BY DELE SOBOWALE
“In a sick country, every step to health is an insult to those who live on its sickness” – Bernard Malamud, in the FIXER.
President Muhammadu Buhari; Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; advisers and ministers still operate in the belief that good intentions and reputations are all you need to run a new government successfully. Buhari, especially, must still be thinking that his former reputation as a tough guy will cow all those who had cooperated with previous governments in wrecking the nation’s economy. Little did the old general realise that with three military Heads of State succeeding him and a recycled former military ruler returning as civilian President, Nigerians are now as scared of the men in khaki as before. He is just now beginning to realise as late President Harry Truman, 1884-1972, remarked when General Dwight Eisenhower, 1890-1969, was elected President in 1952, “You give an order as President and nothing happens”; nothing, unless you virtually sit on the necks of the officials who are supposed to get the work done and the way you want it done.
Buhari, imbued with the innocence associated with having served as a military Head of State, gave orders that a budget be prepared, in one month in November 2015. And sure enough, there was a budget before the National Assembly, NASS, proceeded on its Christmas break in December.
The Federal Government congratulated itself on a feat almost equivalent to using mere words to move mountains. But, by the second week in January 2016, there was a mild drama about a missing budget. This was followed by arguments about two budgets and doubts about which was the authentic one. The President was forced to write a letter apologising to the NASS for the confusion created by the Executive branch. For a while, everything appeared settled.
The first week of February brought more problems for Buhari and the budget he solemnly presented to the NASS. Various committees of the NASS discovered discrepancies in the budget presented to them for verification and alarm bells were ringing all over the nation.
Then, on February 8, 2016, the Federal Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, went before the Senate Committee on Health and made history. He almost totally disclaimed his Ministry’s budget when he declared that the original budget of his Ministry had been distorted. His words: “We have to look into the details of the budget and re-submit it to the committee. This was not what we submitted. We will submit another one.” With that statement, Adewole confirmed the alarm raised a few days before that a mafia had taken control of the Federal budget and distorted it.
The Buhari administration is finally waking up to the reality that long entrenched interests in the civil service and collaborators among long serving NASS members are not about to allow the changes the government desires to occur so quickly because it threatens their selfish interests.
One example will illustrate the point.
When late Chief Bola Ige assumed office as the Federal Minister of Power and Steel in 1999, he promised to bring an end to power failure by December of that year. Long term watchers of the Federal Civil Service establishment warned the Minister not to repeat the statement or risk tarnishing his reputation as a performer. Ige was adamant – power failure must end by December 31, 1999.
On January 1, 2000, as several Nigerian communities were covered in darkness, Nigerians started grumbling. They did not stop until Ige was removed from the Ministry. What went wrong? Ige himself provided the answer – the Civil Servants working with him. His redeployment to Ministry of Justice was a relief. But, he had learned his lessons. The first thing his enemies within did to undermine him was to distort his budget proposal. But given our new experience with civilian rule, the NASS, in 1999, rubber-stamped everything presented as budget. Later, Ige discovered that what was approved by the NASS was totally different from what he sent for typing. It could not be implemented.
Fast forward to 2015 and how a new mafia took over from the gang of 1999. The first discovery is that President Buhari provided the mafia with the best opportunity in years to operate on account of two decisions he made, before and after he was declared winner of the 2015 presidential elections.
Every modern President is called upon to manage two primary areas of governance very well – the economy and security of the state. Other functions, though important, are totally dependent on how well the first two are managed. Some, like former President Clinton of the United States, even start early to consider how to handle those two key aspects of governance. The very day Clinton decided to run for President, he posted on the door of his campaign office a notice about his top priority stating JOBS STUPID! For him, the economy was going to be number one. He then proceeded to assemble a team of economic advisers who eventually developed a road map for his economic policy if he eventually got elected; and he was. Among his first three appointments were the Secretary of State and the Treasury Secretary (Minister of Finance). This was followed by the establishment of an economic policy team to address the first budget Clinton was going to present to Congress. It took almost five months of back breaking work for that document to emerge – after going through about four drafts.
