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Olusegun Adeniyi: Nigeria’s 2016 Zero Budget!

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It was just about three weeks after I assumed office as Spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007 when I received a memo from the office of the Permanent Secretary, State House, seeking the input of my department for the 2008 budget that was under preparation. Because both the Deputy Director and the Assistant Director for Information in my office were people I knew way back from my days as a State House Correspondent, I always deferred to their experience and wise counsel. For that reason, it was easy for me to learn very fast about how government works. The explanation for the memo was that I had the power to initiate project(s) that would be accommodated in the national budget.

At that period, I really had no idea on what my budgetary input should be and it took two other reminders for me to come up with one. Having been in Katsina with the president about three times by then, the idea I had was to build a presidential media centre in the state capital that would also include broadcasting facilities so that in the event that we were there and the president needed to address the nation, we would not have to rush back to Abuja. I left the details concerning the project and subsequent follow up with the State House budget office to my staff and I forgot about it. But several months later in May 2008, I received a visitor in my office who turned out to be a contractor. His mission was simple: to see how he could handle the building of the presidential media centre in Katsina that was already in the 2008 Appropriation Act under my department!

My discussion with the contractor was as interesting as it was sad for it revealed a lot, not only about the (mis)management of public expenditure, but also about what we call budget in our country. However, by then, it had dawned on me that for some inexplicable reasons, the late president preferred returning back to Abuja same day whenever we went to Katsina. Only on rare occasions did we spend more than a day. Besides, I was dealing with a principal who actually hated making any broadcast because, as he would say rather cynically, “this is not America”. So I had decided not to build what would amount to a wasteful monument in Katsina even though there was monetary provision for it in the budget.

Perhaps because of that experience, I paid more attention to the “envelope system” on which our annual national budget revolves and I learned several lessons about the culture of waste that we have institutionalized. That experience also made me to realize that all this talk about percentages of budget performance (or implementation) is utterly meaningless. For instance, that I didn’t undertake to build a media centre in Katsina quite naturally necessitated returning the money to the treasury by December 2008 but that could only have reflected negatively on “budget performance” that is predicated essentially on the amount of money spent from the entire sum appropriated for the fiscal year.

But what is even more interesting is that with the way our budget works, I could easily have proposed hosting “the first annual conference of African presidential spokesmen” (you find many of such conferences in the budget) so I could spend hundreds of millions of Naira buying vehicles. Or I could have located the presidential media centre in my village in Kwara State and say it would be for the training of journalists who cover State House! In Nigeria, you can rationalise anything and that explains how public officials locate projects in their villages even when such decisions make no real sense…
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The foregoing, taken from my piece, ‘The Illusion of Budget Performance’ published on this page on 28 November, 2013, demonstrates very clearly that we don’t do budget in Nigeria, we simply share and spend money. I provided evidence of that in an earlier piece, Budget War: Dysfunctional Envelope System, published on 9 August 2012, where I argued that the budgeting process in Nigeria “not only promotes waste but also undermines rigour and strategic thinking.”

That then explains my excitement when President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration came and his handlers said they would adopt the “Zero-Based Budgeting” method. To be honest, I didn’t (and still don’t) know what the concept means but I just felt it had to be something different from what we were doing. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be another of those empty propaganda for which this government is fast becoming notorious. To compound the situation, when you look at the items in the 2016 budget, you feel sorry for our country.

In the last one month, Nigerians have been treated to some interesting budget stories. First, from the National Assembly came the tale that the budget was “missing”. And then from Aso Rock, there were “revelations” of how some “budget cabal” sat down somewhere to rewrite the budget apparently after the president had signed off on it! The question you then ask yourself is: does it mean that the document was not read and vetted after this “cabal” had done their doctoring and before the president presented it to the National Assembly?

The proposals for the Villa are just too ridiculous. From the N214 million proposed for a cable linking a guest house generator house to the gate with another sum of N322 million for cable to the drivers’ restroom to N619 million allocated for the installation of electrical lighting and fittings to yet another N372 million for the installation of electrical distribution boards, the whole thing is very disturbing. But that sort of tardiness and frivolous spending are everywhere in the budget where you find scandalous sums of money voted for tables, chairs, cutleries, website update etc.

