The Blindside Called State Budgets

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.

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Ultra-Legal Fraud

Ultra-Legal Fraud

I remember hearing someone joke that the Queen of England cannot be charged with a crime nor even arrested because all public prosecution is done “in the name of Her Majesty”, effectively making at least one person in the United Kingdom legally above the law. Back here in Nigeria, the Queen’s immunity makes me think of the legal armed robbers, licensed murderers, and now, the lawful lawbreakers. Unfortunately, the last set cannot truly be called lawbreakers as the law is whatever they say it is.

While President Buhari flew a presidential jet to the United Kingdom on a private visit, and Nigerians bickered whether all Boko Haram fighters are multimillionaires, a gang of lawmakers in Nigeria’s least populated state decided to endow themselves with pensions for life after their four-year tenure. That state, Bayelsa, also happens to be one of Nigeria’s richest states, yet, with all the trappings of systemic poverty and unemployment.

To give some context to any non-Nigerian reading this article, Nigeria runs a three-level, supposedly federal structure consisting of Federal, State, and Local Governments. Each State Government mirrors the federal level by having a three-arm structure that comprises the Executive Branch (Governor and appointed cabinet), the Legislature (House Speaker and other elected legislators), and the Judiciary (Chief Judge and other judges). The Legislature is responsible for making laws by passing bills subject to endorsement (“assent”) by the elected Governor. In Bayelsa State, the law makers passed a bill commanding the State Government to pay all past lawmakers a monthly pension ranging from ₦100,000 – ₦500,000 until each former lawmaker dies.

Let’s now juxtapose this payment with an “average” civil servant who devotes his or her working life to the Bayelsa State Government. Whereas a law maker is elected (or rigged in) for a four-year tenure, a civil servant who joins the Civil Service early enough, will spend thirty-five years in active duty. When such a person retires, usually near or at the age of 60, the person’s monthly pension is unlikely to be anywhere near ₦100,000. Given Nigeria’s relatively low life expectancy and the vagaries of everyday suffering, few of those retirees are likely to live up to 80 years. Compare this with a random, low-ranked, single-term legislator who spends only four years in office and leaves the legislature at the age of 44. With this bill, if such a person were to live up to 80 years, he or she will pocket ₦43.2 million (over ₦200 million for a former speaker) as cumulative pension for two years of seat warming. This is in addition to a lump sum paid at the expiry of a tenure, and millions in salaries, sitting allowances, and “constituency projects”.

Under what system is this travesty right? Is it legal? Of course, it is, and herein lies a fundamental problem with Nigerian jurisprudence. Why should I be the one to determine and approve my renumeration? Sadly, the same problem exists at the federal level (National Assembly) where the power of the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to fix remunerations of legislators is thwarted by the lawmakers who conjure fantabulous allowances for themselves instead of focusing on making laws that will make life easier for Nigerians groaning under economic hardship. Lawmakers giving themselves blank cheques is a mockery of the democratic process, even as their gluttonous actions explain the proclivity of Nigerian politicians to rape the electoral process in order to get a seat at the sharing table.

I am glad that Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State vetoed the incestuous bill passed by his state’s legislature as it would have been a disappointment if he had played ball with his lawmakers in legally robbing Bayelsans despite the public opprobrium. While I suspect that the bill might have been part of some “settlement scheme” between power brokers in the state to compensate certain losers in the last elections, Governor Dickson made good use of his gatekeeper role in rejecting the bill. Political headwinds should never be a reason to legally defraud the people of Bayelsa. Let common-sense prevail!

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When Privilege Comes Knocking

When Privilege Comes Knocking

“Count your blessings, name them one by one;
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done”

The quote above is from a popular Christian hymn, “Count Your Blessings” by Johnson Oatman Jnr, however, fear not; this is not a proselytising article. The hymn just kept ringing in my head as I picked up my laptop to compose this article. I’m typing this article at the twilight of Good Friday 2019, influenced by four key events from the receding week.

The first trigger came from a Twitter thread I chanced upon during the week.

