‘Padding Saga Offers Unique Opportunity to Reform Budgetary Process’

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The drama surrounding allegations of budget padding rocking the National Assembly appears to have retreated from the front pages for now but will be most likely resurrected when the lawmakers resume from their recess shortly. Beyond the allegations and counter-allegations however, the scandal provides a chance to reform the process of budget-making in the country. This is the crux of the views expressed by Oke Epia, Founder/Chief Executive of OrderPaper.ng, Nigeria’s premier independent parliamentary multi-media company. He spoke recently with journalists in Abuja

As someone who operates in the National Assembly and having worked very closely with its leadership what do you make of the budget padding scandal in the House of Reps?

It is very disappointing. The budget padding saga has not only scandalized the entire National Assembly but also reduces citizens’ trust in government especially elected representatives in parliament. Even though the controversies surrounding the budget is not limited to the National Assembly – recall that the padding of the 2016 budget was initially associated with the executive when we heard of so-called budget cabals in the Presidency and Budget Office of the Federation- the shame situates more with the lawmakers. As far as this padding issue is concerned, members of the National Assembly have brought disrepute upon the institution and whatever may be the outcomes of investigations on the matter, the public perception quotient of the federal legislature has gone further south as far as Nigerians are concerned. So for me, I feel personally pained that this has happened and to the extent that the integrity of the entire arm of government is now in question over a most critical function as budget-making, then there is really much cause for concern.

Who do you blame for the budget padding mess: the Executive, National Assembly or just the key actors like Speaker Dogara and his accuser-in-chief, Abdulmumuni Jibrin?

Look, this is not much about sharing of blames as it is about the urgent need to redeem the budgetary process from the overload of corruption, personalization and deprivation of the collective interest of Nigerians. And like I just told you, the entire mess spreads from one arm of government to the other and even beyond. The other day I was on a live radio discussion programme when a caller made the point that even contractors are part of the problem! Contractors- both big corporate and small suppliers would cut deals with lawmakers and heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) ahead of the budget passage and insert figures into the budget which are removed under the guise of executing projects. So the issue of budget padding is an intricate web of malfeasance and corruption that spreads across board from the political class to the private sector and not just the lawmakers. We must understand it from this perspective otherwise, we will just end up demonizing only the thief that has been caught while leaving out the smart alecs who are yet to be busted. In all of these drama and sad stories of padding and what have you, my position is that we must make some value and seize the opportunity to reform the budgetary process. Otherwise after this padding saga dies down, we will simply go back to business-as-usual until the next scandal happens and we get entertained all over again. So blame-sharing is not the ultimate for me. Good enough anti-corruption agencies are said to be investigating the allegations and we earnestly await the outcomes but what is very imperative for me is how do we prevent this from recurring.

So let me ask you the question you just raised. How do we prevent this from repeating itself in the 2017 budget and even subsequently?
Good. This is where we come in with our intervention at OrderPaper.ng. We are hosting a colloquium on the budget- a multi-stakeholder assemblage to dissect the budgetary process, identify lapses and loopholes that allow for ‘padding’ and all such distortions and then proffer solutions on the way forward. As the country’s premier parliamentary reporting portal, we feel a sense of obligation to contribute towards solutions instead of just reporting the dirty allegations and counter-allegations about budget padding. After all the drama what next? So the colloquium is tailored to go beyond padding and take a holistic look at the budget-making and implementation process and arrive at ways of making the budget work for the mass majority of Nigerians and not just a few privileged members of society not just in the political class but the conniving contractors and the rest of the ring.

Tells us more about the colloquium? Who are the key speakers and participants and what exactly do you intend to achieve?
Good. The ultimate goal like I have told you earlier is to make the budget deliver maximum benefits for the majority of citizens. Don’t forget that the annual budget is perhaps the single most important roadmap of implementing the social contract between leaders and the led. And if it is enmeshed in corruption then what is called the dividends of democracy continues to be a mirage to a large extent and that is why we keep moving around in circles in this country. And we have taken care to bring all stakeholders on board from the Executive, National and State Assemblies across partisan divides, the private sector, media, civil society and others to engage the challenge of reforming the budgetary process. The colloquium is an attempt to deepen the debate about which arm of government plays what roles in the appropriation process and to exactly what extent. Where does the National Assembly’s power of appropriation begins and ends? Is the executive vested with unquestionable powers regarding the estimates it sends to the legislature as annual budgets? Or on the reverse, is the legislature conferred with such far-reaching powers as to be able to substantially alter the estimates so received from Mr. President or a State Governor? What about the disturbing lexicon of ‘Padding’ that has dogged the 2016 budget like a leech?
These are questions to be addressed by a holistic gathering of executive; legislature; Experts in constitutional law; and civil society actors, among others invited to attend colloquium on September 26 holding at the Sheraton Abuja by 10am. Key guests and speakers include Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State, Speaker, House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara and Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, senators, members of the House of Representatives, members of state legislatures and indeed all segments of society have been invited to make their contributions. It is noteworthy that Tambuwal before his ascension to the executive position of Sokoto State Governor, was Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 7th Assembly and had also been a principal officer of the lower chamber in the preceding tenure. He is expected to add a rich comparative perspective to the budget debate with his experience across both arms of government. Speaker Dogara on the other hand, being a key figure in the 2016 budget process that has continually been dogged by controversy, is expected to bring his contemporary experience especially with respect to the concept of ‘padding’ to bear on the conversations. Senator Udoma as Minister in charge of the national budget and one who has been a leader in the Senate and former Chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the Upper Chamber, is expected to deliver a keynote address that will enrich the debate. And of course there will be several break-out panels to make detailed contributions to the debate. So this is not just another talk-shop with tea breaks and then it ends there. No, the plan is to take the resolutions of the meeting to another level and offer it as basis for reforming the budgetary process. It may be an ongoing conversation but clearly we must start now.

But why don’t we wait for the investigations to end and have possible prosecution ongoing before we have this colloquium you are talking about?
That is the mistake we have been making in this country and this is the time to stop it. Fighting corruption is not only about investigation and prosecution; we must also have a system in place that discourages corruption and make for manipulation minimal if not impossible.