Lawmakers: Budget Season, Fraud Season

08 Dec 2012

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Polscope with Eddy Odivwri,, 08053069356

Once again, it is budget season. Ministers, Heads of government Departments, Parastatals etc are streaming to the National Assembly to defend their budget for the following year. As is usual, the MDAs are in a contract awarding frenzy with just few days to the end of the fiscal year.

This is common with civil servants who deliberately cause “system go-slow” almost all year round, targeting that with few days to go, they will rush out rounds of contracts, sometimes to their cronies and even themselves, all in a way to burn-out the funds allocated to them, so that such funds are not returned to the treasury, after December 31. Thus as they prepare to defend the budget of the following year, they ensure that they “clean out” the budget of the outgoing year, by hook or crook. Are you still wondering why budgetary allocations tend to raise our hopes and civil servants dutifully dash such hopes?

One their part, the National lawmakers sit like Pilate, in judgement over the Heads of the MDAs, as is statutorily prescribed. In some of the reports from such budget defence sessions, one gets the impression of an effective gate-keeping arm of government in scrutinizing every figure in the budgetary allocations. A lot of times, we hear the lawmakers ask brilliant questions, raise informed issues etc. but that is as far as it goes. The untoward deals are not struck under the klieglight of the photo journalists. Whether a fiscal year will be successful or not, begins from the appropriation stage of the year’s budget.

The bit I don’t get with budget appropriation is when a ministry or parastatal says we are proposing to spend xyz in the next fiscal year, and submits same to the National Assembly to appropriate. And by the time the lawmakers finish the appropriation the amount has jumped from xyz to xyz2 . Rather than trim the figures, the lawmakers bloat it up. And our commonwealth is circumscribed away. The lawmakers strike several deals with the MDAs. It is either they appropriate some of the projects as theirs, or they pad up the figures for the projects with the understanding that the difference between what is proposed and what is appropriated is theirs. Worse still, even when the projects are given to them, they do it perfunctorily or not do it  at all, yet the money leaves the system unchecked. And at the end of the year, so much money would have left the system with little work on the ground to show for it.

This is a true story: some three years back one of the lawmakers who was heading a crucial committee had whimsically added N4 billion to the budget of a core agency of government—in the presidency. The head of the department concerned was to be informed later that the amount has been sent into his budget. Though stunned, the Department’s head soon understood the game and they struck a deal on the sharing formula. The terms and conditions of operation were respected, and quietly, the deal was done. Their pockets got enriched, but Nigeria shrunk lower.  The President mouths a programme of transformation as a mantra every day. It is, and may remain futile until we break the template of corruption in the system.  If only 40% of the country’s budget gets used for Nigeria, the country would have witnessed electrifying transformation years ago.

I know of an agency under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism whose head refused to play ball with the lawmakers last year. And his budget got slashed to 21% as a punishment for his intransigence. Already, in preparing for this year’s defence, the HoD has been under pressure from his staff to “co-operate with them, so that we do not suffer again this year”.
Recently too, a senator had forced his project into the budget of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC)--- to build the perimeter fence of his community school at—wait for it, N350 million! College fence! What is the worth of the entire college!

Pray, when lawmakers have compromised their roles this deeply from the appropriation stage of the budget, what moral right would they have later to perform their statutory over-sight functions on the MDAs? How can they reasonably later indict their business partners? Needless to say that the executive arm of government, seeing how the lawmakers may have illicitly helped themselves under the cloak of the law, will, in greater zest, short-circuit the budget to their selfish advantage. And no one will dare squeak, for obvious reasons. Have you ever wondered why nobody has ever been sanctioned for not implementing the budget as passed, given that it is a law?
With such stories, the impression we get is that the few sparks of inquisition we hear about the lawmakers is only when the MDAs in question either did not play ball or did not keep faith with the unofficial MoU they jointly “signed” earlier.

All said, the highway to budget failure, most times, starts from how clinically sincere the lawmakers are in appropriating the figures sent to them by the executive arm of government.
These stories sadden my heart, and that of many Nigerians. They explain why we are where we are as opposed to where we ought to be. May God help Nigeria!

Babalakin: When it Rains, it Pours

These are hardly the best of times for Dr Wale Babalakin, the Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited. Late last month, his treasured contract as a concessionaire of the Lagos-Ibadan express way was revoked, ostensibly  because of tardiness in delivery. And just before people stopped clapping at the long-awaited decision of the federal government, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) slammed a 27–count charge on him, accusing him and four others of laundering  N4.7 billion for the former Delta State governor, James Ibori. The co-incidence of the charge with the termination of the contract was curious. Did the federal government use the money laundering charge as a means of containing Babalakin from kicking over the termination of the contract? Why were the charges filed only after the contract was terminated, and Babalakin was sure to legally institute a fight?  Was it a mere coincidence?

But the more fundamental question is whether or not the charges are true. That will be for the courts to determine.
But as if all that was not trouble enough for the Oxford-trained lawyer, he very suddenly took ill and got hospitalized at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). And worse still, the Police are laying siege on the hospital, ready to grab him soon as he “gets fit”.

