Nigeria: Borne On Odd Names, Cross River Budgets Deliver Emptiness

2 December 2019

Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Bassey Inyang write that Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State has reduced the candid fiscal procedure for improvement of the socioeconomic wellbeing of the people to an annual comedy

Many indigenes and residents of Cross River State would be happy to live and work in an environment where everything works. For many years after the return to civil rule in 1999, this promise held true as frequency of flights to Calabar, the state capital, signaled increase of economic activities. Those were the years of the construction of the humongous, never-seen-before N60 billion Tinapa Free Zone and Resort, the years of the cable cars at Obudu Mountain Resort, the years of the 'original' Calabar Carnival; in the early 2000s until the end of the tenure of Donald Duke as governor of the state in 2007. Many still recall those years with fond memories and easily describe it as the golden years of Cross River.

The current governor, Professor Ben Ayade was a distant observer of goings-on in government at that time. Apparently, he was an admirer of the grandeur designs that characterized that era of governance. Coming from Obudu in the northern-most part of the state, Ayade witnessed how a steady stream of visitors from all over the world invaded his once remote homestead, which had been made more accessible with an airstrip at Bebi. In 2011, Ayade who is a petroleum engineer, businessman and hotelier contested and won an election into the senate on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He served for one term only and went for the highest public office in the state, becoming governor in 2015. From that vantage position, it was time for Ayade to dream the magnificent like Duke, only that his projects were not supported by any realistic monetary strategy.

Ayade had barely resumed office in 2015, when he committed himself to two legacy projects- an expensive 275 km 'super highway', that will cost the state N648billion and the Bakassi deep seaport billed at USD 2billion. He swore that, "If after four years I have not achieved the superhighway I promised, then I am not Ayade. I am going to shock the country. I promised that I will deliver. I will not fail the people," the governor had declared; meaning his intention was to deliver on that undertaking at the close of his first term in office. This is the last month of the fourth year that Ayade vowed to deliver the super highway, but his promise is all, but empty. Surprisingly, he was reelected and sworn-in for another four-year tenure last May.

The budget of Cross River State under Ayade's first year in 2016 was a modest N301 billion called budget of 'Deep Vision'. The governor began his fanciful hope with a N701 billion budget in 2017, called 'Infinite Transposition'. This was when members of the public became alarmed because transposing (and doing so infinitely) implied he wanted to change the normal order of things without recourse to fundamental planning. Encouraged by a state house of assembly filled with docile legislators, Ayade went for broke in 2018 by having a N1.3 trillion budget of 'Kinetic Crystallization'. Arguably goaded by partisan, rather than communal interests, the 25 pliable lawmakers who constitute the state house of assembly and sponsored by the ruling PDP in the state have never interrogated the financial proposals brought before them by the governor, even when no details are supplied for his grandiose plans.

The N1.043trillion budget of the outgoing year, 2019, tagged 'Qabalistic Densification' awakened the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state. Describing it as unrealistic, the APC said it had reduced the state to a 'laughing stock'. Spokesman of the, Mr. Bassey Ita, said the budget was 'severally defective' as "it has a semblance of hallucination which in our consideration, is an effect of substance indulgence." The N.2trillion variation from the 2018 budget was not accounted for. The APC argued that, "The 2019 budget document as presented failed to review the performance of the previous year's budget as well as provide for the policy direction of government in the coming year." It further stated that the budget did not give a sector-by-sector analysis of the allocation of resources for Cross Riverians to know the areas government was giving priority attention among others. Besides, the APC said the budget did not consider inputs from various stakeholders including Civil Society Organizations adding that the practice was both clandestine and archaic.

The statement maintained that, "There was nothing tangible to show for the huge fiscal provision. The economy did not get better; infrastructure deficit was still the talk of the town neither was there any semblance of improvement in the living conditions of the people of the state. The Superhighway was still in its groundbreaking stage, the deep seaport was still in the mind of the initiators neither was there any social investment programme of note that the PDP government embarked upon from the over N1trillion budget throughout last year."

Budgeting in Cross River was largely an internal affair of the state until recently, when Ayade brought the attention of the world to his monetary pitch with the 2020 budget valued at N1.1 trillion. The estimate of income and expenditure for the set period of time is christened 'Olimpotic Meritemasis'.

Ayade's pronouncement of the theme of the budget at its presentation to the State House of Assembly was greeted with loud catcalls from the packed gallery of the House.

The booing of the governor was expected from a disgruntled people with pent-up grievance against Ayade, a man notorious for applying jaw-breaking words to the very serious business of budgeting. Ayade had reduced a candid fiscal procedure for the improvement of the socioeconomic wellbeing of the people to an annual comedy.

An example of the comic spectacle was enacted at the presentation of the 2018 budget when the governor was reportedly in tears and requested a cleric in the audience to hold the signed copy of the budget in his hand and lead everyone present in prayers for divine intervention to make the budget achievable.