In the thread, the poster gave an abridged outline of his circumstances regarding his affluent Alma mater and the present state of the Nigerian economy. The summary goes like this: David and his friends from “elite backgrounds” attended a high brow secondary school and most went on to earn degrees in foreign universities; some had opportunities to work abroad and a number of them returned to Nigeria to work. His schoolmates now have kids and suddenly realised they cannot afford to pay the school fees required to attend their expensive Nigerian Alma mater. At this point, even Jeremiah the Prophet would weep at the Lamentations of David.

Another trigger came from a Zikoko article I read during the week. This article described the life of a Nigerian who finished secondary school but could not afford the Senior School Certificate Exam. As a result, instead of his dream of studying law, he was forced to live a life where his daily sustenance flowed from jobs that are physically tasking and sometimes potentially fatal. One of such jobs literally involved a cycle of back-breaking work one month followed by a month of sickness. He still looks back at the critical point in his life when his final exams were unaffordable.

The third trigger occurred during a trip across Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. As the bus crawled through the stream of vehicles on the routinely congested bridge, my wife pointed to the slums adjoining the bridge. At the edge of an area filled with wooden houses, canoes, and the smell of burning wood, we saw several persons at different points squatting next to the river to defecate. Recognising that these were persons lacking access to good sanitation and water, my mind jumped to the Sustainable Development Goal #6 and Nigeria’s shameful position as a country with one of the highest number of persons who defecate publicly (23.5% of the population).

The final trigger for this article occurred at the popular Obalende in Lagos. Walking down one of its linked flyover bridges, I became aware that someone was sleeping on the roof of a wooden “house”. I enclosed “house” in inverted commas because “slum structure” might be more appropriate. On a different day, I had seen two persons sleeping on the ground outside one of the wooden structures in that area. Again, my mind jumped to available statistics about the lack of sufficient housing units in Nigeria, coupled with the high poverty rate which makes good housing unaffordable to many Nigerians.

At this point you might be asking for the nexus between all I have recounted and “privilege”, after all, that is the title of this article. Just like Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, I have just described two disparate worlds within the same country. Nigeria is a nation of two realities that dumbfound each other. In the same country where millions poo in streams, bushes, gutters, and on asphalt roads, some others’ biggest worry is their inability to pay ₦3.5 million naira annually as school fees for their kids. In the same country where thousands risk their lives hawking on highways from morning until nightfall, some others worry that they might not be able to afford a summer vacation to Paris to see the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Am I disparaging the legitimate concerns of people like David about their economic prospects in Nigeria? Of course not! Even I want to achieve financial independence and have enough for all my needs plus a bit extra for the accompanying wants. My aim with this article is to point out some privileges we take for granted. While David and his peers worry about being able to pay a certain school’s fees, there are millions of persons who just want to be able to complete their education at a dilapidated public school. Many of us are born with certain privileges even though we tend to look at the “elite” as the privileged ones. For example, if you are reading this article, it’s likely you have enjoyed the privilege of formal education, access to the internet, and a functional device. We might debate whether some of these should be termed as rights or privileges, but until a time when every person is guaranteed access to these things, they remain privileges.

Awareness of our privileged positions should do two things for us: make us thankful, and make us think about how we can help others having less fortune. Thankfulness like the introductory hymn advises, can help us take life a little bit less seriously and avoid unnecessary burnouts knowing that at the end, what’s important is that we can have a “good life”, not whether we can beat Jeff Bezos to the top. On the other hand, concern for the less privileged can clip the wings of pride, and make us better humans contributing to a better society.

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Now that the Elections have Ended

Now that the Elections have Ended

A little while has passed since the last time I tapped my keyboard composing a document that was unrelated to my day job. In the intervening time, I got married, and Nigeria held its most expensive elections ever to select office holders for the next four years. Except for my Rivers State, which now operates a different wavelength, other states have concluded their selection processes. Today’s article is more of a potpourri of my thoughts on different issues related to the elections. Although each issue merits a full article in its own rights, let’s accept what will be a summarisation.

