The shortcomings of the Appropriation Bill are worrying

Never before in the history of this country has any budget been the subject of such controversies as that of 2016. Incidentally, it is Muhammadu Buhari’s first budget as a democratically elected president.

Presented in December to a joint session of the National Assembly, the 2016 budget soon ran into troubled waters: it was declared ‘missing’ at the Senate! That was ordinarily unthinkable but it took the meeting of the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, with President Buhari for that controversy to be doused. Soon, it shifted to the question of having two versions of the budget in circulation and later, about which of the versions was authentic.

Again, it took President Buhari’s official letter of apology to end the fuss about having two versions of the 2016 Appropriation Bill. But that did not end the puzzle. When the various National Assembly committees began to work on the details by inviting ministers and heads of departments and agencies to defend their proposals, the issue of over-inflated figures and padding was unearthed.

The Health Minister, Professor Isaac Adewole, for instance, literally disowned the version of budget he met with the lawmakers, stating that the figures therein were quite different from what he submitted. Almost every other minister would discover huge discrepancies between what they claimed they budgeted and the figures before the National Assembly. In almost all instances, the figures were padded heavily and the overall template of the budget was distorted.

No doubt, what has transpired thus far with respect to the 2016 Appropriation Bill is a huge embarrassment for a government that is predicated on probity and transparency, just as it is a shouting irony for a document described as “Budget of Change”. In every material sense, the details of the budget are in clear contrast with the spirit and intent of the speech delivered by the president last December. In many cases, some items are either repeated several times or grossly over-priced. And we are not even talking of clear cases of misplaced priorities that are quite evident in the document replete with such figures that query the moral and financial probity of the present administration.

For instance, there are about 20 different prices in the same budget for a unit of Toyota Hilux vehicle with proposed costs ranging from N7 million to N22 million, depending on the government agency involved. The State House clinic which caters for only the presidency got a whopping allocation of N3.8 billion while a mere N2.67 billion was budgeted for the construction of hospitals nationwide. Incredible!
As direct fallout of this fiasco, the Director-General of Budget, Alhaji Yahaya Gusau, was fired and replaced with Alhaji Tijjani Abdullahi.

But that did not address the issue. Given the wide discrepancies in the budget, it is difficult to believe it was the product of any thorough planning and careful analysis. And the Auditor-General of the Federation, Mr. Samuel Ukura, told the National Assembly last week that the budget was still enveloped-based rather than zero-based, as claimed by officials of the current administration. Notwithstanding the denials by officials of the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, Ukura’s claim seems plausible.

However, aside the controversy regarding the over-bloated and replicated subheads, there are also issues of unrealistic assumptions in the budget. Besides basing it on an oil price benchmark of $38 per barrel and a production estimate of 2.2 million barrels per day, the exchange rate of the naira and the rate of inflation upon which the budget was predicated have all changed drastically.

What that suggests is that besides the urgent need to remove all the irregular figures, the Buhari administration will need a vibrant economic team headed by an experienced economist and budget specialist to rejig the Appropriation Bill and drive its implementation in the overall interest of the nation.