THE expectations were high given Nigeria’s new government’s insistence that it should be judged and assessed appropriately only when its own programmes got underway through a budget prepared by it rather than on the basis of an inherited budget. President Muhammadu Buhari was also to personally present the budget by addressing the joint sitting of the National Assembly, which address would not only give the policy, economic and political direction of the budget, but also clarify the overall goal and objective of the new government. Against the backdrop that the new government had won a national election on the basis of a campaign for change in the country, not a few Nigerians were anxiously waiting for what the president would say during the budget address, especially given that former President Goodluck Jonathan elected to send the last two budget proposals of his government to the National Assembly through the Minister of Finance. There was obviously something to be gained from the president speaking to the budget and conveying the key elements to Nigerians.
And President Buhari did not disappoint, as he used the platform to proclaim a budget of change, detailing a new way of doing things that would privilege service over personal aggrandizement and signal the return of real development in the country. Sadly, that was where and when everything started to change. Rather than the new hope remarked by President Buhari, Nigerians started pointing out a continuation of the old ways of asking Nigerians for sacrifice while the leaders themselves revel in opulence, when the details of the budget proposals became public knowledge. From increase in the provision for feeding at Aso Rock Villa to outrageous provisions for maintenance of the seat of government, Nigerians were near unanimous that the so-called Budget of Change did not reflect the present reality of economic challenges in the country.
Unfortunately, the government did not offer any concrete reason for the insensitive provisions, but persisted in calling for the understanding of Nigerians. The narrative became more irritating when it was discovered that the budget had been changed or substituted somewhat without due process in a saga that came to be known as the missing budget controversy. In the end, the government did not offer any explanation for the missing budget, beyond the president having to thereafter write officially to the National Assembly withdrawing the earlier version and presenting a reworked one. Nigerians had thought that with the controversy over the substitution of the budget now laid to rest, the process would turn to a more substantive engagement with the budget in order to dissect its provisions and debate whether they were justified. This was especially important given the almost fifty percent deficit envisaged in the budget with experts proffering different and differing positions on the propriety of the huge deficit. But details of other ridiculous provisions started coming out, such as the capital allocation to the State House Clinic of N3.89 billion when only N2.67 billion was allocated for the construction of hospitals nationwide.
Worse still, when the different ministries and agencies started appearing before the relevant committees of the National Assembly to defend their proposals, it became very clear that the current budget was not just suffering from misplaced priorities, as the ministers and heads of parastatals began disowning the various allocations for their agencies. The Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, stated emphatically that what was before the National Assembly was different from what his ministry prepared and suggested that perhaps rats had infested the budget. In the same vein, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Pastor Usani Usani Uguru, disowned the allocation for his ministry while Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, clearly stated that he was not aware of the N398 million provision for the purchase of computers for some of the agencies under his ministry. All the officials of the Ministry of Education could not explain how a bogus N10 billion overhead crept into the Ministry’s proposal. Thus, officials started speaking of a budget mafia that must have been at work in padding the budget with unnecessary and indefensible items.
The Federal Government and the Presidency have not officially responded to the absurdity and ridicule coming out of the budget proposals and their defence before the National Assembly beyond the replacement of the Director-General of the Budget Office. But the irregularities characterizing the budget proposals are of such magnitude that speaks to a collapse of structure across the whole edifice of governance under the present administration. It is expected that any document that would receive the imprimatur of the president must have undergone a rigorous process of vetting before being submitted to the National Assembly and becoming a public document. It was bad enough that the president had to retrieve the first submission with the assurance that necessary corrections had been effected. It would seem that even at the point of the retrieval, there was nothing concrete done as to checking and vetting the document. This does not convey the right impression about the workings of the Presidency.
Given that the reworked budget still contained the scandalous provision of daily routine maintenance of Aso Rock Villa to the tune of N10.72 milion, a daily allocation of N1.6 million for electrical fittings, the bewildering provision of 18 different prices for the same item, and the disowning of many of the items by relevant ministries and agencies, it is high time the government accepted that there is no credible budget document yet. There is no way it could do business with this highly flawed document. It is therefore fit and proper to withdraw the document and apologize to Nigerians as a signal that it has learnt the right lessons and is ready to put in place the necessary structure for the effective delivery of a new, worthwhile budget document. The government has badly damaged its own standing by the way its budget document has turned out, but it would inflict further damage on itself if it pretends that all is well. The path of honour is to accept the depth of the mistake by withdrawing the present budget document and working to present another one that would hopefully meet Nigerians’ expectation of integrity and functionality and thus help to restore the credibility of the government.