Tag: Legislature

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.

Image Credit: commsbusiness.co.uk

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!

Image Credit: lawandculture.org