No mafia can smuggle anything into that budget because all the framers had all the relevant facts in the budget at their finger-tips.
In case anybody wants to dismiss the Clinton example, by saying, as we often do in Nigeria, that “that is America”, there is a local example to consider.
President-elect Obasanjo, in 1999, before his inauguration made two appointments first. He appointed a Chief of Staff and Chief Philip Asiodu as the Chief Economic Adviser. Then, he appointed a National Security Adviser. That immediately sent a clear message to the world that his priorities were the economy and security; and each sector had a Field Commander.
Umar Musa YarÁdua and Jonathan also appointed, very quickly, the people who would manage the economy on their behalf. That is the global standard. Even the President of war-torn Syria had managed to keep the economy of the country relatively untouched because he knows that economic chaos is another war by itself; and perhaps the biggest one.
By contrast, Buhari was declared President on May 29, 2015, and on that day he had no Economic Road Map to work with.
Most of the twaddle that was pronounced during the short campaign by the APC cannot constitute an economic blue print in any serious country. Certainly, there was no Council of Economic Advisers assembled to start preliminary work on the outlines of the first budget of this government immediately the results were announced and Jonathan accepted defeat.
Buhari compounded that error by taking almost five months to assemble his cabinet. Even for a country under siege, five months is a world record, and not one should be proud to claim, to form a cabinet.
Encouraged by the flatterers of everyone in power, Buhari proclaimed that he was doing it to avoid making mistakes.
Meanwhile, he was making a monumental one. National budgets are very serious businesses; they affect the lives of nationals and foreigners alike. If no serious multi-national business enterprise can expect to produce a credible budget in one month, how on earth could Buhari and his praise-singers have expected to deliver a national budget, with foreign operations components, in one month?
Clearly, if the blame for the current budget fiasco is to be laid on one table, it must be Buhari’s. Given his reputation for integrity, amply demonstrated by his first apology to the NASS, he should issue another apology to Nigerians. He gave those charged with writing the budget an impossible task and the nation is now faced with a budget crisis.
Even, the intrusion of the saboteurs was made possible and easy because given the rushed work, the new Ministers were no match for the long-term civil servants ready to undermine the budget process. A normal budget process, allowing for first, second and third drafts, would have been more difficult to infiltrate because by then every Minister or head of agency would have gone through the documents more than once.
Even now, there is no Chief Economic Adviser; no Council of Economic Advisers; no Minister is solely responsible for implementation of the budget. The Vice-President had intervened several times but his role is not clear.
Incidentally, it was the Vice-President who announced five months ago that the government was considering an N8trillion budget for 2016. That figure represented about 85% more than the 2015 budget and 110% over the projected actual figure for last year.
The figure was alarming; yet, a call to the Presidency confirmed that indeed the government was thinking of N7-8 trillion according to the source. Given the rapidly declining price of crude, most economists and budget experts regarded the figure as totally unrealistic. Still, the figure was defended strongly at every fora.
The figure for the 2016 budget turned out to be N6 trillion. The same VP announced that the 2016 budget would be based on the Zero Sum platform. He ignored warnings that budgets using zero sum model take months to prepare; not one month. Today, ignorance about the application of zero sum budgeting is being advanced as one of the causes of the mess in which we find ourselves. Who is responsible? This government has yet to learn that its VP is not an economist, but, he can do a lot of damage with his utterances on the economy.
Yes, the mafia is striking back; and it has drawn its first blood by getting the Federal Government into this horrible budget embarrassment. But, government has provided the rope with which it is now hanging because of errors made in the presidency.
Clearly, two steps need to be taken urgently. Unlike those asking for the budget to be withdrawn, the best advice would caution something different. First, make amendments as necessary to the budget because there is no time to write a new one. Then, urgently assemble an Economic Management Team with a leader to take charge of the situation before government’s credibility is further damaged. Neither Buhari nor Osinbajo is an economist. The sooner they realise that the better for us all.