Of Government and Budget Blues

11
The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

Last Sunday in Kano, a city where millions of young people are neither in school nor meaningfully engaged, an official wedding was organised for 1,500 couples at the cost of N300 million by the state government. “The beneficiaries were selected from each of the 44 LGAs of the state by the committee shouldered with the responsibilities of selecting and screening eligible beneficiaries,” said Governor Abdullahi Ganduje who explained that part of the N300 million was spent on providing complete sets of beds, side mirrors, wardrobes and mattresses presented to the couples as gifts.

As depressing as one may find the development, it is symptomatic of what government has been reduced to in Nigeria and it also explains how the culture of entitlement has been institutionalized. Now, if you help a man to marry, who is going to take care of the family? When children come, how do they go to school? What about their health and other social needs? How does government justify its tax drive if the hard-earned contributions of some citizens would be given to others to marry wives? As wasteful as some of us find the idea of subsidy in the downstream sector of the petroleum industry, how can anybody in good conscience now campaign for its removal if these are the kinds of expenditure it would fund?

While so many questions beg for answers, I fail to understand the motivation behind this crazy idea beyond cheap politics that can only appeal to the mob. Sadly, in the same Kano on Tuesday, the State House of Assembly passed the ‘Pensions Rights of Speaker and Deputy Law 2019’ bill which grants life pensions in jumbo sums of money as well as foreign medical trips and new vehicles every four years, to speakers and their deputies after they leave the office. It is believed to be part of the deal struck with the governor last year to stave off his impeachment, following the dollar-bribe video scandal. Not content with looting public resources while in office, elected public officials in both the executive and legislative arms of government are legislating public money to take care of their future.

Last week in Lagos, Pastor Poju Oyemade of the Covenant Christian Centre and his wife, Toyin hosted the May edition of ‘Platform Nigeria’ with the theme, ‘The drivers, Enablers and obstacles to our Growth’. The tone for the conversation was set by my sister, Ndidi Nwuneli who spoke to the growing hunger in Nigeria amid vast opportunities. I addressed the peril of petrodollars and how we can harness the enormous potentials in the country for the greater good of our people. In illustrating my intervention with an imaginary cow that had created a dependency syndrome and a culture of waste, I argued that if we continue on the current trajectory, there is no way Nigeria would not at some point crash. Now we have come to the point where political office holders are awarding themselves scandalous pensions schemes after spending four years in office, basically serving themselves.

This cynical disposition to public office in promotion of private interest accounts for the desperation and killings during elections. But those are issues for another day. What I want to deal with today is the budgeting process which highlights the challenge we face in Nigeria. The senate has passed the 2019 appropriation bill after jerking it up from the N8.83 trillion presented by President Muhammadu Buhari to N8.916 trillion, essentially to accommodate the severance benefits of outgoing lawmakers and their aides. We are waiting for the House of Representatives for their own version, may be with other adds-on!

Ordinarily, the national budget is the financial plan of a country with some of the major objectives being to reduce inequalities by mobilising and allocating resources for investment in the public sector. But when a budget is reduced to sharing money between and among powerful interests, how can a society develop? It is little surprise that the most compelling argument for restructuring is that the current arrangement, which encourages bad behavior at practically all levels, is not sustainable.

That point was also eloquently made by Mr ‘Laolu Samuel-Biyi in his very revealing Twitter thread, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1125199032756908032.html, where he wrote, “If you want to keep hope alive in Nigeria, don’t look at the budget”. I canvassed this same point in the past based on personal experience in my column of 28th November, 2013 titled, ‘The Fallacy of Budget Performance’ and I believe it is worth repeating:

 

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It was just about three weeks after I assumed office as spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007 when I received a memo from the office of the permanent secretary, State House, seeking the input of my department for the 2008 budget that was under preparation. Because both the deputy director and the assistant director for Information in my office were people I knew way back from my days as correspondent at the villa, I always deferred to their experience and wise counsel. For that reason, it was easy for me to learn very fast about how government works. The explanation for the memo was that I had the power to initiate project(s) that would be accommodated in the national budget.

