Again, Budget 2016
By: Olatunji Dareon
It is probably just as well that the National Assembly has suspended discussion and deliberation on President Muhammadu Buhari’s budget proposals for fiscal 2016. There is simply no way to move forward on a document so gravely flawed and so lacking in the basic integrity with which Buhari is widely credited.
The more one learns about the budget proposals, the more one is distressed that it was ever presented as a Budget of Change. For it is nothing of the sort. It is in many ways a budget of Continuity – continuity of the feeding frenzy, the financial recklessness and the sheer rapacity of the Jonathan years. And it tests sorely the public’s faith in the capacity of the Buhari Administration to set Nigeria on a new path.
A budget of change would have questioned rigorously the fundamental assumptions on which previous budgets were grounded. A budget prepared at a time revenues from oil exports had fallen by more than 60 per cent would have rejected out of hand the business-as –usual approach in favour of something lean, even mean, if only to signal indeed that hard times are here and will be with us for quite a while.
It would have scrutinised every proposed expenditure unsentimentally, cutting out whatever is not absolutely necessary and demanding, if an expenditure is warranted, that it be met at a cost that takes into account the nation’s diminished financial circumstances. It would have resonated with a call for sacrifice and prudence.
Thus, it would have questioned whether the President and Vice President and their families should for all practical purposes be wards of the Nigerian state, with their every need and desire and fancy met from the public purse, in a country where the anaemic minimum wage of N18, 000 goes unpaid for months.
But what do we find?
To take one scandalous example: The budget makes outrageous provisions for the kitchen equipment and cookware and ancillary stuff on which the previous year’s budget – and the one before it – had received outlays that bordered on the obscene.
What happened to all the kitchen equipment and cookware and related stuff provided for in the State House budget every year Dr Jonathan was in office? Were any purchases made? What happened to last year’s purchase, and the previous year’s? Was the material ever inventoried?
They probably did so much cooking and preparing cassava bread in the place that at year’s end, the equipment purchased only the previous year for tens of millions of Naira – junk stuff most likely, like the military hardware acquired during the same period, were no longer serviceable.
But with a new resident in the Villa, one not given to the bacchanalia and the gastronomic proclivities of the previous resident and his train, there is no excuse for such profligacy.
This is indeed the time to consider privatising the entire catering operation at the Villa, in keeping with the public-private partnership strategy that has become obligatory for solving national problems. That way, the government pays a charge on the catering, without having to buy a new set of kitchen equipment every year.
Take, as a second example the more than N4.9 million earmarked for books for the office of the Vice President for fiscal 2016. It is considerably less than the previous year’s outlay of N7.5 million, though the incumbent is a legal scholar and practitioner of the first rank, unlike his predecessor, an architect who never pretended to be a bibliophile.
Though relatively small, the expenditure on books for the former vice president’s office for fiscal 2015 year cries out for justification, as does the proposed expenditure in the 2016 Budget for the current vice president.
Were books actually bought in 2015? Who determined what books should be bought? What subjects do they cover? Where are the books now? Are they in safe custody, properly catalogued and available to staffers of the Vice President’s office and officials in other bureaus of the Presidency? Or did the former vice president take them away as personal effects, to be read in the leisure he never enjoyed in office?
Who determined that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s suite should boast a library crammed with books worth nearly N5 million? What subjects will the volumes cover? Even if he is inclined to read them all, he will never have the time. They may even constitute a distraction. So, whom are the budget planners trying to impress?
But the puzzle does not end there. A cable linking one part of the Presidential Villa to other drivers’ rest room is to be installed for some N322 million, and another linking a Guest House to the generator room is to be installed for N213 million.
How did these come to be budget priorities in these hard times? If they had hitherto run the place without these cables, why install them now when the cost could serve more urgent needs?
Then there is the allocation of N618.6 million for electrical lighting and fittings at the Villa, and another N37.7 million for electrical distribution boards and other cables. What happened to the electrical lighting and fittings and distribution boards and cables that previously served the Villa? All of them went bust in one fell swoop? Or were there none to begin with, in which case it is necessary to ask: What then makes them so urgent now?
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Professor Isaac Adewole stopped just short of calling the budget document for his ministry a forgery. He disavowed it, saying that it had been doctored in such a way as to upend the ministry’s priorities.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, discovered a “strange” provision of N230 million and N168 million for the purchase of computers for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) and the Film and Video Censors Board.
The budget proposals for the Investments and Securities Tribunal, it has turned out, were copied word for word from the previous year’s submission.
These are just some of the willful errors, duplications, inflated prices, misplaced priorities and shoddiness with which the 2016 budget documents are strewn. The Federal Government blames it on a “budget mafia,” entrenched civil servants who have made a career of gaming the system for corrupt self-enrichment.
This will not do. Members of the so-called mafia report to superior officials who in turn report to the President, who is on record as saying that he took so long to name a cabinet because he wanted to be sure that he had the right officials in the right places.
With regard to the 2016 budget, this seems not to have been the case. By their negligence, indifference and complicity, Buhari’s senior officials have caused him and the nation great embarrassment. They have also undermined public faith in his commitment to change, and in his administration’s capacity to break away from the failed habits of the past.
They should not go unpunished.
What this budget fiasco has revealed is in a fundamental sense a failure of auditing. Public institutions operate for years on end without being audited. Errors, witting and unwitting, go undetected and become self-perpetuating.
No effort to combat official malfeasance, however spirited, can succeed without a strong and responsive audit mechanism.