11 November 2012

Nigeria: Budget Benchmark Wahala


At the beginning of last week, the drums of war appeared to have subsided and the warriors on both ends seemed to have retreated to their bases.

One almost concluded that good reason had been allowed to prevail and the sleeping dogs left to lie peacefully. This assumption was further reinforced by the silence that greeted the appeal of the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala when appeared before the House Committee on Loans Aids and Debts last Tuesday. Okonjo-Iweala had at that interaction with the parliamentarians appealed to them not to play politics with the issue of oil benchmark as, according to her, it was purely a technical and professional issue.

About 24 hours latter, a response came from the Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Zakary Mohammed and it was as forceful as ever.

"Our position on the oil benchmark of $80 still stands. I heard somebody said we are politicising it but they have not adduced any technical reasons for us not to consider $80 per barrel.

We did not just come from the blues to recommend $80 per barrel. We have consulted those that should be consulted and we still insist on it.

"We have chartered accountants and economists of even better standing that some of those who believe that they have the monopoly of knowledge to run this government.

We are not fighting anybody but we are constructively engaging ourselves and all arms of government for the development of Nigeria,"he said.

This latest outburst is unfortunate because it means that the fate of the 2013 budget is still hanging in the balance one month after it was laid before the National Assembly. If both the legislature and the executive continue this dialogue of the deaf, the bickering will have no end and the phenomenon of late passage of the budget will catch up with us again.

As if a delayed budget was not enough, there were allegations that the legislators have been foot -dragging on the budget in anticipation of some financial inducement from the executive. But the spokesman of the House has also dismissed it as sheer blackmail. He said that the demand for a higher benchmark was not intended to benefit the lawmakers but to ensure the growth of the economy.

"At no time did the House demand for money from anybody. We have not asked and we will not ask anybody for money. If that is the blackmail, they are getting it wrong. We will keep insisting that the right things be done in this budget.

"I challenge whoever has a clue to such a demand to come out and tell us that XYZ lawmaker asked for money for certain things to be done and were not given hence we are taking this time and dragging feet on the budget," Mohammed said.

It is clear that both sides are throwing punches across the table while the budget process is on pause. It is pertinent to point out that the benchmark has become a storm in a tea cup. Experts have pointed out that the 2013 budget like the ones before it, is full of leakages and wastages arising from our perennial culture of budgeting for unnecessary items in order to siphon the funds allocated to such items. So far, neither the executive nor the legislature has devoted time to screen the budget in order to eliminate these leaking points. We hope that these altercations will not make this budget and the citizenry the ultimate victims of an ego war.

Constitutional Dialogue

The move to amend the Constitution gained momentum during the week with the formal flag off of the "Peoples Public Sessions" at the House of Representatives. The flag off was a prelude to the actual interaction between the legislature and the people at the grass roots billed to take place in all the 360 Federal Constituencies in Nigeria.

However, there were some dissenting voices in the audience. The Nigeria Bar Association(NBA) and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) raised objections to the procedure. The NBA requested the National Assembly to subject the amendments to a referendum and the House overruled that suggestion on the grounds that there is no referendum in the procedure prescribed in the Constitution.

NBA fired back, challenging the House to show constitutional foundation for its town hall approach if, as the House claimed, the referendum option had no place in the 1999 Constitution.

On its own part, ASUU expressed support for a people oriented constitution but argued that the piecemeal review of a military Constitution decreed into force at the dawn of democracy would not address the problems of Nigeria.

The ivory tower union demanded an entirely new Constitution that will be devoid of all traces of the military.

Again, Speaker of the House, Hon Aminu Tambuwal fired back and asked ASUU to consider the fate of several Nigerian universities that were also established by military decrees. Should these universities be shut down and all the degrees awarded by them annulled because we are now in a democracy? Indeed, it was fire for fire.

Financial Autopsy

The Public Accounts Committee in the House of Representatives has been engaged in what appears like a financial autopsy.

The Committee has apparently been dormant for a long time and woke up suddenly with the coming of the 7th * Assembly. Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Hon. Solomon Adeola disclosed that the committee has successfully considered reports of the Auditor General of the Federation dating back as far as 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. It is now ready to lay before the House a 1200 page report of more than 700 recommendations regarding the activities of over 60 agencies of the Federal Government that have been indicted by the Auditor General's Report.

Now the tragedy is that these querries were issued against the backdrop of actions taken or not taken by public servants many of whom may no longer be in the public service. It includes ministers, permaÑent secretaries, directors and other cadres. Many have retired, some may have died or moved on to other positions in other agencies of government. Probing the financial transactions of the MDAs is desirable but why did we have to wait this long? Maybe it is a ploy to ensure that those who looted the public treasury lived happily ever after enjoying their loot.

We await the opening of this can of worms but a post moterm never brings back the dead.

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