At that period, I really had no idea as to what my budgetary input should be and it took two other reminder memos for me to come up with one. Having been in Katsina with the president about two or three times by then, the idea I had was to build a presidential media centre in the state capital so that in the event that we were there and the president needed to broadcast, we would not have to rush back to Abuja. I left the details for the project and subsequent follow up with the State House budget office to my staff and I forgot about it. But several months later in May 2008, I received a visitor in my office who turned out to be a contractor. His mission was simple: he came to see how he could handle the building of the presidential media centre in Katsina that was already in the 2008 Appropriation Act under my department!

My discussion with the contractor was as interesting as it was sad for it revealed a lot not only about the management of public expenditure but also about what we call budget in our country. By then, it had dawned on me that for some inexplicable reasons, the late president preferred returning back to Abuja same day whenever we went to Katsina. Only on rare occasions did we spend more than a day. Besides, I was dealing with a principal who actually hated making any broadcast. So at the end, I decided that I was no longer going to build the presidential media centre in Katsina even though there was monetary provision for it in the budget. There was no way I was going to build what would amount to a wasteful monument.

Perhaps because of that experience, I paid more attention to the “envelope system” on which our annual national budget revolves and I learnt several lessons as to why it is difficult for our nation to develop based on the culture of waste that we have institutionalized. For instance, if I wanted to be really creative, I could have proposed “the first annual conference of African presidential spokesmen” to be hosted by Nigeria (you find many of such conferences in the budget) and in that case, I would have to buy vehicles and other things. Indeed, our annual budget is a study in purchases that do not advance the cause of the economy. Or I could actually locate the presidential media centre in my village in Kwara State and say it would be for the training of journalists who cover the State House! In Nigeria, you can rationalise anything but how can a country develop with such kind of official chicanery?
I have said it before and I will say it again, the current regime of “envelope system” which essentially means that we simply determine spending categories, i.e. Presidency, Education, Defense, Agriculture, Health etc, rather than spending priorities, cannot serve our nation. As I argued last year (2012), this method, which suits both the executive and the legislature, not only promotes waste but also undermines rigour and strategic thinking. Everybody is made to spend something without accepting responsibility for whether it would make any meaningful impact in the financial year, while projects requiring much higher levels of capital outlay are underfunded.

With a constitution that prescribes that a minister must come from each of the 36 states and Abuja, resource allocation has already been made to resemble a distribution of spoils. That also explains why our annual budget has become a mere aggregation of individual wishes rather than a collective plan for an integrated whole.

 

On BRI and Road Ahead

By Tony Ejinkeonye
Dear Segun, thank you for your very revealing piece on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is China’s way of creating an alternative economic bloc from that of the west. Africa and indeed the rest of the world ultimately benefits when there is a choice between two extreme alternatives. The world enjoyed relative peace during the cold war for the fact that two great nations were in conflict with each other. Competition breeds efficiency. I agree with you completely that within the framework of the BRI, a country with purposeful leadership and defined goals have so much to benefit. I have been involved with the BRI since inception through the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce (SRCIC) and instrumental to chambers of commerce in Nigeria registration with them.

At all times in my private and public discourse with the Chinese, the emphasis has always been on doing business on a win – win basis. But like every business or nation, you don’t get what you deserve but rather what you negotiate. There is no free lunch anywhere. Western nations ate our breakfast. Eastern nations are now eating our lunch. Nigeria and Africa need to ensure that they don’t also eat our dinner. I have made it clear on many fora that Nigeria needs to bring in experts and professionals during negotiations and not just government bureaucrats.

Every country has its own ground rules for business but it seems that when it comes to foreigners, we ‘forget’ to do the needful and instead of blaming our regulators, we turn around to blame the Chinese for every woe, both real and imagined. The lesson: We must up our game in every aspect to match with the best in the world.

• Ejinkeonye is Business Development Director, Africa, Esilknet Network; and National Vice President, NACCIMA