Ningi and the ‘Underground’ Budget

Olusegun Adeniyi

Since the conclusion of my ‘missionary journey’ to Aso Rock almost 14 years ago, I have written more than a dozen columns on the need to reform the budgeting process in Nigeria. Notable ones include ‘The Illusion of Budget Performance’, ‘Budget War and Dysfunctional Envelope System’, ‘Buhari and the Budget Palaver’, ‘Nigeria’s 2016 Zero Budget!’ and ‘Of Government and Budget Blues’. The kernel of these interventions has always been to underscore the fact that what we call budget in Nigeria is essentially about the distribution of ‘political spoils.’ I have also repeatedly referenced a Twitter thread by ‘Laolu Samuel-Biyi who once concluded: “If you want to keep hope alive in Nigeria, don’t look at the budget”.

Had I heeded that admonition I would not have spent the whole of Monday and the better part of Tuesday perusing the 1000-page ‘2024 Appropriation Act FGN Budget Details Volume One’. By the time I was done, I was depressed enough not to bother with volume two of the same report. That second volume contains 1962 pages plus an additional 55 pages that are devoted to chronicling “Zonal Intervention Projects”. Had our lawmakers been content with what they will get from that aspect of the budget, we probably would not have had this controversy. But before I get ahead of myself, it is appropriate to ask: What exactly was I looking for?

Last Saturday, Senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi alleged that the N28.7 trillion 2024 budget being implemented by President Bola Tinubu was “done underground” with an “added sum of N3 trillion”. He then delved into the arena of sectional politics. The presidency was quick to debunk Ningi’s allegation, accusing him of lying. At the end, I was not surprised that Ningi received a three-month suspension from the senate or that he walked back on his allegation. There is neither North nor South, East nor West when it comes to sharing the proverbial ‘national cake’ at the National Assembly. This much could be glimpsed from the contribution of Senator Agom Jarigbe before he was shouted down. “All of us are culpable. Some so-called senior senators here got N500 million each from the 2024 budget. I am a ranking Senator; I didn’t get anything. No senator has any right to accuse Senator Ningi…” Jarigbe said to the displeasure of colleagues, in a scene described by a former governor as ‘Off the Mic 2.0.’

No matter how ill-motivated his allegations may be, Ningi cannot be casually dismissed. He is one of the most experienced lawmakers in Nigeria today having served in the National Assembly since 1999. He has also, at different times, been Majority Leader in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate. When a man like that makes such weighty allegations, it is safe to conclude that there is no smoke without fire. But let’s first look at the bigger picture in the 2024 budget.

Under ‘Capital Supplementation’ (please don’t ask me what that means or how to explain the details below) many items come with round figure sums which raises questions about the process by which they were arrived at. For instance, ‘Contingency (Capital)’ has a vote of N200 billion; ‘Outstanding Liabilities’, N50 billion; ‘Clean Energy Initiatives: Development of Local Infrastructure, Conversion to CNG, Electric Vehicles etc.’, N130 billion; ‘Consumer Credit Fund’, N100 billion; ‘Infrastructure Project Preparation Fund’, N21 billion; ‘Mortgage Development Promotion Fund’, N65 billion; ‘Recapitalization of Ministry of Finance Incorporated (MOFI)’, N20 billion; ‘Restructuring/Recapitalization of NIPOST’, N10 billion; ‘Special Projects SGD’, N30 billion; ‘Subscription to shares in International Organizations’, N15 billion; ‘Recapitalisation of Development Finance Institutions’, N10 billion etc.

The interesting bits of course come with the breakdown of budgets for the Ministries Department and Agencies (MDAs). I have decided to pick the budget of the Ministry of Works. Not because of the quantum of money allocated to the ministry (more than a trillion Naira) but rather because I recently commended the Minister, Dave Umahi when he made a declaration of preference for concrete roads as opposed to bitumen roads in the country. From the budget, I doubt if he would be constructing any serious road this year—bitumen or concrete.

As an aside, in view of Senator Jarigbe’s allegation, I did ‘research’ on the N500 million projects. There are nine road constructions/rehabilitations under the Ministry of Works with each allocated N500,410,000. Two are in Akwa Ibom State, another two for the Ibadan-Ogbomosho Expressroad, one for the Enugu-Port Harcourt Road, one for the Ilorin-Jebba-Mokwa Road, and one for the Bida-Lambata Road in Niger State. The one for the ‘Ifaki-Oye-Ayedun-Omuo-Kogi border in Ekiti State’ is simply for a rounded figure of N500 million without any ‘addendum’. In the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, 20 projects totalling N18 billion (and most of which have nothing to do with agriculture) are going to Akwa Ibom North West senatorial district being represented by Senate President Godswill Akpabio. There are also five ‘empowerment’ projects in the Ministry of Women Affairs each costing N500 million, all to the same senatorial district in Akwa Ibom State. You find many such projects in the constituencies of National Assembly Principal Officers across several ministries. And these are not part of the ‘zonal intervention projects’ that are solely for the lawmakers.

