Abuja — The much-contemplated closure of Nigeria's foreign missions may begin this year as the federal government yesterday unveiled a lean 2019 budget for them.
An insight into the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the missions presented to the Senate yesterday in Abuja showed that the money can only cater for 30 of the country's 110 missions.
This implies that the rest 80 missions spread across the globe will have zero-budget for the year.
For instance, in 2018 the federal government allocated N11.333billion to capital votes for the missions but cut it to N4.123billion in 2019, representing a reduction of N7.209billion or 64 per cent.
Worried officials of the ministry said that the amount can only cover 30 missions.
Already, many of the ambassadors serving in most of the missions are said to be unable to pay their children's school fees, rent, electricity, medical and other utility bills due to the paucity of funds.
The situation is worse at the headquarters of the ministry in Abuja where both volunteers and permanent members of staff are owed the sum of N4.9billion as entitlements.
This was the pathetic picture presented to members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The committee's vice chairman, Senator Shehu Sani (Kaduna Central), urged the ministry to seek an audience with President Muhammadu Buhari to reverse the ugly situation.
Shehu Sani said that it would be a shame for Nigeria that pride itself as the giant of Africa to keep paying rents for embassies 60 years after its independence.
During ministry's defence of its 2019 budget yesterday, the permanent secretary, Mustapha Suleiman, said that discussions were ongoing over the possibility of shutting down some of the missions.
The Directorate of Technical Aid Corps (TAC), Foreign Service Academy (FSA), Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR), National Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) and Directorate for Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTCA) are all under the supervision of the ministry.
Suleiman said that there was a rationalisation of local staff and their conversion to contract workers as a cost-saving measure to reduce personnel cost and avoid huge terminal benefits.
He said that the staff, worried that the they can hardly pay their health bills, are adopting the Global Health Insurance Scheme to address the situation.
Suleiman, who represented the minister at the budget defence session, spoke on the cost-saving and survival measures the ministry had embarked upon to keep the missions afloat.
He said: "The approval of the scheme will provide health insurance facilities for officers in our missions at an affordable cost; engagement with Nigeria Sovereign Wealth Fund for the redevelopment of the federal government properties abroad; rehabilitation and renting of properties not in use through public-private partnership arrangement; sharing cost for utilities with other agencies occupying the missions' building and the provision of intervention funds for missions under the service-wide vote."
Suleiman said that the N4.123billion capital votes proposed for the missions for 2019 out of the N7.6billion proposed for the entire ministry, can only cover 30 of the 110 missions abroad which are critically in need of better funding.
According to him, the N4.123billion capital votes proposed for the 110 missions abroad is a far cry from N11.333billion earmarked in 2018, signifying a reduction of N7.209bn or 64 per cent.
The permanent secretary also disclosed that agencies under the ministry have various challenges such as "inadequate funds to renovate dilapidated building structures, epileptic power supply and lack of adequate capacity building for staff.
Suleiman added that the foreign missions were facing inadequate funds for their officers' quarters which were in a dilapidated state, adding that "they have old representational cars begging for replacement; inadequate funds to pay school fees, medical and utility bills, rehabilitate/renovate residences, and insufficient funds to complete ongoing projects; insufficient funds for the payment of returning officers who have finished their missions."
He said: "Mr. Chairman, permit me to state that the 2019 budget is based on the call circular for the preparation of the year 2019 budget, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its agencies were given a ceiling of N7.616billion for capital while overhead was pegged at 2018 appropriation level."
The permanent secretary also listed one of the "operational issues as insufficient funds to maintain the ministry's building/structure (Tafawa Balewa House)" at the headquarters.
"The ambience of a diplomatic environment mirrors the attention a country accords its diplomacy. The ministry with its magnificent edifice struggles to maintain the facility in the full glare of accredited diplomats to the country," he said.
On the epileptic power supply, Suleiman said that the ministry was unable to use its generating sets due to the debt issues which continue to loom over the years.
"Debts owed have not enabled the ministry to access the potential of its telecommunication capabilities. This has affected communication with our missions and ministries departments and agencies (MDAs).