Ayade is apparently given to gloomy showmanship as can be gleaned from his boast proclivity towards the outlandish. In one fell swoop, he appointed over 6000 aides to increase the wage bill of the state which is about N2 billion to service 22000 civil servants. Rather than set objective financial targets, he is engrossed with the base pursuit of self-glorification, while embarking on a futile attempt to overtake Lagos State in the volume of budget estimates. He said Cross River was the first to pass the N1 trillion (budget) mark among states in the nation. "Indeed this is the first budget in the history of Nigeria where a state will be given a budget in the neighborhood of a trillion. This is the first over a trillion budget in the annals of history. It is historic, it is unique. It is an ambiguous expression of the mood of the people of Cross River State; a deep understanding of the economics and politics of governance. We have decided to focus on a budget that will deal with the fundamental issues and commitments of this administration. It is the fulfillment of the dreams and aspirations our people, who decided to vote young people into power.

"We are determined with very clear ambitions with clear timelines, with clear performance indicators that will measure for us what we are expected to achieve. We are not driven by the politics of the time. We are driven by the pain, the hunger, the agony of our people. We are driven by the ambition to change their story and that is why in the desperation of that ambition, we are mistaken to be excited young people in office."

He continued to make these exaggerated assumptions without any corresponding empirical substance.

If critics describe him as an 'excited young man in office'. It is not speaking to his 51 odd years on earth, rather the reference is often to his childlike attitudes to the solemn business of governance. And Ayade tolerates no opposition as can be observed from the enduring harrowing experience of his ardent critic and journalist, Agba Jalingo.

In the 2020 budget, Ayade pegged capital expenditure at N911 billion representing 82.8 percent of the budget, and placed recurrent expenditure at N188 billion, representing 17.2 percent of the budget.

Explaining the meaning of 'Olimpotic Meritemasis,' Ayade said the budget is one that is anchored "in the spiritual force which is the third energy," stressing that Meritemasis is an active cell that stimulates growth in a young plant, which in this case represents the state."

The governor also announced that certain categories of staff and business practitioners are exempt from payment of taxes.

"All low income earning people, civil servants earning below N100 thousand will be exempted from tax. Small scale businesses like barbing saloons, hair dressing and other surviving agencies are hereby exempted from taxation."

He also abolished the daily payments of N500 to N1000 levies by taxis plying the state, noting that they will now pay N2000 only every month. With a population of four million, if the 2020 budget of N1.1trillion were to be split among the people, each person will get a paltry, N275!

Not a few have concluded that the budget is unrealistic, given the financial reality of the state which is considered insolvent, and near bankrupt within the nation's financial circle.

The reason for this line of thinking is not far-fetched. Cross River State is ranked among the least in terms of revenue that accrues from the Federation Account, as well as Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), and is one of the most highly indebted in the country.

Data released from the Debt Management Office (DMO), indicate that Cross River State ranks among the top five most indebted states in Nigeria. The data indicates that the state has a foreign debt profile of $192.73 million, ranking fourth in the country while its domestic debt stands at N168.82 billion, thus occupying the fifth highest in the country.

Added to the weight of the huge debt burden on the state is the poor state of internationally generated revenue which is about N15 billion annually, and income of less than N80 billion from the Federation Account.

Recently, N1.72 billion was deducted from its Federal Allocation as part payment for the servicing of bail-out funds obtained from the Federal Government in 2015.

In July this year, the governor's application to state House of Assembly for the approval of a N5 billion loans facility brought to the fore, the state's level of insolvency. As a result of pressure from opposing voices outside government, the governor, who normally carries out his financial transaction in secrecy was forced by public outcry to explain what the facility was meant for.

Responding to critics of the application, Ayade, through his press secretary, Mr. Christian Ita, "If you cannot criticize Buhari don't criticize us. It is as simple as that."

"The truth of the matter as I said; it is a sad thing that a government that is second to the least in the federal allocation list, is for the first time asking for Bridge Financing. Bridge financing is not like a long term loan. You guys are making a whole meal out of it. People borrow to pay salaries. States borrow to pay salaries. So, we won't be the first. That is one. Two; it is shameful that in a country where the debt profile is about twenty-something trillion, and the Federal Government under this President Buhari's government has collected many billions in loan; nobody is making issues out of it; that Cross River is collecting N5billion; even states like Akwa Ibom, that collects on the average N17 billion from federal allocation, is borrowing to fund some of their things. I just feel that it is in bad faith. It is lacking in substance.

"What is the allocation to Cross River State? An average of N2 billion. How much do we spend on salaries in a month? Has APC federal government not borrowed to pay salaries? Don't treat us as if we are not in the same country. If the federal government under APC is borrowing to pay salaries. If we are borrowing to pay pensions and gratuities what is new about it?"

Ita's reaction corroborates the fears expressed by critics of Ayade's budget of N1.1 trillion, saying the state does not have the capacity to generate 10 percent of the projected revenue.

Former chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), in the state, Goddie Akpama who spoke to THISDAY on the 2020 Budget concludes that the Ayade administration has no budget to implement, and has not implemented any since 2017.

