A budget in limbo and the need for public ownership

UDO-UDOMA

By Lakinbofa Goodluck

A national budget approved and passed by the parliament is a law designed to guide the annual income and expenditure of a nation. It is meant to be a sacred act of parliament that must by duly respected by every official of the government. The budget, ideally, is not only meant to be a law; it should be a compass for government expenditure within a budget year. For those who use a compass in their expeditions, it is such an important device the absence of which is dangerous. A journeyman is likely to miss his way without the compass. This explains why nations take time to develop a thorough budgeting process because in it, to a considerable extent, domiciles the socio-economic benefits for the people. As a law, the budget should ordinarily be binding on every government official once it is passed. Yet, perhaps there is no other law that is often broken as the budget even when it is passed. At every budget presentation, we are told of how the budget performance for the presiding yearfails to attain 100% implementation. For us 40% budget performance seems to be a pass mark in our developmental strives.

To further lubricate our inefficiency as a nation, we changed our budget cycle from the regular January to December to a more convenient cycle. This in itself would not have been a bad development if we adhere to the tenets of transparency and efficiency. Despite the alteration in our budget cycle, we still never get to adequately implement the budget. The problems with our budgeting process are endless. A significant portion of the blames is attributable to the executive arm of government and in this case the Ministry of Budget Planning, which coordinates the whole budgeting process. Many times we are made to think the national assembly is responsible for the budget delay, considering that they also encourage frivolities in the name of constituency projects which they drive passionately. However, events have shown that the preparers of the budget appear to repeat the same mistakes every year the budget is presented to the national assembly.

And when the budget is finally passed, it is often replete with inconsistencies and characterised by opacity. In spite of the few citizen advocacy platforms aimed at ensuring a transparent budgeting process, ours is a nation where the budget is public yet it is secret. The secrecy in our budget is explainable because it is meant to cover the frivolous items that are often inserted in it and aimed at personal aggrandisement. As a result of this many Nigerians are not necessarily interested in whether the budget is passed or not, nor are they interested in the details of the budget. However, the budget of a nation should actually interest citizens because the document is a statement of intent for the year. In an ideal environment, the budget would have been representative of the wishes and desires of the people,but owing to the preponderance of failure and non-adherence to provisions in the budget, citizens have lost hope in the ability of the government to impact their lives. But there is a lesson Nigeria can learn from other nations, including African. The Open Budget Survey 2017 by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) ranks South Africa top on the transparency of its budget processes. The survey says that South Africa provides the public with extensive budget information and scores 89 out of 100.In the same survey Nigeria ranked 90th in the world and 23rd in Africa. The survey reports that the government provides scanty information on the budget to the general public, which clearly captures the prevailing situation in the country.

The only time Nigerians are often aware of their budget is when there is a controversy of padding or a revelation of the usual questionable activities often inserted in the document. It is disappointing that things have become even worse in the current dispensation. The responses from the members of the national assembly to the current budget submitted to it are truly disheartening. They have at different situations expressed their disappointment at the items in the budget and the shoddy way it was prepared. Sen. Ben Bruce recently took to the social media to sympathise with the President on what he described as a scandalous budget. He said: “The 2018 budget is so dishonest, so scandalous, so shameful that I am embarrassed for President Buhari. If I were President, I will make a broadcast asking concerned Nigerians to gather at National Stadium to line up to give everyone involved in that budget one stroke of the cane.”This is just one of many misgivings that have been expressed on the budget. To a great extent the 2018 budget has elicited a consensus across political and religious divides in the senate and everyone seems to agree that it is below expectation. In one instance, the senators even described the ministers as unserious and making it difficult for the parliament to pass the budget in due time.

The danger now is that our country is in a political season and attention seems to have been diverted to issues around the 2019 elections and not many are really interested in the budget. The discourse has been about the letter from two former leaders of this country and their reservations about the current president seeking re-election in 2019. What is lost on many is that even the 2019 elections are threatened if the budget is not passed in due time. Departments and agencies of government that are expected to carry out their routine functions financed with recurrent expenditure may find it difficult to do so. Currently there have been reports of inefficiency in INEC voters registration process such that in some centres one individual is expected to attend to hundreds and thousands of people; a task that is clearly impossible. INEC may find it difficult to employ more staff to cater to the need of intending voters because the budget has not been passed. This is just one in many examples of agencies of government that are currently in limbo as a result of the non-passage of the budget.

The budget process could have been hastened if the executive had been more circumspect and rigorous in their approach to budget preparation. The signs of protracted budget passage were glaring long before the President presented the budget before a joint session of the national assembly late last year.The Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) with the Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP), which usuallyforms the basis for assumptions and projections in annual budget of the federation, was not passed before the presentation of the budget proposals to the National Assembly. The MTEF is more of a long term budget planning document that guides the annual budget. That the executive could not send the MTEF to the senate in due time is enough reason to be afraid of another abysmal budgeting outing. To a significant extent the budget process in Nigeria has been in this uninspiring state due to lack of public participation. The public has been involved only at the level of analysis and complaints. It is no surprising that the Open Budget Index ranks Nigeria low in public participation in budget process. Perhaps adopting some of the recommendations of the International Budget Partnership (IBP) will change the tide in our budget process. Some of the recommendations are the production and publication of a Mid-Year Review of every budget. It is also recommended that the government increases the information provided in the Executive’s Budget Proposal by providing more detail on expenditures and revenue. The body also recommends mechanisms for members of the public and executive branch officials to exchange views on national budget matters during the formulation of the national budget and the monitoring of its implementation. Currently, the closest to opening up the budget process for public participation are the budget defence hearings carried out by the Appropriation Committees of both chambers. These hearings are primarily for Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government to defend their budget proposal; the public at best only observes.

There is no gainsaying that we need to formulate a new approach to our budgeting process if we are serious about making significant progress. Passing a budget seven months into the New Year does not project the country as a serious one. Little wonder when the Minister of Power, Works and Housing revealed how woeful his ministry has been in executing capital projects in the last budget year. If the ministry of power, works and housing, which is usually the busiest ministry could not execute a capital project, then one can only imagine what happened in the other ministries. Our disposition to budgeting is clearly defective. If we must change this country, then we must take time to plan and commit to implementing the compass of our spending.The public has been too docile in our attention to the budgeting process; we need to be more involved. 

Copyright 2017 Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.