"It becomes imperative to state that at the headquarters, the inadequate releases of overheads left the ministry with a debt burden of N1.7biliion in respect of staff entitlements and services rendered by third parties. Similarly, the ministry is indebted to the tune of N3.219billion on postings," he said.
This sums up the total debt of the ministry to its staff to about N4.9 billion.
Suleiman explained that the 2018 capital budget of N5.717billion as compared to the sum of N2.553billion in 2019 proposal means a reduction of N3.163billion (55 per cent).
"This will affect the operation of capital projects, postings and return entitlement of ambassadors and officers, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), African Union (AU) and contribution to international organisations and etc. For 2019, it is instructive to recall that in 2018 the sum of N2.499billion was appropriated under the sub-head of posting ambassadors and officers alone and yet it was inadequate to pay their entitlements and cost of tickets.
"Based on the ceiling for 2019, the ministry headquarters' capital budget is N2.553billion which would not be enough to handle posting and passages of ambassadors/heads of missions and officers. The implication of the sharp cut of ministry and the missions allocating would be in a dire strait unless this committee intervenes and allocates more funds," Suleiman said.
"Similarly, the missions' 2018 capital budget of N11.333billion as compared to 2019 capital budget proposal of N4.123billion has a reduction of N7.209billion which is 64 per cent.
"As a result of this, only 30 missions could be considered out of 110 missions for the purchase of representational cars, renovation/completion of ongoing projects while others in similar conditions had zero allocation in 2019 budget proposal", Suleiman added.
On the 2019 capital budget, Suleiman said that the total sum of N7.616billion was proposed for the ministry to cover capital projects for the headquarters, agencies and missions.
He continued: "The breakdown is as follows: MDAs' 2019 capital proposal - headquarters N2.553billion, agencies N940.060million, and missions N4.123billion. The total is N7.616billion.
"Distinguished senators it is pertinent to mention that the capital budget proposal for the ministry is grossly inadequate to cater for the line items. It is imperative to state that the budget ceiling brought down the capital budget from the 2018 appropriation level of N20.198billon to N7.618billion, a 62 per cent reduction. In particular, headquarters' 2018 capital budget of N5.717billion as compared to the sum of N2.553billion in 2019 proposal, means a reduction," the permanent secretary said.
Suleiman added that it was pertinent to mention that 2018 appropriation of the ministry i.e. headquarters, agencies and missions for capital and recurrent expenditures was N83.312billion made up of capital: N20.198billion and recurrent expenditures N63.113billion.
On the releases of 2018, Suleiman said that they came in two tranches, with the first received in September 2018 and the second in January 2019 which according to him, affected the ministry's operations
When asked by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Monsurat Sunmonu, if they would close down some missions, Suleiman replied that there were such possibilities."
He said: "There are ongoing discussions to close some missions. A committee has been set up," but cautioned that "it is more expensive to close a mission than to open it.
"It is very expensive because of the kind of investment you have put on the structure. We have been thinking about those possibilities. We attempted to reduce our presence in some of the countries," Suleiman said.
But Monsurat advised that the ministry must put into fore certain considerations before closing any mission.
"You have to put some things into consideration when you are collapsing," she said, warning that Nigerians abroad should not be submitted into hardships while pursuing passports, visas and other documents.
"We also need to understand those responsibilities for the country and the missions abroad. How do you pick and choose that 30 out of 110 missions are appropriately cater for? The committee chairman asked.
A member of the committee, Senator James Manager said that there were reasons for opening those missions.
"The number of missions increased to 110 but how do we fund them? The total budget is increasing every year but the ministry's budget is reducing. We must find a way of funding the gap. We will look at the budget wholistically and see how we can help," Manager said.
The vice chairman of the committee, Senator Shehu Sani said that the previous government and the present one had not been serious in funding foreign missions.
He said: "No responsible country will deliberately underfund its mission. Year in year out, budgets are presented and defended but things remain the same. Our diplomats have been subjected to all kinds of humiliation because we cannot or refused to fund our missions. We see what happened in Russia. Small countries are funding their missions but ours are not funded. No resources to pay their children fees and others. Sixty years after independence, we are still renting apartments for embassies. You can't claim to be the giant of Africa if you can't fund embassies," he said.