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Nigeria and the debacle of budgeting

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Another national budgeting season is in play. President Muhammadu Buhari, on Wednesday, December 19, 2018, presented to the parliament a budget of N8.83 trillion for the 2019 fiscal year. The session was characterized by such rowdiness that so rattled even the reticent President that he reminded everyone that the world was watching. The day after, the National Assembly adjourned plenary to January 16, 2019.

Expectedly, the skeptics are having a good laugh. It seems like another trip through a familiar terrain. When a hint of an early passage of the 2018 budget became public, skeptics, that is those who chose not to be indifferent, dismissed it as another posturing by the government to project an image of discipline. Ita Enang, Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters had proudly announced in September 2016 that the 2018 budget will be submitted to the National Assembly in October 2017. The October deadline, which Enang declared sacrosanct, was set by the Parliament, he said.

“The National Assembly will consider it between October and November (2017) and by December it would have been passed. The current budget will end in 12 months and having been signed on June 12, 2016, the budget is legally to run between June 12, 2017 and June 12, 2018. But the intention of the government is to make sure that the implementation date and assent will be for January 1, 2018 so that we will return the budget to the conventional January. This was a negotiated position between the executive and the legislature and in fact, the legislature is more anxious to get the budget passed by December and assented to in January,” Enang had declared then.

Well, President Buhari presented the 2018 budget to the Parliament on Tuesday, November 7, 2017. It was signed into law on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, six months beyond Enang’s projection. This was after so much squabbling between both arms of government. Bothering to assess whether the 2018 budget attained its goals, if any, would be an exercise in futility. Proshare, a foremost online media, captured the Nigerian budget debacle thus: “As a matter of fact, Nigeria operates a complex budgetary system, characterized by delays and inefficiencies, which often limits budget performance. For instance, since the year 2000, it takes an average of 130 days to pass the appropriation bill into law, from when it was presented to the National Assembly (NASS) by the President.”  Would the 2019 budget take a different course? Time will tell.

If the unruliness that characterized presentation of the 2019 budget is any indicator, then another rancorous fiscal year beckons. Already, President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, has dismissed the budget as hopeless and/or deceptive. Other factors are also in play. Campaigning for the 2019 general elections, billed to hold on February 16 and March 2, 2019, is in full swing. Nothing would be more important to a typical politician at this point than re-election. So, an early passage of the budget, based on precedents, is almost impossible, unless there is exceptional horse-trading across the aisle. Again, a substantial number of the legislators in the 8th assembly are not returning. So, they have no incentive to pass the budget, unless, again, there is very tempting stimulus, preferably in cash.

Essentially, there are a number of interest groups involved in the Nigerian budgetary process, all pulling from different ends for diverse reasons. To the National Assembly, it is a constitutional right and bestows a measure of substance in the governance equation. To have the President stoop before it elicits triumphalism, especially if you are the Buhari model. The current National Assembly is not controlled by the ruling party, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enforce party discipline. The parliament is also handed an opportunity to flaunt a subtle control of the executive while trumpeting the principle of separation of powers. They will move at their chosen speed. The executive arm naturally enjoys the prerogative of implementing the budge notwithstanding the oversight function of the parliament. Controlling the critical levers of power and authority, particularly the security services, revenue generating agencies and political patronage, confers further an edge on the executive as the most powerful arm of government. In an environment where absolute power resonates, such authority is often misapplied or abused.

President Buhari, from antecedents, would certainly not be enthusiastic about presenting a budget before a body of ‘corrupticians’ or people he considers deficient in patriotism and integrity. With or without budget, he will govern Nigeria. He merely undertakes the exercise just to fulfill democratic tenets and to present an appearance of adherence to economic management principles. The corporate world and international community represent another interest group. Believing that the document would provide a guide on economic policy and direction, they take a cue from it to make decisions. But because the Nigerian budget mostly operates in default, its only value lies in knowing that the expected has been done.

Contractors are another major interest group. To them, the budget is just a contract or cash dispensing machine. Most public officials have similar mindset. The contractors therefore study every line item with considerable diligence. As they have collaborators in the system, all they do is lobby for inclusion of preferred contracts or projects and subsequently trigger their execution. Once money is released, the job is done, executed or not. The collaborators will just get their cut. Consequently, the same line items are recycled every year. If a budget is an economic tool for resource allocation for actualization of developmental goals, then the Nigerian experience is wide off the mark. A thorough examination of a typical budget will reveal a disconnection between national development and projects or initiatives outlined in the budget. It is just a compilation of items detailing contracts to be awarded. The budget is based on amount of money released, not outcome or objective. Poverty, unemployment, inflation, health and education, among other goals which a typical budget should address, are left unattended. Oddly, public officials abhor the disclosure of budget performance. They assume that every contract or project represents development. But, across the country are hordes of abandoned projects embarked upon without assessment.

A standard budget is assessed by its key objectives, process efficiency and diligent execution of capital expenditure, not an avalanche of spurious contracts and padded recurrent expenditure. Suggestions have been made for legislation of the budgeting process in order to reduce delays and ensure focus on deliverables. That is yet to happen.  Nonetheless, with or without a budget, Nigeria’s Contract Teller Machine (CTM) will always dispense cash for as long as oil continues to flow from the Niger Delta.

Nwachukwu is a communications consultant, wrote from Lagos.


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