Monday 9 May 2016

#MustRead: So What After The Budget?

President Buhari signing the 2016 Budget
by: Obo Effanga

Last Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari finally signed the 2016 budget into law. Given the way everyone discussed this budget prior to the signing into an Act, you would be excused for thinking that all our problems are about to be solved. Why not, when the much talked about injection of N350 billion into the economy through capital budget is expected to happen “immediately”, under this budget. But that would be an exercise in great expectation. Budget implementation does not happen with such speed, at least not in Nigeria.

And given the much we have seen of this government, speed is not one of its selling points. I do not expect that speed to start with the budget implementation therefore. With nearly five months gone, the injection of these much-awaited billions is already bound to have less impact than it would have much earlier. Even when budgets were signed into law earlier than May, with more months for implementation, we hardly achieved 50 per cent capital budget implementation. Are we likely to do better in about seven months? What are the measures in place to ensure that happens?

What citizens need to be aware of is that there is yet the issue of cash release and cash backed approvals to spend money, even after appropriation. The release of funds and actual spending would still have to follow the due process. And this is where all the bureaucratic bottlenecks are likely to delay the process of the injection of the funds. It is equally important to note that many boards of government agencies have still not been constituted. Isn’t there a possibility that the non-existence of these boards could also negatively affect the speed of implementation of the budget?

One way to ensure the early and expeditious release of the capital funds needed to rev up the economy would be if the various spending ministries, departments and agencies had previously worked out their procurement plans, just waiting for the signing of the Appropriation Act. And that is to be doubted, given how this budgeting process has so far gone.

This particular budget has gone down in Nigeria’s history as one of the most dramatic from conceptualisation, compilation, presentation, consideration, passage and signing. For starters, the budget was hurriedly put together by an executive which had hardly settled down, following a long drawn out delay by the President to name his cabinet.

It took nearly six months for the President to have his ministers in place on November 11. Thereafter, it took just a few weeks for the ministers, as chief executives of the ministries of governments, to get the budget estimates for their ministries out. As if that was not complex enough, the government insisted it was going to resort to a new way of budget-making via the “Zero-Based Budgeting.”

It should have been clear to the government that they had no luxury of time in making such dramatic change to the budgeting process with just a few weeks to the end of the year. It was under this confusion that the President presented the budget proposals to the National Assembly on December 22, at a time the legislature was already in an end-of-year mode. Yet, that was the least of all the problems. There were more stormy days and weather ahead.

It started with the discovery that some yet to be identified and punished civil servants, apparently colluding with others, had played hanky panky with the details of the budget. This forced the Presidency to send a revised version of the budget estimates to the legislature midway into its consideration, a precedent and an embarrassing one at that. Technically speaking therefore, it was in 2016 that the estimates were before the parliament.

So now that the budget is in place, what are we going to do or expect? The truth is, even though the budget helps us deliver on development, it is the individuals who implement it that give it meaning. The stimulus the budget is expected to bring to the economy will remain a mirage if the implementers fail to exercise a high level of integrity.

A point that we cannot allow to slip by is the continued opacity of the budget in some areas, particularly the budget to the National Assembly. Despite promises to the contrary by the Senate President, the National Assembly budget was still passed as a lump sum, without details. We cannot continue this way.

While signing the budget, President Buhari boasted about the provision of N200bn for road this year, as opposed to what he described as a “paltry” allocation of N18bn last year. I held my breath when I read that. With a pattern of less than 50 per cent capital budget release in the past, the President should not be too boastful about this “huge” budgetary proposal. Apparently, the President is not aware of something we have heard several times. It has been said that amount budgeted is different from amount approved and even what is approved still needs to be “cash-backed” before it can be released.

Added to the above is also the problem of inadequate capacity of some offices to absorb and spend budgeted sums in a manner that aligns with the goals of the government. It is important for such MDAs to partner appropriate experts outside the public service, including those in civil society organisations, who can help with technical support to deliver on budget implementation. Civil society groups also need to embark on robust budget monitoring to ensure that capital budgets are properly executed.

Even after the sum is released, what remains to be seen is the fidelity in getting the entire released sum applied to the project and the projects duly executed without corruption. I am not enamoured by the belief by some that the days of corruption in public procurement are over. The pattern may just have changed, in line with new realities and circumstances.

One reason for which the approved budget may not be executed is where there is inadequate funding to back the budget. This is where the country must show more interest on our various sources of funding.

Government needs to do all it has to ensure there is no short fall in the revenue projection, just as we should keep an eye on our spending.

We cannot afford to fall behind in our oil production so we meet our projected output level, even as we battle the renewed criminality affecting our oil production. Nor can we afford to spend more on combating insurgency than projected. This means we cannot afford to falter in our steps to curb criminality of any kind which has the effect of reversing development and destroying infrastructure and peaceful coexistence of all citizens in every location.

Failure to tackle those acts of criminality would cause us to divert the limited resources to first provide for safety and peace before any talk of development. We have too many of such criminal threats to the country’s peace including the long-drawn Boko Haram insurgency, the renewed Niger Delta militancy and now the subtle, nebulous and under-addressed violence by assumed herdsmen. Government must handle all these with a high degree of seriousness and urgency. Enough of pussy-footing, please.

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