13 February 2016

Nigeria: Buhari Should Withdraw This Budget

Photo: Premium Times
(file photo).

The confusion that has trailed the consideration of the 2016 budget estimates of various Federal ministries and agencies by the National Assembly has been without parallel in recent times. Allegations of errors, padding up of figures, changing of whole ministries' budgets, smuggling of strange items and of ministers "disowning" their budgets all combined to create a feeling that this year's budget submitted to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari was a shoddy job indeed.

The confusion started last month with the allegation that the budget was "missing." The Presidency fuelled the rumour by saying that the National Assembly must produce the budget submitted to it. As it turned out, Buhari's Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters Ita Enang had printed copies of the budget that differed in some details from the one the president tabled at the Assembly. That serious infraction was somehow hushed up but then, a can of worms opened up as Assembly committees began considering the budget ministry by ministry.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Secondary Education headed by Senator Aliyu Wamakko said it found N10 billion "hidden" in the budget of the Education Ministry's parastatals. It said while the personnel cost for the ministry and all its subsidiaries including schools and colleges declined compared to that of last year, that of parastatals recorded a geometric progression by N10 billion. Minister of State for Education Prof Anthony Anwukah and the permanent secretary were told to "go back to the drawing board and come up with a more sensible overhead cost." However, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education Senator Binta Masi Garba later said the N10 billion padding discovered in the education budget was a typographical error and that the amount was meant for the Universal Basic Education Commission. What an error!

Another drama unfolded before when Health Minister Professor Isaac Adewole appeared before the Senate Health Committee and disowned his ministry's budget, saying it had been distorted and that strange figures were smuggled in. Adewole asked the committee to discard the budget before it and await a new one that he would resubmit, which he said would "reflect the programmes of the health sector in 2016." Adewole said some issues on which a conclusion had not been reached by the ministry got allocations in the budget without the ministry's knowledge while some important fields in the sector were excluded.

The same thing happened when Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohamed appeared for his budget defence. He disowned a provision of N398 million for the purchase of computers by his ministry. Lai said the provision for computers, tucked away in the budgets of News Agency of Nigeria [NAN] and Film and Video Censors Board, was "strange" to him. "No, that is not possible. That was definitely not what was proposed! This cannot be," the minister said.

Confusion also enveloped the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' budget defence when Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje objected to the N1.07 billion provided for "optic fibre and satellite space segment" and N50 million for "global communication network computer," saying enough money was provided in last year's budget to conclude those projects. The Foreign Ministry's minister, permanent secretary and director of finance all tried to dodge Ukeje's question and later said they did not think it was provided for last year but that they would go back and check. The Foreign Ministry also wants to spend N3.6billion in these lean times for "posting of ambassadors and other officers."

Last week, Presidency officials tried to extricate themselves from blame for all the confusion by planting a story in the newspapers claiming that civil servants were to blame for padding up budget figures and for trying to sabotage President Buhari's budget. Unnamed officials were quoted as saying that senior bureaucrats smuggled 6,000 unauthorised items into budget and that "bureaucratic resistance and entrenched systemic corrupt practices dogged every move of the presidency to produce proposals reflecting financial prudence and frugality." The unnamed officials further alleged that "the civil servants, on learning that the presidency was considering a large budget of possibly N8 trillion in order to significantly increase capital expenditure, brought a proposal of N9.7trn for overhead and capital spending alone" plus another proposal to spend N2.1trn on personnel.

This attempt by the Presidency to deflect blame to civil servants will not wash. Politicians are the ones elected to do this job and the buck stops at their desks. We are not holding brief for civil servants and it could very well be that they cooked up an endless number of recurrent budget items, as they are used to doing over the years. Yet, it is the duty of individual ministers, the Planning and Budget Minister and the President to ensure that the budget estimates submitted to the National Assembly faithfully reflect the elected government's priorities by doing away with frivolous items suggested by anyone along the way.

It is very embarrassing that not one, but several ministers should come before the National Assembly and disown their ministries' budgets. It is important to find out if the budgets the ministers now disown were actually part of the document that the president laid on the table before a joint session of the National Assembly in December. If they were, then the Presidency owes the National Assembly and all Nigerians an apology for doing a shoddy job of this all important national assignment.

As a result of this confusion, the National Assembly has said it is no longer feasible to pass the budget by February 25 as earlier planned. We agree with them. President Buhari should withdraw this budget and mobilise all his ministers and the Budget Office to go without sleep for two weeks if necessary to produce a neat and clean budget and resubmit it for consideration. Precious time has been lost but in the end, it is better to do a good job than to trudge on with this shoddy budget.

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