By ONYEDIKA AGBEDO
In spite of expectations that the 2018 Appropriation Bill will get an early passage in the National Assembly and quick presidential assent to allow its implementation to begin from January 2018 as part of the plan to return to the January-December budget cycle, there are clear indications that the target will not be realised. And until the Federal Government fully adheres to the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2017, and also metes appropriate punishments to anybody found to be sabotaging the budgetary process, the plan would remain a mirage to the detriment of the citizenry.
President Muhammadu Buhari had presented about N8.612 trillion as the 2018 Appropriation bill to a joint session of the National Assembly on November 7, this year, saying the projected expenditure would drive rapid economic recovery. The president had also requested that the budget be passed before the end of the year to allow its implementation to take effect from January 2018 as part of the plan to return to the January-December budget cycle. But feelers from the National Assembly (NASS) suggest the Presidency did a shoddy job in the implementation of the 2017 budget and the preparation of the 2018, which if overlooked would adversely affect the economy.
Returning to plenary last Tuesday after a two-week break, the Senate observed that the 2018 budget is “heavily padded, inconsistent, full of errors and inaccuracies.” Besides, they were also at a loss on why they should be considering the 2018 budget when the 2017 budget had not attained appreciable implementation level.
“Truly, it is very disheartening and disappointing because we know how much we have put into the budget process,” said Senate President Bukola Saraki, who summed up the misgivings of the senators over their discoveries of poor budget implementation in 2017 and inconsistencies in the claims by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government during the budget defence sessions.
“By now, 2017 budget should have been implemented by up to between 40 and 60 per cent, but this has not been the case. This makes it very difficult for us,” he added.
The outflow of outrage had followed a point of order raised by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, APC, Kebbi South, who queried the submissions made by the MDAs during the budget defence sessions. According to Na’Allah, the pronouncements made by the president and his aides on the execution of the budget were not reflective in the submissions made by heads of the MDAs.
“From reports we have heard, it is obvious that we have problems. We need to know what the problems are. If we have a 2017 budget that has not been executed today and we are considering the 2018 budget, it means there is a problem,” he observed.
Contributing to the motion, Senator Barnabas Gemade, APC, Benue North East, suggested that the consideration of the 2018 budget be suspended and that the lifespan of the current 2017 budget be extended till end of March of 2018.
“What we have seen is far from the 40 per cent capital project implementation we were told. In many MDAs, budget performance is hovering between 12 to 15 per cent. In early November, the borrowing plans were brought and we approved it. They said they were going to release more funds. As of now, we cannot say if that is true,” Gemade said.
It could be recalled that Saraki had also recently at plenary faulted the assumptions in the 2018 budget, saying he “sometimes wonders” if technocrats want to embarrass the Federal Government. Citing an example, the Senate President had wondered why the budget would be predicated on 2.3 million barrels of oil per day when the country was only able to record 1.9 million barrels per day in 2017.
“Secondly, my concern, and I’m happy that we are debating it, is the independent revenue. If we all look at our figures, the budget was one hundred and eighty something billion but in nine months we only did 185. Meanwhile, we are budgeting eight hundred and something for 2018. How realistic is that? Sometimes I wonder if technocrats want to embarrass government and try to do some things knowing it can’t work,” he said.
Commenting on the development, National Chairman of United Progressive Party (UPP) and former presidential candidate, Chekwas Okorie, said it was an embarrassment to the country and called for sanctions on all those who had been subjecting the country to an untidy budgetary process either by design or default.
“It is a national embarrassment that we have technocrats as well as elected officials in government who are mostly young people, but cannot take their time to prepare budgets that will meet international best standards and stand the test of time. That is why we always hear about padding; and this gives the impression that they are so corrupt to the extent that they cannot prepare a straight-forward budget that is devoid of deliberate loopholes to siphon public funds.
“I commend the National Assembly for having the eagle eye to identify those lapses. And for us, they have been able to do that because the Buhari administration has not allowed their previous arrangement of over looking such lapses with a view to being settled. So, now they are not benefiting and they believe that if they cannot benefit from the padding, then no one else should benefit. So, at the end of the day what ought to be in the interest of the nation is subjected to unnecessary delay in spite of the fact that the economy is already battered and the citizens already pauperised. It is such a shame and I want to recommend that President Buhari should sanction people who are incompetent within his government. But he is so slow to action that I think we must have made a big mistake in electing him as president,” Okorie said.
He posited that the economy would be the worse for it, noting that Nigerians were still suffering the effects of the poor implementation of the 2017 budget.
