The president’s comments in faraway Saudi Arabia about a fraudulently distorted budget, which has been the subject of controversy, is disturbing, writes Vincent Obia
Travels, trials, and the budget seems to be a fitting headline for the story of President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency so far. Since his inauguration on May 29 last year, virtually no week has passed without the president travelling to one foreign land or the other. Those who have charted his foreign trips say he has spent about two months of his about eight months’ presidency abroad.
Corruption trials, too, have grabbed the headlines since the inception of the present administration. The revelations of grand larceny have been mind-boggling to Nigerians. They only hope the revelations and prosecutions would bring about the much needed recovery in terms of the purloined national wealth and the bruised national image.
But the budget saga has, no doubt, brought the greatest embarrassment to the country.
When last month the senate broke the story of the distortions in this year’s budget, it drew stiff rebuttals from the presidency. The administration twisted and turned. In the end, it acknowledged inconsistencies between the budget presented to the National Assembly by Buhari last December 22 and the document later circulated to the legislators for debate. The president later made a formal request to Senate President Bukola Saraki and Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara for withdrawal of the budget to, according to him, correct errors in it.
Despite the supposed corrections, during the budget defence sessions in the senate, ministry after ministry raised misgivings about strange variances between the figures they had presented to the budget office and what later came out in the final document they were called to defend. One minister even attributed the discrepancies in the budget estimate of his ministry to the handiwork of “rats”.
The president remained silent on the issue of fraudulent adjustment of the budget figures. He merely acknowledged the existence of errors in the financial plan.
But in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Buhari admitted there had been a padding of the budget and vowed to punish those involved. Speaking in Riyadh while addressing the Nigerian community in Saudi Arabia, he said, “The culprits will not go unpunished. I have been a military governor, petroleum minister, military Head of State and headed the Petroleum Trust Fund.
“Never had I heard the words, ‘budget padding’. Our Minister of Budget and National Planning did a great job with his team. The minister became almost half his size during the time, working night and day to get the budget ready, only for some people to pad it.
“What he gave us was not what was finally being debated. It is very embarrassing and disappointing. We will not allow those who did it to go unpunished.”
With that admission, questions are being raised why Buhari choose a foreign land for the disclosure of such weighty national blunder. And why did he wait for so long a time before admitting the grand corruption that occurred right under his nose? Was he afraid such admission might cost him some political capital at home? Or was the president trying to prove a point as regards steadfastness and seriousness before the international investing public – which are said to be the primary targets of his many foreign trips?
Buhari seems to be taking special pleasure in presenting his government as an upright, fearless, and corrective enclave in the midst of a crooked people. Not long ago, he told the UK Telegraph that Nigerians’ high reputation for criminality was making it difficult for them to be accepted abroad.
“Some Nigerians claim that life is too difficult back home, but they have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking,” Buhari said. “I don’t think Nigerians have anybody to blame.”
Such strong comments by the Nigerian president about his country in foreign lands or policy statements abroad serve no useful purpose.
Of course, a transparent and forthright leadership was what Nigerians wanted when they were choosing a change to the Buhari presidency. But such aspiration certainly does not include denigrating speeches about the land and the people, which tend to pander to foreign prejudices.
In any case, hope for the change Nigerians voted appears to be fading very rapidly, what with the various national humiliations, like the budget saga, which have persisted. Before the international community – particularly, the foreign investors – too, hope for a new deal under Buhari may fade if he does not sit down to put the domestic environment in order.