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Budget 2016: Matters Arising


Alabi Williams

Alabi Williams

This is December and it ought to be time to retire Budget 2016, except that those implementing it are not really sure where they are on the matter. Nobody in government is bold enough to give accurate figures of what percentage of it has been disbursed. The reason is that there is not much on ground to tie figures to, in terms of who got what, when and for what service? And that is not the only trouble with the budget; timing is another issue.

When it was generally agreed that the budget had come too late, after the delay it suffered in the hands of ‘padders,’ Speaker Yakubu Dogara promised that its terminal date would be May 2017, to enable it enjoy the normal course of 12 months, and he suggested the need for a recalibration of the appropriation year to run from the time a budget is signed and becomes operative, rather than the January to December yearly fiscal plan. That was the understanding and citizens did not argue.

But when the Presidency on October 21, was upbeat to announce that it had pegged January 1 as commencement date for implementation of Budget 2017, it sounded like there was some confusion up there. That announcement was credited to the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate) Ita Enang, when he told newsmen that the President had forwarded the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper, MTEF & FSP to the National Assembly, prelude to the presentation of the 2017 Appropriation Bill for consideration and approval. He also said the projected total budget for the 2017 fiscal year was N6, 866,335,052,740. No concrete details had been provided on the level of implementation of the outgoing budget, but everyone is in a hurry to introduce Budget 2017.

That same Fiscal Strategy Paper Enang spoke so gleefully about had to be returned to the Presidency for being vacuous and lacking essential details. Legislators were furious at the level of ‘incompetence’ being demonstrated by the executive. Some commentators say the legislators were trying to pay back on some political matters, but that to me is far from the point. The budget is far too serious to be toyed with or to be used as bait to harass and intimidate. It clearly underscores how disorganised and clueless the party in government has been on management of the economy.

On details of how far they have gone with implementing the 2016 Appropriation Act, the most we heard was when Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun, announced purportedly at the end of September that N3.9tr of the N6.1tr budget had been released. But there was no breakdown of how the funds were disbursed. When business reporters tried to scrounge for details in order to inform the public, they met a system that is not ready for change. Ordinarily, there ought to be a quarterly budget implementation report. There was none. The Budget Office told newsmen to go to Finance Ministry for the details, and Finance Ministry begged for time. That was in September.

On capital releases, the Finance Minister announced in September that N700bn had been expended on projects, but without details. Checks at the Budget and National Planning Ministry for details drew blank, as officials said it is Finance Ministry that is responsible for releases. I am saying that there is financial opaqueness in this government and such could make the fight against corruption tougher. Even in the days of the PDP, as blighted as the party was, there was at least some due process in place that enabled interested members of the public track what government was doing with public funds. In those days, civil society experts who tracked and monitored budgets were all over the place. They engaged the process and citizens awareness on issues of transparency and accountability were heightened. These days, it appears many have lost verve; I don’t want to say they are scared to put this government on the anvil. The other time one civil society body dared to score this government abysmally low on its campaign promises after 100 days, a spokesperson of government took umbrage at that presentation, alleging that it was politically sponsored. Since then, efforts to put this government on its toes have been largely conciliatory, apart from elements in the social media whose effusions are raw and uncensored.

The point really is that this government belongs to all of us. If it is well with this government, it is well with all Nigerians. And we must be bold to speak with facts, so that government can serve citizens better. Budget 2016 was touted to be a rescue mission to release and salvage Nigerians from the stranglehold of poverty and diseases. It was the highest budget in the history of the country, never mind that devaluation has nearly severed it by half. The presentation of the budget in the Green chamber of the National Assembly on December 22, 2016 was regal. President Buhari was at his best, as he showcased his new attributes of a newly converted democrat. He demonstrated that he was retooled for the task at hand and was committed to working peacefully with the legislature. Details of the budget were so reassuring that even those on the other side were converted and fell in love with Mr. President.

For instance, at a time citizens waited breathlessly to know their fate regarding fuel pump price, Buhari put to shame speculators, and announced that petrol was to remain at N87. He did not stop at that. He promised unconditional free education to students of science, technology, as well as, education in our tertiary institutions. What else should we ask for? The huge capital outlay of N1.8tr rekindled hope that infrastructure would receive serious attention for the first time in many decades.

Pre-budget preparations were equally very assuring. Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo was equally upbeat, posturing in flowery legal knowledge and pastoral believability. He propounded the Zero Based budgetary template for 2016 and we believed him. According to him, there would be no room for waste, as every kobo is going to be planned for on the basis of need. There has to be a need that has to be matched with equal amount of fund. No more envelope system of budgeting, which allocated lump sums for ministries and departments without identifying any need. We thought we never had it so good.

But before Mr. President returned to Aso Villa, from the National Assembly after the budget presentation, we were told the entire document had been stolen or had disappeared. By the time it was returned, two or more versions of it were in circulation. It took time to identify which is which, by which time Nigerians were told the budget had been padded. That was how budget 2016 became afflicted and the economy never recovered from it. Instead of faithful adherence to its details, what we have seen and heard are deviations and failure to implement. Fuel price was jacked up from N87 to N145 and still counting. One free lunch for children in schools (Mr. VP’s Pet project) has become a mirage. Free education for students studying Science, Technology and Education now a no-go-area. Not even the courtesy of explanation of what went wrong, apart from implacable indulgence in blame game.

When it got exasperated, government thought what it needed to combat the economy was emergency laws. Reminded that the procurement process had been sufficiently improved by the previous government and that all it needed to do was block some loopholes, government now came up with the idea of virement. Virement in the last month of a fiscal year presupposes that zero budgeting had failed woefully. It means that needs assessment was poorly carried out in the first place. It means too that there is still no capacity in the MDAs to implement the budget.

Worse still, government announced last week that ‘experts’ would be brought in to monitor implementation of 2017 budget. That was how they told us that so-called experts were bought in to put together the 2016 budget.

It is not that citizens are not aware that oil prices have fallen and that production of crude is hampered by activities of angry Nigerians in the Niger Delta. We know all that, and are saying that Budget 2017 should be realistic. A budget is not a political campaign document.

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