“It’s unfortunate that this is going to be transferred to the next year. I will only say that those that have been indicted by this observation by the National Assembly should not go on Christmas holiday. They should just sit down and correct these things as quickly as possible. And because of the urgency of the matter, I will advise the Presidency to appeal to the NASS to cut short their own holiday in the interest of the nation because your house cannot be on fire and you will be chasing after rat. The President has to take the initiative and save this country from further slide,” he added.
A public affairs analyst, Jide Ojo, also told Sunday Sun that the yearly quagmire in the budgetary process occurs due to lack of political will by the government to do things right.
He said: “For me, the problem is lack of political will to do the right thing. We cannot say that we don’t have competent hands in a country of 180 million people that can deliver a sound, full proof, credible budgetary process. But it’s like there is too much politicking in that process because of inherent corruption within the process. A lot of people want to take maximum advantage of that exercise to enrich themselves, communities and cronies. I mean in all good conscience, how would you say that a country like Nigeria with experts in all spheres of human endeavour cannot assemble a committee of experts that will plug and deal with all the issues we perennially have with our budgetary process. We have been told that the 2018 budget is allegedly padded. The bottom line is that those estimations are from the executive. How did they come about them? Why is it that items are perennially being repeated in the budget when they are not consumables? Why do you have very bogus figures budgeted annually for the same things year in year in year out. And by the time it gets to the legislators, they will also do their own padding with the zonal intervention projects and all that. And where does that leave the masses?” he queried.
Ojo said the trend causes a dislocation in the economy that leaves the masses worse off despite huge capital votes in the budget every year. “This has brought about a dislocation in the economy. We have so many uncompleted projects across the country. We have over 11,000 uncompleted projects in this country as we speak. The 11,000 I’m talking about were as at 2011/2012; I’m not talking about the 2017 data. But the issue is that when capital releases come late or there is no sufficient cash backing for projects, eventually it leads to abandonment. And once you abandon projects you are tying down your capital because the uncompleted project cannot yield any productivity; it remains unproductive until it is completed and put to good use. Many of them have turned out to be white elephant projects. So, invariably there is a lot of socio-economic dislocation arising from flawed budgetary process,” Ojo said.
He added: “Now, Nigeria is just exiting recession. So, we are not far from suffering a relapse and sliding back into recession with the kind of economic dislocation we currently have on our hands. We just heard that they have released N750 billion for implementation of capital projects in the 2017 budget. At what time of the year? The bottom line is that everything will now be done in a rush. The attempt to go back to the January to December budget cycle is a mirage. The NASS has come out to say that there is nothing they can do to make the budget ready in January. So, we are now looking at the vicious cycle of having the budget passed may be by April or May 2018,” he added.
To overcome the challenge, he called for an overhaul of the entire budgetary process that must be rooted in total adherence to the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007. “We need to overhaul the entire budgetary process from start to finish. There has to be total obedience to the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007. The Act provides that by August/September, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework /Fiscal Strategy Paper (MTEF/FSP) should be sent to the NASS and approved. After that, the president will present the budget latest by October so that the legislators will have at least three months to work on it and then pass it. I believe that if we start obeying the Fiscal Responsibility Act, we will get it right. This year, the MTEF/FSP was not sent to the NASS until early November and as at the time the president presented the 2018 budget, the NASS was yet to finalise legislative duties on the MTEF/FSP. I don’t know whether they have even passed it as we speak. Also, under remittances by revenue generating MDAs should be checked and there should be stiff penalties for defaulters, because those are monies outside the Federation Account that cannot be appropriated for.
“All of these are causing so much overlap and confusion within the system. So, we need to streamline things; we need to bring in the needed expertise from wherever in the world to get things right and they don’t have to be foreigners. We have Nigerians in the Diaspora that can be invited to come and help us shape up the budgetary process if need be. We say we are doing zero budgetary process and for the third year running, there is still so much confusion associated with it. So, we need to streamline things. We need to make scapegoats of those who are involved in budget padding. We need the political will by the president and then the NASS to do the needful by putting Nigeria’s interest first and not their own self-serving interest. That’s the only way they can help this country,” Ojo noted.
The budgetary process has been a subject of controversy since the Buhari administration came into life. Buhari had signed the first budget of his administration on May 6, 2016 after months of bickering between the executive and the legislature. Former Chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the House of Representatives, Hon. Abdulmumini Jibrin, later raised allegations of padding against the leadership of the House, leading to his suspension for a period of 180 legislative sitting days in September 2016. The story was not too different in 2017 as the Presidency had accused the NASS of introducing more than 400 ‘strange projects’ into the budget while slashing allocations to key federal agencies and projects before belatedly passing it in May. The dissension over the 2018 budget is just beginning to unfold. Although the end result cannot be foretold, Nigerians certainly hope the issue would be resolved in the best interests of the country.