The Waste Called Budget Crises By Ken Tadaferua

Even as the federal government begins work on budget 2013, few people will forget the fury of a storm brewed by the National Assembly over “poor” implementation of budget 2012, which for weeks seized the feverish attention of Nigerians but which did end in a whimper.

This kind of skirmishes with the Executive is not new. The three presidents since 1999 had in fact faced threats of impeachment over “poor” budget implementation. The noisy ritual will likely take place again next year. But to what purpose really?The budget feuds may be no more than public burlesques.

In the last face-off the lawmakers blasted the finance minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’sexecution of the 2012 budget as”poor, selective and uninspiring” adding that her “piecemeal, discretionary and unlawful” methods is reason why the budget is 35 percent implemented seven months into the year.

The drama was on. The Senate summoned the minister but she reportedly flew instead to London to represent the President at an investment forum. However, she issued a press release stating that: N404 billion of the N1.3 trillion capital budget had been released with cash backing of N324 billion of which N184 billion or 56 percent had been used by the MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies).  Note that recurrent budget which had gulped N1.6 trillion compared to N184 billion for capital projects was not an issue.

Media reports that 56 percent of the budget had been executed riled the legislators who promptly noted that N184 billion is less than 12 percent of the capital budget alone.Then there was more drama. The Senate turned back a presidential delegation led by Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation over the matter with a threat to arrest the minister for ignoring their summons. The Reps also threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against the President if the budget is not implemented 100 percent by September. The nation held its breath.

President Goodluck Jonathan was reportedly so alarmed by the threats that he quickly promised to fast track “budget implementation,” get Okonjo-Iweala to be reconciliatory and ensure constituency projects are promptly funded.So the finance minister goes to the Senate and publicly apologises for not heeding their summons earlier. She also explained that her press statement was misrepresented.

She followed with a spew of data: N1.6 trillion and N404 billion released for recurrent and capital projects respectively, N289 billion for debt servicing, N156 billion for statutory transfers and N163 billion for overheads. That 41.3 percent not 56 percent of total budget was implemented within four months (not seven months as the lawmakers claimed) from April when the budget was passed to July.

The minister then assured the legislators that there were no problems with constituency projects. It is not true, she explained, that the presidency instructed ministers not to implement constituency projects. Indeed, the ministries have already launched the procurement process, she added.

Since after her presentation, the legislative front has been quiet. No more drama. No more fiery threats to impeach the President.So what did all the rigmarole, threats and noisemaking achieve? Were the legislators satisfied that the budget implementation was on course and the economy will be bolstered? Or is the achievement, the recent second quarter release of N300 billion for the capital budget or the marginal increase in the cash back on the first quarter’s N404 billion from 56 to 65 percent? Why was the minister not peppered with questions on execution timelines and milestones for MDAs’ projects? The legislators achieved nothing. The budget feud was mere drama. But was it?

Many have stressed that the legislators’ sabre rattling is driven less by patriotic concern for the public good than by selfish lust for unearned rent. That it is cover over the itch to get constituency projects funds released for them to gorge on. This selfishness alsoplays out, it is said, in their huge emoluments and positions as chairmen or vice chairmen of innumerable committees where oversight functions translate into veritable streams of lucre.

The House of Representative’s spokesman, Zakari Mohammed defends his clan when he says: “I want to repeat that we are not contractors and we have nothing to do with the award and execution of constituency projects at all. It has been the exclusive right of the Executive to execute constituency projects.” But he can say that to the Marines. We the citizens live in the constituencies and we know who the contractors or pseudo contractors are.

Constituency projects arehand picked by legislators whose proclivity to beef up proposed budgets, with constituency projects costs, underscore rowdy budget sessions. Once the budget is passed, the legislators impatiently begin to clamour, while wielding the big stick of impeachment, for the release of the constituency projects funds to them.

These viewpoints may be debatable. However,what is beyond debate is that in spite of clamorous budget feuds, the outcome of sharply growing budgets and constituency projects over the years, have yielded little but growing public sector corruption and stifling levels of widespread poverty across the country.

In the 13 years since return to democracy in1999, budgets have grown significantly from billions into trillions of naira. Over N30 trillion has been appropriated as federal government budgets during that period. Constituency projects have also grown .Zakari Mohammed is reported to have said that constituency projects constitute “only 10 percent “ of budget. If he meant 10 percent of total federal government budget ,it means constituency projects are gulping close to N500 billion this financial year alone. This is bigger than the budgetsof the ministries of agriculture, water, works, transport, lands/housing and ICT put together.

Yet, Nigeria is, today, defined by some of the lowest standards of life on earth. Constant power, portable water, adequatehousing, proper health facilities, good roads and other basics of life are in perilous short supply. But corruption, poverty, insecurityand unemployment mushroom dangerously. The National Bureau of Statistics says poverty worsened from 54 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 2011. Why is this so?

The focus of the legislators on their pockets to the detriment of their oversight mandate is the challenge. It has hatched an unholy alliance with the executive. It is an alliance that drives and consolidates corruption. For howelse can the multi trillion naira fuel subsidy scam and the multi billion naira pension rip offs, only two examples of the massive widespread looting going on in practically all MDAs, happen?

The legislators will do well to spare Nigerians the tensions of the noisy barney and burlesque over the inanities of budget implementation? It is not funny. It is a tragedy.What this country needs are men of vision, bold dreams and integrity driven to benchmarking it against the leading nations on earth, not a cabal of rent seeking, budget nitpicking pack of the blind. This country does not have the luxury of vacuous budget feuds.

Mr Tadaferua is a journalist based in Lagos