We need to get the federal budget right
The federal budget has become a frustrating experience for the country, the government and the people. On the face of it, we could suggest at least two reasons for the steady descent of the budget season into a mere routine. One, the late passage of the budget proposal submitted to the national assembly each year by the executive arm of government abridges the full implementation of the budget. This has consistently had a delirious effect on national development because proposed capital projects are left gathering dust on the shelves. The government is consequently reduced to doing no more than paying the salaries and allowances of its employees.
Two, each budget season witnesses needless arguments between the executive and the legislature on the projects that should be captured in the budget and at what cost to the nation. The legislators assume the right to increase the budget to take care of their constituency projects. The executive chafes at this, insisting that it amounts to the usurpation of its responsibilities by the national assembly. The argument brings the two elephants into the ring and our legitimate expectations under the national budget are trampled under their feet.
The constitution is never absent in matters of this nature. Both the constitution and convention impose on the executive the duty of preparing the budget. The constitution also gives the legislature the power of appropriation. This should merely mean that the legislature has powers to examine the budget proposal to ensure that the executive is not trying to either bite more than it can chew or even chew more than it can bite. The power of appropriation conferred on the legislature is found in Section 80, subsection 1-4 of the constitution. But the legislators feel they have a duty to do much more than that and so each year the budget submitted to the national assembly comes back to the executive branch fully inflated with more proposed capital projects. They throw the burden for finding the extra fund on the executive.
It is not just cynical; it is simply wrong, but it hews to the exercise of power as to which of the two arms of government has or should have the final say in the size and the shape of the national budget. Every president has had to deal with this nightmare since 1999 or so. We may find the spectacle of the two elephants in the ring amusing but when we stop laughing, we find these facts unsettling. President Buhari signed the 2016 budget into law on May 6, 2016; that of 2017 was signed into law on June 12 that year. And the 2019 appropriation bill was signed into law on May 26 this year. Thus, each year since 2016, the federal government has had only six months to implement its annual budget. About 60 per cent of the capital vote in this year’s budget would be rolled over to the 2020 budget. And that is official. Now, you know why the road the government promised to build in your community this year became a mirage.
The executive and the national assembly think there is a solution to this and that it lies in returning the country to the January-December fiscal year. This is now under serious discussion. It may well be the solution but there are more fundamental problems associated with why the passage of the budget is unduly delayed by the legislature. To be fair, I do not think the national assembly is entirely to blame. The executive actually carries the larger portion of the blame. If the entire process is not revamped the mere change in the budget circle would disappoint our expectations by failing to break the vicious circle.
The first step is to give the budget its pride of place in our national development. A national budget is much more than the reeling out of financial allocations to ministries and ministerial departments. In the past, the announcement of the federal budget came with changes in fiscal and monetary policies usually explained by the minister of finance a day after the big man formally presented the budget to the people or to their legislative representatives. It is the blueprint for national development. Capital projects raise the hope of the people in the ability of the government to do well by them. Businesses too cue into the federal budget in planning their various budgets and formulating their business plans for the immediate future. Indeed, state governments announced their budget proposals after the federal government did. We need to get back to that because we need to know government plans in a given year for the current and future national development focus.
The second step is to cure the pronounced tardiness on the part of the executive in preparing and submitting the budget to the national assembly. It has consistently submitted the budget proposal rather late each year. This tardy or leisurely approach to something as critical as this to our national development is inexcusable. It is the duty of the executive to give the legislature enough time to do their job and pass the budget on time for it to fully implement it.
The third step is to deal with the corruption in the system itself. I would be surprised if anyone thought this was news. The problem here is that the ministerial departments and agencies inflate the budget each year by smuggling unapproved items into it before it is submitted to the national assembly. They do this usually but not exclusively by duplicating approved items in a way they believe would not be found out. In the 2016 budget proposal for instance, 55 agencies and departments smuggled 276 such items into the budget. Were they not discovered, government would have been forced to spend some N145 billion on them. No chicken feed, obviously, even in a crude oil rich nation.
At least two ministers have been embarrassed by such smuggled items into the budgets of their respective ministries and promptly disowned them. In 2016, Isaac Adewole, the then minister of health, withdrew the budget proposal of his ministry from screening by the national assembly when he found, to his horror and embarrassment, that his capital expenditure proposal of N15.7 billion had been diverted to areas strange to him. Similarly, in 2017, Babatunde Fashola, minister of power, works and housing, disowned a strange N2 billion item in the budget proposal of his ministry. He was also forced to withdraw it from screening by the national assembly. It is quite possible that similar things happened in some other ministries where they had better luck.
The fourth step is for the executive and the legislature to come to a tidy agreement on the controversial constituency projects. The lawmakers at federal and state levels regard these projects as their people’s share of their national cake. The attraction lies in the fact that a lawmaker is allowed to nominate the contractor for his constituency project. You do not need me to tell you what that means to both parties.
The problem is that the constituency projects are roundly abused by crooked lawmakers who connive with their handpicked contractors to cheat the people. No president or governor can now make these so-called projects history by refusing to provide for them in their annual budgets. They may have become part of our political culture, but something has to give. Their egregious abuse by the legislators is a good enough reason to remove them from the budgets, federal and state. Every budget provides for capital projects in the various states, geo-political zones and local government areas. It is the business of a lawmaker to lobby the executive to attract a capital project to his area without the government necessarily dashing him some money for the so-called constituency projects.
My fifth suggestion is that we need a radical approach to our national development with a more comprehensive planning and focus than what is captured in the annual budgets. We must return to the five- or ten-year national development. It is the road map to our national development. Every nation has one. With such a plan in place, the federal and state governments would easily cue into it every year in their annual budget plans. There is nothing strange about this. General Yakubu Gowon’s second national development plan, written by Nigerians in 1974 still excites those who read it by its breadth as well as its intelligent and pragmatic approach to the execution of its four cardinal principles aimed at turning Nigeria into the country of our dreams.
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