"The governor is taking the state for a ride and so he can reduce the whole issue of budgeting to a house of comedy. Are Cross Riverians now comedians? Have we become so useless and irrational to accept Ayade's sermon that the budget means rebuilding from the scratch? What has he been doing with budgets in the last four years? The people should ask him and hold him accountable. It is clearly a budget of fallacy. How is the state expected to meet such financial projections of N1.1trillion?

"We cannot keep lying to ourselves. We cannot keep ignoring the elephant in this room. For how long would we keep our heads buried in the sand? We must stop playing the Ostrich.

"What kind of explanation do you want to give us about starting all over, Mr Governor? Now you tell us you want to privatize the deep seaport and superhighway.

"The question is what did you tell Cross Riverians about these projects before today on their development? You said the money for these were ready. What are all these inconsistencies about? Now where is the money you said you had ready for the projects?

"To start with where is the deep seaport and superhighway. Where are they located in Cross River?

"We must continue to ask these questions, and challenge our government to be answerable to us and we would not relent," Akpama who was also a one-time governorship candidate of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA) said.

Former member of the state House of Assembly, Mr. Cletus Obun told THISDAY that it was absurd that the governor should continue to toy with the wellbeing and future of the people of the state.

Obun heaped the blame on the lawmakers who have become unserious about good governance in the state.

"When we were in the House it was different. We had the interest of the people at heart. But, today it is a different ball game. They are more interested in things that do not benefit the people.

"In the days of Donald Duke as governor, if I get it right, there was this appropriation bill which had N80 million for auto photo mapping of the state. We kicked against it democratically because we felt that money would serve the people better in the education sector. So, we transferred the N80 million to education sector for the registration of final year students for WAEC and NECO examination.

"That is totally absent today because what we have is " an assembly of fools."

Obun said it was incumbent on the people, youth groups, the civil society organizations to mobilize during public hearing to challenge the so-called budget of Olimpotic Meritemasis.

However, Ayade explained that the N1.1 trillion compared to what accrues to the state from the Federation Account and IGR is not an issue that can affect the full and successful implementation of the 2020 appropriation.

"On the size of the budget, the governor said, "We must come to the understanding that indeed any state whose budget is driven by the envelope size is limited in vision.

"There are two ways in business and public sector management that you derive your budget. It is either that your budget comes as an expression of your envelope size or as an expression of your ambition.

"The prosperity agenda set for this state does not allow me the opportunity of an envelope budgeting. Our budget prescribes the actual cost element while the intellectual financing shuns the cost because the ambition so expressed allows us the latitude to drive with to ensure that we guarantee that all aspects of the budget so provided are driven."

Speaker of the House, Mr. Eteng Jonah Williams has, however, assured that the lawmakers will do justice to the appropriation bill in the interest of the state.

BudgIT, a leading civil society organisation campaigning for transparency in government described Ayade's N648billion 'super highway' as a fraud. The highway is to be funded through N648billion Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) fund that will cost the state to pay back N300million per month for 180 years.

Shakir Akorede, Communications Associate of BudgIT, noted that the highway construction is "misplaced priority and overly ambitious".

According to Akorede, "Suspecting an obstinate intention of the Ayade government to defraud the people of Cross River, we deem the project overly ambitious, superfluous and almost a misplaced priority especially - besides its viability to investors - when there has been hardly any explanation on 'infallible plans' to upscale the state revenue and clear cumulative debts let alone fix the human and environmental costs of the project.

QUICK FACTS:

* Ayade had barely resumed office in 2015, when he committed himself to two legacy projects- a 275 km 'super highway', that will cost the state N648billion and the Bakassi deep seaport billed at USD 2billion

* The budget of Cross River State under Ayade's first year in 2016 was a modest N301 billion called budget of 'Deep Vision'

*The governor began his fanciful hope with a N701 billion budget in 2017, called 'Infinite Transposition'

*Ayade went for broke in 2018 by having a N1.3 trillion budget of 'Kinetic Crystallization'

*The N1.043trillion budget of the outgoing year, 2019 is tagged 'Quabalistic Densification'

*The 2020 budget valued at N1.1 trillion is christened 'Olimpotic Meritemasis'

* Ayade appointed over 6000 aides to increase the wage bill of the state which is about N2 billion to service 22000 civil servants

*Data from the Debt Management Office (DMO), indicate that Cross River State ranks among the top five most indebted states in Nigeria. The state has a foreign debt profile of USD192.73 million, ranking fourth in the country while its domestic debt stands at N168.82 billion, thus occupying the fifth highest in the country

*Internationally Generated Revenue of Cross River is about N15 billion annually, and income of less than N80 billion from the Federation Account

*It will take Cross River State 180 years at N300 million per month to pay N648 billion if the 'Super Highway' is funded through Irrevocable Standing Payment Order

*If the 2020 budget of N1.1trillion were to be split among the people, each of her 4 million persons will get a paltry, N275

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