In the United States, for the last couple of years, the executive and congress have enjoyed recurrent squabbles over the national budget. With a large deficit, and a worrying debt ceiling, the gladiators provide the media with enough drama for public discourse. Here in Nigeria, as fast copiers of the US system, we have just copied the drama, and raised its intensity. With its many twists and tragicomedies, the 2016 budget is obviously the best in Nigeria’s short history.
In December 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari appeared before a joint session of the National Assembly to personally present his administration’s first budget. His appearance was hailed as the first time in recent history that a sitting president read out his government’s budget personally. Prior to his appearance, his astute vice, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo had informed Nigerians that contrary to past happenings, the budget would follow the principle of “zero budgeting” in order to eliminate waste and corrupt loopholes. Although Osinbajo proposed a ₦8 trillion budget, his boss presented ₦6.08 trillion. This “huge” sum was an obvious manifestation of change, trumping past budget sums, despite a gloomy revenue outlook, and proposing 30% of the budget for capital expenditure.
All was well as Nigerians eagerly awaited the passage of the unprecedented budget. As an avant garde budget, it announced its newness in January 2016. Nigerians woke one day to hear that the budget was missing, stolen from the National Assembly. Damn! Who could pull such a stunt amidst the trigger-happy, armed-to-the-teeth security operatives guarding the legislative chambers? In the ensuing hubbub, the House of Representatives stated that its copy was not missing. Only the red chamber accepted that its copy had miraculously vanished.
Conspiracy theorists went into action, theorizing about the culpability of the executive in secretly withdrawing the budget for corrections. Other theories focused on the Senate and its embattled president trying to discredit the noble Buhari. After several exchanges, rumours of multiple divergent versions, and the scapegoating of Sen. Ita Enang, Buhari’s adviser, the National Assembly finally settled on a copy of the budget with which it could work. At last, Nigerians were to get their budget.
The scriptwriters were not done though. The next episode of the budget drama featured allegations of “budget padding”. Apparently, the budget was not fluffy enough, so in the spirit of zero-budgeting, large pads (not sanitary!) were added to ensure budget stability. The only problem was that several of the pads cost billions of naira—expensive appendages at a time when Nigerians were facing austere economic conditions. Officials of the Office of the Citizen, aided by civil society organisations such as BudgIT, and some legislators began to expose some of the elaborately jewelled budget pads.
Midway through this scintillating episode, some ministers publicly disowned their own ministries’ budgets, blaming “rats” for the padding. It was a twist only thinkable by creative scriptwriters. In another round of scapegoating, the Director of the Budget Office was fired, and the president threatened that heads would roll. The National Assembly’s Joint Appropriation Committee, in its own words, managed to clean up the budget after so much hard work. Finally, the 2016 Appropriation Bill was passed by legislators largely ignorant of the contents. Nigerians now had a budget to power change.
The presidential assent provided the backdrop for the next episode. The legislators sent the president a document representing the budget, and asked him to give his assent—sign it! With his vast experience in Nigerian politics, the president declined to sign, asking for the budget details as a prerequisite. After a few media tit-for-tats, the National Assembly sent the requested details. To study the details, an emergency executive council meeting was convened, unattended by the president because, as his spokesman said, the president does not have to be present to study the budget.
The vice president and the ministers rigorously checked the budget details for padding and inconsistencies that would “make the budget un-implementable”. Unsurprisingly, they found some unpardonable pads. According to them, the legislators had removed important projects, arbitrarily slashed some projects’ values, added new projects alien to the executive, and jacked up the size of their own money vending machine—constituency projects. That’s where the drama is right now.
All eyes are on the scriptwriters to pen more engaging episodes and maybe, a befitting season finale. The president has refused his assent, supported by the constitution. The same constitution empowers the legislators to bypass his veto and make the Appropriation Act a binding document. Somewhere in this drama lies the senate president’s trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, and lack of Ghana-must-go bags for the legislators. The scriptwriters have not yet said anything, but some persons experienced in political drama swear that a link exists somehow, somewhere. Time would time, as we continue to watch the unfolding drama, a face-off between two arms of government. Maybe the third arm would step in to adjudicate.
To give a little background information, many Nigerians are watching this shamefully exciting drama without electric power, queuing for hours and days under the unforgiving sun to buy petrol. Inflation is up at over 12%, several businesses are closing up, some are downsizing, people are losing their jobs. Some are employed, but without salaries for months, both in the public and private sectors. Everything is going downhill, yet the executive and the legislators choose to indulge in a macabre dance, as if this would cheer up despondent Nigerians.
The 2016 budget was supposed to power the change promised last year. The APC continually pointed to the passage of the budget as Nigeria’s ticket out of misery. I do not subscribe to the foolish notion that Buhari is so clean that he is always right. The budget drama has shown a lot of loopholes in the change mantra. Crisis management appears not to be Buhari’s strong point. Buhari and his legislators have to sit down and resolve this shameful mess since grandstanding would not help anyone. As for those who hailed this budget as the best ever when it was presented, I agree with them. The 2016 budget is Nigeria’s best ever budget in the genre of deceptive drama.
PS. I can’t determine the owner of the picture above. It indicates an illusion, which this budget has become — the more you look, the more confused you get