President Muhammadu Buhari placed a box wrapped in Nigerian colours before a joint session of the National Assembly on December 22, 2015. He took a bow, smiled with what seemed a deep sense of accomplishment, and the plaudits clattered about him as he took his leave. When the box was opened afterwards, out flew all the plagues that threaten Nigeria.
Corruption, for which the President professes a deep hatred, flew out of that box in form of the padding of the budget. So did insensitivity, duplicity, greed, inefficiency, lack of vision, misplaced priorities, anti-people tendencies, etc. And Nigerians have been aghast, wondering how they came to court such misfortune.
And for once there has been a reason – no thanks to the inglorious item in that infamous box, namely the 2016 budget – for even the staunchest supporters of President Buhari, those who hold him to be infallible or beyond reproach, to have a rethink. On social media, where such fanatical supporters would normally trawl for opportunities to threaten even mild and objective critics of the president with venom, the president’s critics were permitted to have an open season on the budget and by implication him, since his presentation of the budget implies his having adopted it as his and his administration’s instrument of fiscal planning for the country, regardless of its origins.
One undeniable implication of his personally presenting it to the National Assembly is that he was in essence saying to the National Assembly, “Here is the budget by which I propose run the country for the 2016 fiscal year.”
And why would even his most ardent supporters demure to defend him after the mind-boggling details of proposed expenditures in the budget came to light? Could it be because, like his critics, they were equally shocked by the glaring indefensibility of the document and some of the expenses it proposes, like the payment of rent for Aso Rock, the president’s official residence, as though some giant hermit crab, as the king of other crabs in some fable, would be right in proposing to use their collective funds to pay “rent” for his current shell of which he is by all intents and purposes the pro tempore landlord?
In the wake of the budget scandal, the president has reacted predictably by sacking some public servants, including what could be described as the country’s chief budget officer, and vowing to punish those responsible for padding the budget. This is understandable for a leader at whose desk the buck is meant to stop, who therefore has the ultimate prerogative to sack those considered to be complicit in such matters or who through errors of omission embarrassed the president and his government by encouraging him to present such an outrageous budget to the Nigerian people through the National Assembly.
Yet it must be noted that if President Buhari has a boss interested in doing things properly and who insists on holding subordinates accountable for their errors, it would have been hard for him to escape sack in the aftermath of the budget scandal. I mean a sack for adopting such an important document and proceeding to present it to the public, as it were, apparently without reading it, let alone carrying out the necessary scrutiny that would have pre-emptively identified and removed those contents that have sparked public outrage against his administration and made our nation an object of ridicule to the wider world.
But to be fair to President Buhari, I believe his involvement in this issue has no trace of conscious misdeed. I rather think he fell victim of his trust; that he was let down by people he believed he could delegate the responsibility of preparing a credible budget for him, but who instead saw an opportunity to use him as a fall guy to advance their venal interests as expressed in the budget, at the nation’s expense.
However, this paints a worrisome picture of a president who may not be in charge after all, and who must fight hard to ward off the influence of the sinister forces that surround him, threatening to take him hostage and manipulate him like a glorified puppet; and who must realise that his success depends on how soon and successfully he can snatch his independence from them and keep it.
It also hints at a president who needs the support of every patriotic Nigerian to succeed, given that we would all have been victims of the fraud had the budget been passed in its original form, without the changes we expect to be made in response to our collective outrage.
Of course weeding out public servants of doubtful loyalty and integrity can be a way forward. But the result can be counterproductive unless they are replaced with competent people who also have integrity. For the president must recognise that, in such dire conditions in which Nigeria finds itself, competence must be judged superior to loyalty in choosing people for national service, provided disloyalty cannot readily be adduced against such people.
Loyalty without competence breeds mediocrity. And encouraging a culture of mediocrity will only worsen our current predicament as a people, and ensure the spread of the type of ineptitude evident in the preparation of the 2016 budget, with its progress-arresting malignancy.
But what perhaps makes the 2016 budget most disagreeable is its anti-people orientation. Suffice it to cite two of its contents to buttress this charge. One is the proposal to spend N4,906,822.00 on books for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s office, whereas the lesser sum of N3,832,038.00 is proposed for books for eleven out of twenty-two federal polytechnics in the country. Also, the budget allocates N3.8 billion for the State House Medical Centre and a lesser sum of N2,666,853,303.00 for building hospitals nationwide.
So the people, represented by the polytechnic students get less allocation for books for their education than the office of one leader, the Vice President. This anti-people orientation of the budget is also evident in its proposal to spend more on one clinic for the State House than for building hospitals for use by the generality of the Nigerian people.
The proposed allocation for books for the Vice President’s office is particularly curious because he is already a professor, and the demands of his office are not likely to allow him time to read the volume of books one expects to be purchased with such a humongous sum, whereas reading books is essentials to the education of the students, which however gets a lesser allocation. This is an indication of the misplacement of priority that also makes the budget anti-future, for the students represent the future.
Now, with these budgetary proposals, is it still a mystery that Nigerian education and public health system are notorious for poor performance?