Last week was a roller coaster of sort; a helluva of a moment in the brief history of humanity. It was the week Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari turned 77. And the man from Daura gave Nigerians a perfect birthday present. He signed the 2020 Appropriation Bill into law on his birthday, December 17. Auspicious. Momentous. Historic.
By that act, Buhari restored the January to December cycle of the national budget which last happened seven years ago under President Goodluck Jonathan. It’s a thrill with all the frills to see the nation’s budget cycle start and end with the year once again, as of old. For a budget laid before the National Assembly on October 8, it is commendable to see its passage in record time. Perhaps the harmony between the Executive and the Legislature aided the birthing of this new chapter. But far more than that, it has been the wish of Mr. Buhari to reset the nation’s budget cycle. He said it and he did it. Splendid!
Buhari did more than that. He has directed that 2021 Appropriation should get to the National Assembly by September next year. Cheery! This should get the MDAs thinking and working to meet deadline. I salute both the President and the National Assembly. Our national cake for 2020 could not have been better baked. The implication of such early passage of the budget is that by January 2020, it becomes active presenting the MDAs and indeed the Federal Government no excuse not to perform.
Early and predictable passage of budget helps for planning especially among the private sector sectors and foreign investors. It helps to gauge the direction of government at the dusk of the preceding year.
Things like these should excite. But my excitement is muted, nuanced by the sheer absurdities in the budget story. This budget has many holes. It stinks up an already noxious economy. This budget has booby-traps and I fear they are laid to circumscribe its performance. The budget entered the National Assembly wearing a garment of N10.330 trillion. But it passed out of the hallowed chambers spruced up in a N10.594 trillion garment having been padded with extra garments of N264 billion. That’s the extra added by the National Assembly during their barely two months scrutiny of the budget. Amazing? Yes. Both amazing and amusing but it is symptomatic of the Nigerian legislature.
The National Assembly has a long history of budget padding for frivolously ridiculous projects. This time, they say this humungous amount, the size of the budget of two low-budget states in Nigeria, is for offsetting infrastructural deficit in the country. This is not new. Infrastructure financing has been the chief conduit in budgeting. At the end, the people see no infrastructure. Nigeria ranks high among nations with high infrastructure deficit across the world. Roads are bad and unsafe. Housing is a mirage. Public transport, this time the Railway, is as troubled as the tired coaches of the outmoded trains. Public water works? You ask for too much. Needless lamenting the poorly managed national electricity project. Simply put, infrastructure is comatose yet we feed this same infrastructure every year with billions and trillions of naira. Something is wrong.
There are many more holes in this budget and I just wonder why the President had to sign it as passed. Did he not see the spurious allocations to SMEDAN, Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President, the Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research, the N969.9 million allocated to the National Intelligence Agency, NIA, for the rehabilitation/repairs of hospitals/health? So many curious twists but I doubt if due diligence and fiscal prudence were ever the yardstick for such budgeting. But what do I know? If a president can approve the sum of N37 billion for the National Assembly to rehabilitate its complex built at a cost of N7 billion, when the repair of federal roads for the period will gulp much less, then you can conjecture why the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, is over the moon in thanking Mr. Buhari for the historical signing of the budget. Again, there is another sour side to the budget. A huge chunk would be financed through borrowing. And when you consider that Nigeria’s debt stock currently stands in excess of N26 trillion, much of which was borrowed by the Buhari government, you worry. Again, what do I know? Those who know, in this case the Debt Management Office (DMO), say Nigeria has a ceiling of 25 per cent on the total public debt stock to GDP; what is called Debt to GDP ratio and that the country had operated within this. DMO was honest enough to admit that Debt Service to Revenue Ratio (Debt Service/Revenue) has been higher than desirable. This ought to make us worry especially when we consider that we do not generate enough revenue to match the revenue profiles of countries with similar high debt stocks.
Now, Mr. Buhari wants to borrow more to fill the holes we deliberately and fraudulently created in our budgeting. I worry here. But I’m only just a layman who should stop bothering about Nigeria’s ‘buoyant’ economy but focus on the other major event of the week: the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Pesky Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress investigation. Only a simple majority was needed by the House to do this. As it now stands, the US Senate would be needing two-thirds majority to remove Trump from office. Tall order, if you ask me. And here is the difference between America and Nigeria.
Whereas Americans talk about ‘abuse of power’, in Nigeria we talk about ‘use of power’. Here, we use power; we don’t abuse it. We use power to remove, gestapo-style, the head of an arm of government (ask ex-CJN Walter Onnoghen); we use power to invade a courtroom and sack the presiding judge at gunpoint; we use power to invade the National Assembly with hooded and heavily armed security operatives. We use power to obstruct investigation, violate court orders, preach buy-Nigeria when at the slightest pang of ill-health we jet off to a London hospital for a cure; we use power to brazenly contravene Section 14(3) of the Constitution we swore to uphold when we undermine Federal Character in our appointments; we use power to undo power.
But you know, no tears for Trump. He deserves his cup of pain. He’s garrulous without grace; too racist even for the son of a German migrant to America. And he shares the same garment with Nigeria’s Buhari. They are both divisive and have profoundly manifested their inability to manage the diversities of their respective nations. The difference is that one thrives in abuse of power in his Nigerian conclave; the other is tamed for the same reason in his American empire. And this is why nations fail. One observes the rule of law and develops; the other observes arbitrariness and stutters, even slides deeper, into the abyss of under-development. Different strokes for different folks.