To compound the situation, ministers are now promising to send to the National Assembly the “authentic figures” from their respective ministry which then means that each one of them would now be rewriting the budget already presented by the president! But such ridiculous, even if panicky, reaction is understandable: Some of the items in the 2016 budget are so shameful that you wonder how a very important document could be treated with such carelessness.

I cannot remember the last time I agreed on any issue with the Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose but I totally concur with his summation that the 2016 budget bill is a national embarrassment.  A general overview reveals several issues which border on questionable purchases, curious consultancy services, seeming duplication of sub-heads, votes for projects already completed etc. The total for some of the ministries also come without the specific detailed projects. In the Ministry of Transportation, for instance, of the sum of N202 billion voted for capitals projects, only N146.67 billion was provided with detailed projects. The same goes for the ministry of agriculture and many others.

However, I want to believe the problem can be located in the rushed manner the budget was prepared since the ministers only took office mid November last year. I know the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma, very well. He is not only a stickler for doing things properly, he is also a former lawmaker who has been involved in the budgeting process. That perhaps explains why, rather than resort to some cock and bull story as some others are doing, his ministry has taken responsibility for the errors, blaming the development on the adoption of the Zero-Based Budgeting System, rather than some imaginary “cabal”.

In a statement by its Director of Information, Mr. Charles Dafe, the ministry of budget and planning explained that those responsible for budgeting at the various ministries, departments and agencies of government were still grappling with some of the technicalities used in the fiscal document. Since budgeting is a process and not an event, all those issues can be sorted out with the relevant committees of the National Assembly so the situation is not without redemption.

However, as I once argued on this page, because the essence of budgeting is forward planning, it takes three years to complete the process for one fiscal year in more organised societies–a year to formulate, another to legislate, and yet another to execute. It is therefore my hope that the controversy surrounding the current exercise will ginger more serious work so that by next year, we can begin to have a proper budget that will align with the needs and aspirations of Nigerians and would not be another exercise in “cut and paste”, apology to Professor Chukwuma Soludo!

The ‘Prophet Elijah Complex’

In my piece, “Not a Trump Card” published on this page on 21 January this year, I wrote: “…whatever we may feel about (Donald) Trump, who has a penchant for making irresponsible remarks, we must also recognize that in Nigeria, we also criminalise ourselves a lot. Wherever President Muhammadu Buhari goes, he talks about corruption in our country, which is fair enough, but he has never spared a sentence in praise of majority of our people who are honest, hardworking and for whom you cannot impute corruption. That sort of one-sided narrative from our number one citizen has to change.”

Last week, the London Telegraph published a story with the headline: “Nigerians’ reputation for crime has made them unwelcome in Britain, says country’s president”. The story, which immediately provoked outrage among many Nigerians, especially those in the Diaspora, has as its rider: “Muhammadu Buhari tells Telegraph that too many Nigerians are in jail abroad – and that they shouldn’t try to claim asylum”.

The publication generated instant reaction from many Nigerians who created the hashtag, “#NigeriansAreNotCriminals” and the presidency has had to clarify what President Buhari meant and the context in which he spoke. Any fair-minded person who has read the complete text of the interview will agree that the president did not criminalise all Nigerians. But then, the conclusion also is that it goes in tandem with his one-sided narrative which has failed to highlight the fact that while we may have some unscrupulous citizens (as do other countries) majority of our people are honest and hardworking.

In a satirical piece I did on 20th August last year,The Wives Are Going on Recess, I hinted that the president might be suffering from what I described as ‘Prophet Elijah Complex’. I took the idea from the Biblical story in First Kings, Chapter 19 when Prophet Elijah thought he was the only person living right until God revealed to him that there were 7,000 other righteous people who equally refused to bow before the idols of the time.

I am not trying to diminish the challenge before President Buhari or the mess he met on ground. But it is neither helping us as a nation nor advancing his own cause to continue to harp on the negatives in Nigeria without also speaking on the goodness of the vast majority of our people. The president has to find a way of balancing his rhetoric by remembering– whenever he must speak–the honest Nigerians, both at home and in the Diaspora, who are making positive contributions not only to our country but to our world.

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