Continue reading “Now that the Elections have Ended”
Act 1: The Introduction

Act 1: The Introduction

So, you want to get married? Left to me, I would have preferred a quiet, very quiet wedding. Fortunately, we live in a social society, so my wishes could not fly. After asking Anu to marry me, it was time to involve the families. This was going to be a marriage between a fish-eating Okrika guy and an amala-downloading Yoruba lady.

My dad called her dad to fix a date. Before then, I took her on a tour of Okrika for her to see my interesting hometown. 11 August 2018 was selected as the date for the families to be officially “introduced”. From my end, I needed to get a traditional attire sewn. The consensus from my research was that I had to wear a Yoruba-looking outfit. For my cap, Anu and I selected a blue “aso oke” to make the cap and a cape to match her own outfit. We felt a need to appear a bit uniform without being in uniform.

Getting the gifts for the introduction was a hassle. In Okrika culture, the introduction is termed “knocking on the door” and basically involves the groom’s family bringing some drinks to the bride’s family to announce their intention to marry their daughter. For the Yorubas, I was informed my family had to bring baskets in multiples of two. For some undeclared reason, odd-numbered baskets were outlawed. Being in Lagos while Anu and her family stayed in Abuja, I needed someone in Abuja to arrange the baskets. My godmother volunteered to get this arranged. One basket contained an assortment of fruits—oranges, apples, pineapples, bananas and a massive watermelon—while the second basket contained an assortment of wines, biscuits, chocolates and anything attractive enough to make a gift pack. We stuck with fruit wines because Anu’s dad and teetotalism are close pals.

On the D-Day, my family’s contingent got to the Longes ten minutes before the scheduled 12noon start time. One of Anu’s brothers came out to welcome us, and then led us inside after a round of photographs. The previous night, my godparents had “forced” me to practise full prostration with my body getting acquainted with the floor, and I was set to re-enact that scene for Anu’s parents. However, on attempting to locate the floor’s spatial coordinates, her dad stopped me, stretching his hands to pull me up. We were then offered seats after everyone had been greeted.

To demonstrate the pastoral nature of Anu’s family, her brother cum family spokesman got the event to a start with a short prayer (thankfully!) and then a session of praise-worship. Then the drama began. He asked who the visitors were and their mission. My godfather cum family spokesman took over at this point, bringing his legal experience to spin a flattering tale around our presence. Apparently, having “come all the way from the Atlantic, we had come to seek a flower our son found when he was sent to school in the West”. The gift baskets and some standalone wine bottles were then presented at this point. Before now, Anu’s dad had spoken and assured us that all protocol had been bent as this would not be a conventional introduction.

I was asked to look around if the “flower” we came for was there or whether we came to the wrong location. As this was drama, I had to play along though I had to communicate via my family spokesman. When the lovely Anuoluwapo was brought in, she was asked to kneel in the middle and I was asked to join her. As a friend commented, her wife material was so much it was literally dragging on the floor. Then we had someone from each side describe their own relative. My aunt talked about me while Anu’s brother spoke for her. Thereafter, we had prayers from my dad and then her dad. After this we had our seats, my mom wrapped up with a heartfelt closing prayer, and then the “engagement list” was presented to my family spokesman. We had already separately got our families to agree on 2 February 2019 for our engagement ceremony (traditional marriage) and white wedding.

Next was pictures and then refreshments. The introduction had ended successfully.

Once Upon a Time in Ife

Once Upon a Time in Ife

“When I found you, I found somebody who cares”

Bebe Winans (I Found Love)

Where do we start from to tell the story of two persons who would have never imagined they’ll end up together? The story begins with a certain Jonah delivered from the fishes of the Atlantic Ocean and sent five hundred kilometres away to a land warmly called Great Ife. Two years later, a certain Anuoluwapo made a similar journey howbeit from a bubbling convergence point north of the Niger. These two persons would go on existing in the land of Oduduwa blissfully unaware of each other.

