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Resolving The Budget Conundrum



Mariam Mohammed |

Last weekend, driving through the Three Arms Zone, I was confronted by two large billboards bearing the same message but worded differently and sponsored by the same individual – Aminu Balele Kurfi (Dan Arewa.)

“Red Alert: National Assembly stop playing politics with 2018 budget. The masses are anxiously waiting, pass the budget now,” read the first message. The second with the same ominous message read: Red Alert: National Assembly stop killing the Nigerian economy and pass the 2019 budget now. Frustrating the President will no longer be tolerated by the masses.”

Ordinarily, the message should be ignored but given the strategic location of the billboards at the entrance to the National Assembly signposts a more profound meaning. Besides, the tenuous nature of the budgeting process makes it all the more compelling to situate the issues and find a middle ground.

In 2012, precisely August 9, the present Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir el-Rufa’i, in an article, The Budget Conundrum – Budgeting Process, observed that “Development theory and experience support the proposition that budgets need to be predicated on long-term visions, economic strategies and plans to be effective instruments of societal progress.   Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of post-Independence Nigeria. Either the national or states’ government budgets are not anchored on coherent visions and plans or where there are development plans, the budgets are at variance with the visions.”

It is to this extent that it should be appreciated that the budgeting process is too serious a matter to be left to politicians alone, especially those in government. To truly understand the depth of the budget palaver one only needs to go to any of the markets across the country and hear how the market woman selling her tomatoes justifies the exorbitant nature of her wares by saying, “dem never pass budget so we dey buy things very costly!”

The market woman’s position is like the thinking of Kurfi who from an opaque view thinks that once budget estimates are presented to the lawmakers by the executive branch then it should be rubber-stamped without any thorough scrutiny.

While one is not holding brief for the legislature against the executive, it has become a matter of embarrassment that in every budgeting cycle, there is disconnect between both arms of government in ensuring the timely and effective passage of the budget for the smooth operations of the government.

It should nonetheless be stated that America with all its budgeting sophistication has always defaulted in the passage of its budget. But the consolation is that there is always a bipartisan deal to get the grey areas sorted out after brief government shutdown. The Nigerian situation is starkly different given that with an overwhelming majority of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in both chambers of the National Assembly, bills such as the budget could get easy ride.

But it is consoling to note that the lawmakers are aware of their responsibility to properly interrogate the budget estimates as presented by the executives to ensure that the Nigerian people get a better deal. The worry, which seems to have been addressed last week when President Muhammadu Buhari hosted the leadership of the National Assembly at the Villa, is that of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) adopting a cavalier attitude to appearing before the various committees of the National Assembly to defend their budgets.

Speaking after the meeting, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, had this to say: ““Mr President has given instruction that all ministers and parastatals should ensure that they appear before the National Assembly to defend their submissions so that we can get this out of the way. You know this is a very dynamic year and there are preparation for elections and we are having quite a lot of security challenges and so if we don’t appropriate, where will the money come from?”

It is a scandal that this was allowed to fester after about four months when the budget was presented to the National Assembly by the President. If the matter had been settled earlier in the day with such engagement, people like Kurfi will not be putting up bellicose billboards against the lawmakers, and the market woman who blames the budget for the inflationary cost of her goods will have no excuse.

Beyond that, there is also the need for the legislators to go beyond the huffing and puffing of legislative arrogance and engage more with the executive. While the independence of the various arms of government are necessary to ensure balance and responsibility, there are instances that demand a little bending backwards for political exigencies such as that of the budget.

Moving forward, it is about time that a definite date or month, already captured in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, four months to the end of a budget cycle is stoically adhered to if we are to enhance and develop our budgeting system. Given that our democracy is modelled after the United States, leveraging on some of their worthy examples will not be a bad idea. In 2012, the United States federal budget was presented to Congress in February 2011 and enacted in November 2011, just a month into their fiscal year. The budget was signed into law almost immediately without need for any ‘discussions’. So to find the country grappling with a budget that was presented in December towards the end of March is inconceivable.

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