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Behold, another stale budget

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By Josef Omorotionmwan

NOBODY  wants to truncate our happiness but we must know what we are happy about. Nigerians are today basking in the euphoria of what they call the 2017 Budget, which for all intents and purposes, may still be sometime away. In the language of budgeting and financial accounting, what we have today are Budget Estimates, not an approved budget and in the legislative domain, what is before them is an Appropriation Bill, not an Appropriation Act. The journey of a Bill does not end until the President appends his signature on the Bill passed by the National Assembly.

Even with all the bright prospects of early presidential assent to this Bill, we know from past experience, that it is not unusual for the President to have some reservations on the National Assembly-passed version of a Bill; in which case, what we are seeing now may be the beginning of a long-drawn tug-of-war.

In any case, why should we be happy that the legislators have done in May 2017, what they ought to have done by last December? Put differently, why are we happy over a stale Budget? Have we forgotten that our Financial Year, FY, runs from January 1 to December 31 every year, which means that the execution of the 2017 Budget ought to have started on the first day of January 2017?

Our politicians are being clever by half. Somewhere along the line, people are benefitting from the absurd practice that reduces the lifespan of our Budget from twelve to six months.  Yet, they have ready excuses for their clever maneuvers.

For instance, in FY 2015, the triangular debate between the Executive/Senate/House of Representatives on an acceptable figure as Bench-mark for our oil price consumed the first four months of the budgetary process.

FY 2016 was when the nebulous concept of “Budget Padding” first entered our political lexicon. The debate on that new entry took another four months of the year’s budget debates.

In FY 2017, out of nowhere, just about when the Budget was to be passed, we were inundated with the Goje imbroglio in which the police allegedly broke into the residence of Senator Danjuma Goje, Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriation, and impounded the laptop containing the 2017 appropriation documents. This introduced some protracted delay into the process, even where we saw that the Inspector-General of Police promptly intervened and Senator Goje’s almighty laptop was returned to him in the evening of the day it was impounded.

Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong in using what you have to get what you want. From a distance, the Goje affair looks like an absolute hogwash; but there is no better way to take Nigerians for a ride. For all we know, it is highly improbable that the Chairman of a Committee would be exclusively in charge of keeping the Budget documents. What, then, are the roles of the Secretary and other members of the Committee? See how they have now bamboozled everybody to the extent that nobody is now addressing the missing link in the Goje contraption: What was the original motive of the police raid on Goje’s residence and the subsequent cash findings? That remains at the level of conjecture.

The National Assembly must wake up to its responsibilities. At best, the budget rollover to which they subject us annually is simply a corruption-stimulus. Year after year, the nation’s budget, which is meant for 12 months does not get passed until around  June, thus reducing its operational life to just six months. How much achievement can anyone expect from a government that is struggling to do in six months what it ought to do in 12 months?

Again, with all the rigmarole on the budgetary process our budgets invariably end up being approved into the heart of the rainy season, which has a most debilitating effect on our public works; while agricultural loans and the cropping season for which they are intended get hopelessly distorted.

Tardiness snowballs into many areas: when legislators say that the budget will run for 12 months from the date of presidential assent, they ignore the fact that our FY which has not been altered is from January 1 to December 31. Essentially, the 2016 budget was intended to be implemented far into June 2017. By extrapolation, that will also mean that the 2017 appropriation will be executed far into the 2018; and so down the line, it implies that the 2019 appropriation will be executed far into 2020.

This is where we see government shooting itself on the foot because when the chips are down, after May 29, 2019, the current administration cannot extend its current tenure to implement the second half of the 2019 appropriation.

In all this, there are no problems with our Recurrent Expenditure Budgets because in every situation, salaries and wages as well as overhead costs must run on. Our concern is with Capital Expenditure. Year after year, our Recurrent Budgets perform at near 100 percent level while the Capital Expenditure side hovers meagerly around the 13 percentage level, hence the nation’s development remains perpetually retarded.

The end to Nigeria’s stale budgets is not in sight. This Column has consistently advocated the adoption of a specific Budget Cycle, at least a semblance of what they have in the US, where by superior legislation, the Budget Cycle that runs for about 30 months, compels certain actions to be taken on the Budget by specific dates, culminating in the presidential assent not later than October preceding the FY for which the Budget is intended.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Umar N’ Aba, spoke glowingly of a Budget Cycle in his time but the idea died when he left the legislature. The noble idea is worth revisiting. We remember Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Nothing beats an idea whose time has come”. The Budget Cycle is one such idea! However, preparatory to the big launch into the Budget Cycle, Appropriation Bills must be presented to the National Assembly not later than August every year.

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