Many have argued that Babalakin is feigning illness, just to avoid arraignment. Some even say he had pulled similar stunt in the days of Abacha and the failed bank tribunals, and thus avoided appearing before the failed bank tribunal, then sitting in Enugu. But Babalakin had argued that the matter for which he was being arraigned had been settled several years ago. However, most Nigerians do not know how it was settled. Did he launder money for Ibori or not? That is the question.
Those who say he is scheming to avoid arraignment point out the fact that on the same day he said he was ill and hospitalized, and could not appear in the Ikeja High Court, Lagos, was the same day he rushed to the Federal High Court, Lagos.   to secure injunction forbidding the EFCC from arraigning him.

Babalakin was to later advertise a full page defence of why the Ibadan express way contract was delayed declaring that the delay was caused by the Federal Government and not Bi-Courtney.  Not many Nigerians were convinced on Babalakin’s tepid defence. How can it be explained that between early 2009 and last month when the contract was terminated, Bi-Courtney was merely pursuing clerical routines in the Ministry of Works? Even if it was a world bank project , would it require over three years to perfect documentation? If documentation takes three years, how many years will executing the project itself take? Are we not witnesses to how the Ministry of Works had threatened Bi Courtney a couple of times, whereupon it will send some empty pick-up vans and idle diggers to the highway, patch up a few pot holes here and there for some days and then return to status quo ante? Was it for nothing that Nigerians greatly lauded the revocation of the contract?
With the template of the company’s operational pattern, they will still be perfecting documentation long after Jonathan would have served and left office.

The ministry of Works has even faulted Bi-Courtney’s submission. The ministry noted that” Article 7.1a of the Agreement provides for 3 months project Preliminary Period for the Concessionaire to confirm the exact conditions of the road and to submit a revised work programme with milestone dates, timelines, project scheduling and completion. This was not achieved even after 1 year after the handover of the site to Bi-Courtney on 3rd September 2009”. Mr Babalakin, is this true or not?   The FMW further alleged that Bi-Courtney virtually breached all the provisions of the articles of the agreement like failure to submit approved design within a given time.

Babalakin, a typical Nigerian “Big man” is a business man who had had many dealings with the Federal Government, from which he has evidently prospered so much. 

Whatever it is, the Lagos-Ibadan express way is all too important to be left in the hands of a construction laggard, whilst the road was faithfully sending Nigerians to early grave every day. It is the busiest road in the country. And no serious government worth its name should be intimidated by the antics and whims of anybody to shut its eyes to the crying shame that road had been. I have a colleague whose both parents died on that road on two different occasions and dates.

As an influential and established lawyer, I do not believe Babalakin is feigning illness at LUTH, all to avoid prosecution. That is why I wish the rich lawyer a quick recovery from the undisclosed ailment, so he can fitfully stand trial and clear his name and image of all the charges filed against him, and confirm whether it is true or not that he has used his rich legal background and knowledge to undermine the Nigerian system . Indeed, when it rains, it pours. Babalakin is a witness..

Who is sure of the Sure-P?
Sure-P is Subsidy Reinvestment Empowerment Programme. It is a child of circumstance. The idea for Sure-P came after Nigerians had protested the removal of subsidy from the price of petrol last January.

In a flurry of panic measures to assuage angry Nigerians, several palliative committees were set up. Sure-P was one of them. It was essentially meant to mitigate the immediate impact of the petroleum subsidy discontinuation on the population;  accelerate economic transformation, and to lay a foundation for the successful development of a national safety net programme that is better targeted at the poor and most vulnerable on a continuous basis.

Almost ten months after, not many are sure if Sure-P exists let alone make any impressive impact by way of delivering on its mandate. It had carried on like one of those bureaucracies, until it encountered a National Assembly committee to defend its 2013 budget. That encounter unearthed its operations.

Headed by the respected Dr Christopher Kolade, it is difficult to understand how in four months the committee spent N2.2 Billion on “secretariat expenses” and another N75million on travels and tours. It also came to light that the committee was just creating a parallel bureaucracy by so-to-say, duplicating the works of the Ministry of Works. Its claim of working on East West road beggars belief. That road is in complete shambles especially after the floods. These revelations surely contrast with the image of Kolade in the public domain. The lawmakers who listened to him were thoroughly embarrassed by the profligate expenditure profile of the committee.
It is supposed to create jobs, we have not seen any. It is supposed to reinvest the proceeds of the subsidy. We have seen no investment. It is supposed to empower Nigerian youths. That is yet on the plate.

It is the expectation that all these will be achieved that made Jonathan proclaim that with the Sure-P, “we have to show that we are committed to delivering on our promises, in order to win back public confidence in our government”
Almost a year after, more public confidence has been lost, not won, by the unseen acts of Sure-P. We are not sure if Sure-P is for us.

Tags: Nigeria, Featured, Politics, Eddy Odivwri

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