Now, to the Ministry of Works. The 2024 capital budget for the ministry is N916,574,239,856. There is an additional allocation of N70,611,518,333 for the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA). Aside the N2.2 billion for vehicles and N4.1 billion for electricity, provision for the construction of roads takes N438 billion while ‘Construction of Infrastructure’ takes N209 billion. Then you have another 242.9 billion allocations for ‘Rehabilitation/Repair’ of roads.

In all, I counted 961 projects in the ministry’s 2024 budget listed as ONGOING. Interestingly, I have been told by those who should know that when you see ONGOING after a project, it is to circumvent the public procurement process. Many could be new projects. But let’s even leave that matter for now. Any critical observer will see that most of these ‘ONGOINGs’ are just about leaving small money ‘on the table’ for some local operatives, considering the amounts involved. For instance, there is a vote of N4.1 million each (yes, N4.1 million) for more than 20 ‘ongoing’ road constructions/rehabilitations in this ministry. They include ‘Special Repairs of Ilesa-Ijebu Road in Osun State Route number F117 (Phase 2)’; ‘Special Repairs of Birni Kebbi-Argungu-Kan Iyaka (Sokoto State border) Route 219’; ‘Special Repairs of Talatan-Marafan Sokoto Border Road, Routes 85’ and so many others. If we can excuse all that, what about the vote of N1.4 million for each of these major projects? ‘Reconstruction of Benin-Warri Dual Carriageway (Section 3: Ibada-Elume-Warri) (Km 66+275-KM+800 in Delta State’; ‘Construction of Bidda-Sacci-Nupeco Road across River Niger linking Nupeco and Patigi in Niger/Kwara State’ etc.

I know we have magicians in Nigeria but to construct a road and bridge across River Niger for N1.4 million is something else. Under NEW projects which I will come to shortly, there is also a N1.4 million vote for the ‘Rehabilitation of Makurdi-Gboko-Katsina Ala Road’. The ‘Design and Construction of Ogrite (Enugu State)—Akpanya-Oduru (Kogi State) Extension 2 With Extension to Obollo Afor’ takes N61.5 million. The same amount is voted for ‘Washout and Critical Threatened Road Section of Federal Road in Kaduna State’ and more than 30 other road projects across the country. And please don’t bother to correct the grammar. I merely dubbed what is in the 2024 appropriation law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And please also don’t ask me how; but those amounts of money will leave the treasuries.

If the above are for ‘local operatives’, we can guess to whom no fewer than 85 percent of the road projects with the same amounts of monetary allocations would go. About 130 of them have a vote of N71,750,000 (that’s N71.7 million) each, while most of the rest are either N61,500,000 or N287,000,000 or N100,410,000. The interesting thing about the last figure is that two votes stand out. ‘Construction of Ikorodu-Itoikin Road (Sabo Roundabout to Itoikin Market)’ goes for N1,100,410,000. For the ‘Construction of Malando Garin Baka Wara Road in Kebbi State’ it is going for N10,100,410,000. Obviously, some people are clever at juggling figures!

Collectively, we have about 1200 road projects (ONGOING and NEW) in the Ministry of Works. With the budget already cannibalized, Nigerians who expect Umahi’s ‘concrete roads’ would wait in vain. Let’s now go to some of the NEW projects of which there are 237. Most of them are also in round figure sums, ranging between N10 million and N100 million. Of course, there are also ‘small potatoes’ here. Like the ‘Improvement of Electricity to Shagari Town, Sokoto State’, with a vote of N1 million! Same for the ‘Improvement of Electricity Supply to Argungu-Iyabo, Sokoto Community’. If you think such amounts make no sense or imagine the projects should be under the Ministry of Power, then you don’t understand budget in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, what you find in the Ministry of Works is replicated in all the other MDAs where monies are simply shared. For instance, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, you have a vote of N100 million for the ‘Renovation and Equipping of Block of Classrooms in Selected Communities of Yewa North LGA and Imeko Afon LGA in Ogun State.’ I guess that is part of ‘boosting food security’ in the country!

