The Blindside Called State Budgets

“No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side”

Desiderius Erasmus

The quote by Desiderius sets the stage for an article that has been on my mind for quite a while. The first time I came across the word “blindside”, it was used in the context of a sports game where players may focus so much on a certain opposing team’s key player and in trying to prevent that person from scoring, they inadvertently leave their flanks unattended for another opposition player to exploit, sometimes, resulting in catastrophic loses. Looking at the political system, we can see this analogy play out so well in the way Nigerians focus all their energy on the Federal Government.

I recently partook in a poll conducted by U-Report, the citizen outreach platform operated by UNICEF. Some of the questions posed in the poll included: “Do you know what a State budget is?”, “Have you ever participated in the budgeting process in your state?”, and “How would you rate your knowledge of the budget process in your state?” At the end of the poll, the summary from U-Report contained a troubling conclusion: “From the current poll, it shows that a good percentage of young people in Nigeria don’t know how to access information when it concerns their state budget.” Although U-Report focused on young Nigerians, from my experience, the conclusion actually covers all Nigerians across all age brackets.

Every year, we witness the macabre dance at Abuja where the Executive and the Legislative arms of the Federal Government enthral Nigerians with the best of third-world budgeting.  While the US Congress entertains the world with American-style brinksmanship over approving budgets cum debt ceiling extensions, the Nigerian drama is riddled with plots covering late submission of annual budgets by the president, alleged refusal of certain Federal agencies to submit and defend their budgets, dilly-dallying by the National Assembly, and the all-important allegations and execution of “budget padding” by different players involved in the budgeting process. Sometimes, the budgeting process would eat up to five months into a new financial year before that year’s budget will be approved. Well, at least we can say there is a “semblance” of budgeting and all eyes are trained on the quantum and composition of the approved budget.

Compare with what obtains at the state level. While Nigerians tend to focus on the “thieves in Abuja”, their State Governments are allowed to run amok with financial recklessness. To provide some context, we may want to note that although the Federal Government swallows about 52% of the total distributable revenue accruing to the Federation, State and Local Governments guzzle the remaining 48%. Budgets by State Governments range from under ₦100 billion to about ₦1 trillion naira slammed down by states like Lagos that swim in naira notes. Despite the humongous sums available at the State level, there appears to be little interest by everyday Nigerians in understanding how their states spend these monies.

Do State Governments actually pass “budgets”? If I were asked this question, my answer would be “Yes” and “No”. “Yes”, because the annual budget is a legislation that has to be passed by each State House of Assembly. “No”, because regardless of the shortcomings of the Federal Budget, State Budgets are generally opaque, hidden from the public, and usually passed by rubberstamp State Assemblies unable to think for themselves nor regulate the activities of their Governors. I know of a state, actually, my home state, where a Budget was presented and passed within two (2) hours. Let this sink in: A State Budget containing revenue and expenditure estimates for an entire year was passed into law in the time it would take a person to move from Ajah in Lagos to Berger under moderate traffic conditions.

If you are a Nigerian reading this article, do you know your state’s budget for this year? Do you know the fraction of the budget that is for recurrent and capital expenditure? Do you know how your State Government intends to fund the budget? Do you know how much debt your state currently owes, and how much it will owe due to this year’s budget? Do you have any idea about the budget performance for last year? Do you know the main focus areas for your State Government based on the proposals in the budget? Do you know how much your state intends to spend on areas such as health, education, infrastructure, and agriculture? If you have answered “No” to these questions, then you are likely among those Nigerians that U-Report asserts are ignorant about their State Budgets. But please don’t feel bad. I belong to your clique.

Sadly, many State Governments are intent on ensuring that citizens are clueless about their budgets. Civic advocacy groups like BudgIT have been pushing for State Governments to make their budgets public and have even approached the courts on this matter, yet our State Governments remain obstinate. A state like Lagos has even argued vigorously in court against any attempt to compel it to let tax-paying Lagosians know how their Government spends their taxes. They know that as long as people are unaware of the contents of the budgets, they cannot complain about misappropriation of public funds.  

What is the way forward? Three critical players are involved here. The first is the State Executives and Legislatures that need to understand that citizens have a right to know how their monies are spent. This is an important right which needs to be articulated by the Judiciary as the second player involved here. I have very limited legal knowledge; however, I cannot comprehend why a court would even entertain an appeal by a State Government against a directive by a lower court that it should make its expenditures public. The third and most important player is me and every other Nigerian who need to join our voices to pressure our State Governments to involve the public in the budgeting process. To do this, we need to understand why it is important to monitor finances at the State level. While we must not lose sight of Federal-level finances, we should also maintain a search light on finances in our states. That way, we can gradually push towards a Nigeria where 100% of public revenues are spent judiciously on matters important to the public.

Image Credit: commsbusiness.co.uk

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