By Obi Nwakanma
It is actually to the credit of the National Assembly that the gross errors of Nigeria’s 2016 Federal budget were spotted and brought to quick light. I have been a critic of the inaction and complicity of the legislative arm in the defrauding of Nigeria since 1999 by the various elected governments of the federation. File: Buhari during the 2016 budget presentation to the National Assembly.
This certainly is true. But on this occasion the legislators can stand up and take a well-deserved bow for spotting a fraud in progress by the executive arm, and questioning the ridiculous paddings in the budget request submitted to the National Assembly by the Buhari administration. Kudos to the Finance and Budget Committees of the two houses. Such consistent scrutiny and oversight of the executive arm by the legislature may yet salvage Nigeria from the corruption that has long built its nest and headquarters in the executive arm of government.
There, they say, reside the “Budget Mafia.” There is no point rehashing the circumstance of this doomed budget to the readers of the “Orbit,” but it is important to simply note that it is disaster of epochal proportions.
The administration’s response to these questions of how such an incompetent document passed the muster of presidential scrutiny and snaked its way to the National Assembly, remains befuddling.
The president’s spinmeisters have accused a “budget mafia” in the government of orchestrating the fraud. If this were so, it must then be quite clearly noted that it is a felony to forge the seal of the president, for which anyone found guilty faces time in jail. It amounts to a crime against the state particularly to falsify presidential document, as has been claimed by the office of the president, which has disavowed the padded items in the budget.
The president has even launched a probe to fish out the perpetrators of the fraud. But I think that the president and his men are only scrounging for scapegoats and are not truthful enough to accept that the process that led to the current fiasco has much to do with the urgency required to produce a document in the time frame in which the president formed his cabinet more than eight months after he was sworn in to office.
The result is a collage of claims that found their way into the budget. The embarrassment continues to reverberate among the public, and this incident more than anything else that has happened in the short life of this presidency, demonstrates the incompetence of this administration, and the limits of an ersatz government. There is increasing loss of faith in the ability of the APC to govern. There is suggestion that the president does not read the documents, and merely appends his signature on important instruments of state based on faith alone.
This is dangerous for Nigeria in this moment of serious challenges. But beyond the question of the ridiculous paddings in the budget is the real significance of the spending schedules of the budget. Very clearly, Buhari’s budget plan is not designed to create jobs; it is designed to continue the same old, same old process of servicing overheads rather than capital programs. There is more about replacing office computers and electricity cables than in creating jobs or building infrastructure. Last week, Mr. Lai Mohammed, Minister for Culture flatly rejected any knowledge of N368 Million in the budget item of the Ministry of Information for the procurement of computers.
But beyond his denials, there is a rather crazy logic behind a national budget that allocates more money to the manufacture of propaganda than to the Ministry of Trade and Industries for the activation of a national small business credit and loans program for young entrepreneurs, or to the Ministry of Labour, for new job training programs. There is inexplicable logic in budgeting more money for servicing of the presidential office than for the programs of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), even when this administration has claimed that one of its cardinal goals is to push back on unemployment. What could have been a better place to start than a work program, using the NDE as the basis of a National policy on unemployment? Reposition the NDE and redirect its mission beyond its current straits – that would be innovative policy.
That should be the way to go. It would require the collaboration, I have made clear on another occasion, between the Ministry of Labour (using the NDE) with two other key ministries of government – the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Science and Technology to push back the terrible unemployment under an imaginative work program that could reactivate the economy through strategic skills re-training programs, guaranteed star-up credits, and tax-holidays for new ventures. But the Buhari budget has no such plan.
How can this administration be expected to be taken very seriously, when its budget for the Ministry of Defence is greater by far than the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology given Nigeria’s current circumstance? To be fair to President Buhari, he would not be the first to make that mistake. But given Nigeria’s current circumstance, it is a cardinal mistake.
Even overlooking the crazy padding in the budget of the ministry of Defence, one particular example being that the MOD’s budget for procuring sporting equipment for the Army, exceeds the budget for the same item for the entire federal ministry of Sports and Youth development, the Defence ministry depends on importation of Arms and military equipment.
There is very little local content in Nigeria’s National Defence equipment procurement. First thing Nigerians should then ask: where is the defence money going? Overseas of course. How much was budgeted for local Research and Production for Nigeria’s national defence needs, which should be a great reason for establishing a Ministry of Science and Technology? Nothing.
The logic is not clear to the likes of me. Well, there is clearly nothing much else to say than that this budget as presented by the Buhari government is what we would call an “egunje budget.” It is budget for the boys. It is procurement budget rather than production budget. It shows no promise; no change from the past. It in fact makes the immediate past of President Jonathan more and more photogenic. For a president who has made a fetish of anti-corruption, this budget scandal puts president Buhari in a pickle.
The president is fast losing the only thing he came into office with: moral authority. Some of his critics are already saying, it may not be too long now, and Nigerians may yet finally see that Buhari is all wind and straw, and does have feet of clay. If the president is to regain the fast-sliding confidence of Nigerians and his international friends and supporters, he needs to make quick and bolder moves to stir the economy, and demonstrate that he has a full-rein of his government. The president must produce results – quick, precise and clean.