Overall, if you combine the N1.2 trillion ‘officially added’ by the National Assembly (which President Bola Tinubu has gleefully accepted) to other insertions, you will be looking at around 30 percent of the capital budget that does not pass the test of transparency and accountability. But nobody is deceived. The insertions are not only for the lawmakers, many of the ‘projects’ are also for members of the executive and judiciary as well as their friends in the private sector. That’s the way we roll with budgets in Nigeria. The more interesting thing is that if you check the budgets of previous years, they are based on the same template.

What I find disturbing is that President Tinubu is comfortable with what the National Assembly has done with the 2024 budget and is even defending it. This is strange. Signing the 2022 Appropriation Bill into law two years ago, then President Muhammadu Buhari expressed concern over the alterations made by the National Assembly. These changes, according to him, “are in the form of new insertions, outright removals, reductions and/or increases in the amounts allocated to projects.” He added that ‘‘provisions made for as many as 10,733 projects were reduced while 6,576 new projects were introduced into the budget by the National Assembly.”  

The distortions by the National Assembly on allocations for those critical projects, Buhari further warned, “may render the projects unimplementable or set back their completion.” He added that most of these projects “relate to matters that are basically the responsibilities of states and local governments, and do not appear to have been properly conceptualised, designed and costed. And many more projects have been added to the budgets of some MDAs with no consideration for the institutional capacity to execute the additional projects and/or for the incremental recurrent expenditure that may be required.’’  

The National Assembly of course fought back and Buhari capitulated. But we cannot continue this way. Reforming the budgeting process is important if we want to develop as a nation. That will not happen until our lawmakers become alive to their oversight responsibility. Section 88, subsection 2(b) of the 1999 Constitution expects the National Assembly to “expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it”. But how can they do that effectively when they engage in a politically incestuous relationship with the executive?

If you speak to any of our lawmakers, they will remind you that even in the United States, there is what is called ‘Earmark’ which refers to ‘federal spending for a specific project for a particular congressional district, locality, or state.’ What they would not tell you is that even in the United States, so controversial are these spendings (most often linked with corruption) that they were dispensed with for ten years and only returned in 2021. Besides, the budgeting guidelines from the Congress Committees on Appropriations has capped earmark spending at no more than 1 percent. And in the US, lawmakers are not the contractors for these projects, unlike what obtains here. My authority on that is no other than Akpabio who, as Niger Delta Minister, confirmed that most of the contracts in the MDAs go to our federal lawmakers.

For me, the value of Ningi’s allegation is the opportunity for a conversation on budgeting process, if we are truly serious about changing the narrative of our country. As I have always argued, the current regime of ‘envelope system’ which essentially means that we simply determine spending categories rather than spending priorities, cannot serve our nation. With resource allocation made to resemble a distribution of spoils rather than a collective plan for an integrated whole, it is difficult to blame the National Assembly members for the insertion of projects because they are merely aping what they know members of the executive did with the proposal submitted to them. Ministers, heads of parastatals and top bureaucrats (who did not go through the rigour of any election) also insert projects not only for themselves but their principals. As I wrote two years ago, one only needs to check the number of federal government projects being taken to Daura under Buhari to understand this. Yet, when a national budget is reduced to sharing public resources between and among powerful interests as it has become in Nigeria, how can a society develop?  

In my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, I highlighted what happened with the 2008 budget which the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was reluctant to sign due to what he considered the extreme meddlesomeness of the lawmakers. The main contention at that time was that the lawmakers had virtually rewritten the budget by introducing several clauses in contravention of the principle of separation of powers and inserting several projects with costs that were arrived at through guess work. “In summary, the legislators unilaterally initiated projects for which they provided money without any input from the executive which ordinarily should design, cost, execute and supervise such projects” I wrote, recounting how and why the option of judicial interpretation from the Supreme Court was eventually discarded. That we are still talking about the same problem 16 years after reflects the lack of accountability that drives public finance in Nigeria.   

With the suspension of Ningi, the National Assembly might imagine that everything has been resolved. It has not. We will not ‘Off the Mic’ on this issue. As I stated in the past, while the idea of restructuring may mean different things to different people, what some of us have always advocated is a serious national conversation around the appropriate institutional design to make government and those who hold the levers of power (whether in the executive, judiciary, or legislature) accountable to Nigerians. It is about how we can harness the much-touted potential for the greater good of our people. This will not happen until we reform critical areas of our national life. That includes the budgeting process!

I wish all my Muslim readers Ramadan Kareem!

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