At this point, the only connection between these two were their commitment to activities within their respective campus fellowships. Then in 2013, Anuoluwapo was nominated by the Redeemed Christian Fellowship (RCF) to serve as Media Head of the University Joint Christian Mission (UJCM), plunging her into public viewership. Jonah, as former Technical Director of the Anglican Students’ Fellowship (ASF), was tasked by the UJCM Organising Secretary to head the power team while also liaising with the media unit. Before your mind goes on a misdirected journey, be assured both of them did not notice each other beyond collaborating on UJCM services. In retrospect, one picture they took together at this time seems to suggest that the future was pregnant with smiles.

2014: A veil?

Thanks to WhatsApp, they remained in touch, intermittently checking on each other after Jonah graduated in 2014. Then in 2015, Anu bowed out of the Obafemi Awolowo University. One day in August 2015, Jonah decided to check up on Anu via WhatsApp—a purely innocuous move. Her first reply was “How is your girlfriend?” This showed the kind of person Anu is—a lady respecting boundaries, who was unwillingly to come in-between others. Jonah then told her about his recent breakup and they just asked about each other and that was it. This day marked the start of what has metamorphosed into a wedding.

From that day in August 2015, during Jonah’s service year, the frequency of their chats began increasing. By 2016, they had started chatting almost every other day. In June 2016, Jonah worried they were getting too close. He had begun developing feelings for Anu but was not sure he was ready for a relationship, especially “so soon” after his 2015 breakup. Being a very unserious guy, he tried clarifying his stance by asking Anu what was going on. Her puzzled reply made him sense the feelings were one-sided. To avoid any citations of deception, he clarified the status of their friendship (aka “ordinary friends”). Since he was planning to travel to the UK for his master’s degree, he ran away from any visions or allusions to anything resembling a relationship.

Can a man run away from his shadow?

Unknown Wise Man

In September 2016, Jonah headed to the UK for his master’s programme. Anu had helped with some visa processing in Abuja, and he felt he had to take her out on her birthday. Was his intention innocuous? Only God can tell. On a visit to Anu’s office in Abuja, one of her colleagues asked her if Jonah was “her guy”. Her reply seemed to make any future together a forever impossibility. Her birthday outing turned out to be quite awkward. On one hand was a guy unsure of his feelings and maintaining a veneer of robotic masculinity. On the other hand was a lady totally sure of her lack of feelings but willing to spend time with a good friend about to leave the country.

2016: First date?

All through Jonah’s stay in the UK, both of them stayed in close communication and the lady’s mind began to reconsider its hitherto absolutism. When he showed her two results in which he scored 82%, she asked him to score 100% for her. He was shocked at her impossible request and protested at the impracticability of having a perfect score in any of his exams. However, something within him wanted to impress her, so he did it, attaining a perfect score in his last exam.

On 31 May 2017, he finally realised he had been foolish all along and summoned the courage to ask Anuoluwapo, five thousand kilometres away, to be his girlfriend. For a guy seemingly predisposed to needless displays of masculinity, asking Anu to date him seemed more difficult than punching a big bully. Two days later, on 2 June 2017, Anu gave him the response he feared he would never get. It was official. Anu gladly accepted Jonah’s request. However, it would take him another three months to finally open his mouth to tell his lady how much he loved her. That was part of her birthday gifts.

Like the biblical Zechariah, the day he attested his love for her unlocked the gates to a season of proclaimed love. Both of them could not wait for him to return to Nigeria. The night he returned, she stayed awake tracking his flight, unwilling to sleep while her man returned to a land without constant light. His return powered a series of dates in Abuja. After attending their first wedding event together in February 2018, Jonah had to leave for Lagos where he was to resume at a new job. Their next date would be in June, after four months that seemed too long. They just couldn’t wait for time to fly away.

On 2 June 2018, the anniversary of their kick-off, they went to Silverbird Cinemas in Abuja to mark the day. Whereas Anu was blissfully enjoying the movie, Jonah’s mind wondered how he would deliver the ring in his pocket. By a stroke of luck, or maybe celestial setup, they were alone in that cinema hall on that Saturday afternoon. Anu had always hinted she wanted a private but classy proposal and was lost for words when Jonah went down, not on a knee, but on both knees, to present a ring to his lady.

2 June 2018 | The Proposal