures an army of informed citizens who can take a more active role in budget articulation, debates and implementation. The goal of this initiative is to hold government and public decision-makers to account.

As we enter this toughest stage of the budget process, so much responsibility lies on the shoulders of the President. Interestingly, President Buhari understands this. Nothing reveals this better than the closing paragraphs of his remarks at the signing into law of the 2016 Appropriation Bill: “We are working night and day to diversify the economy so that we never again have to rely on one commodity to survive as a country. So that we can produce the food we eat, make our own textiles, produce most of the things we use. We intend to create the environment for our young people to be able to innovate and create jobs through technology.”

Finally, he said: “I cannot promise you that this will be an easy journey, but in the interest of so much and so many we must tread this difficult path. I can assure you that this government you have freely elected will work with honesty and dedication, day and night to ensure that our country prospers and that the prosperity benefits all Nigerians.”

A man who can make bold to say that, “living in State House does not in any way alienate me from your daily struggles. I read the newspapers and listen to the TV and radio news. I hear your cries. I share your pains,” demands our principled support and admiration.

Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (emmaojeifo@yahoo.com).


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