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What happened to the 2016 budget?

By Dele Sobowale

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, 1863-1952. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS). The nonsensical debate about Buhari’s first hundred days was, as usual, based on party lines and very superficial. To be candid, nothing is more ridiculous than our fixation on judging newly elected officials on their first hundred, out of one thousand, four hundred and sixty one days. Even a local government council chairman, could not have mastered all the aspects of his new assignment in that time.

Budget
Budget

Governors and presidents need more time. But, our collective stupidity, ably supported by my colleagues in the media, had got us hooked on the hundred days assessment. It is mostly a waste of everybody’s time.

I was happy to be watching a television programme when Buhari was in Ghana on the day. Mr Femi Adesina, Buhari’s spokesman was reached and among other things he tried to play down the importance of the hundred days. Sanity at last.

It must however be pointed out that Adesina, in the SUN Newspaper, was not so generous with Yar’Adua and Jonathan regarding hundred days. The entire thing induces two sets of truth benders – those for the official (President or Governor) and those against. Invariably, government’s supporters claim ‘giant strides’; while the opposition asserts that ‘nothing was done.’ So far in 2015 we have been treated to the same serving of malarkey.

That said, there is one matter about which there should be no dispute. Every year, the President, through his Federal Minister of Finance, is expected to have sent the draft of the coming year’s appropriation bill to the National Assembly by October. With Ministers not yet appointed, questions need to be asked about who is preparing the 2016 Budget which should be with the NASS before the year ends.

A lot of ink and saliva had been wasted arguing whether it was all right to delay the appointment of Ministers. That argument is baseless unless we answer the question: what will be the consequences of acting quickly or delaying?

Because our decisions and actions always entail consequences, one certain outcome of the delay in appointing a Minister of Finance is the fact that whoever is eventually appointed will have very little time to craft a coherent budget which will aim to achieve the right mixture of fiscal and monetary policies. This is not a partisan issue; it is a matter of being aware that time frames exist for certain things to be done – otherwise there will be penalties to pay in the future.

Before members of the President’s Halleluyah chorus team start defending the indefensible, let me remind them that part of our economic calamities in the last 16 years can be attributed to late presentation and passage of budgets. The 2015 budget was not passed until late April. One third of the fiscal year had elapsed before the Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, knew how much they were authorised to spend. Thus, we were operating the budget for eight months instead of 12.

By contrast, budgets under military administrations were delivered on New Year’s eve by the Head of State. A week, or so after, the Federal Minister of Finance would brief captains of industry, the global community and the media about the details including the regime of taxes, levies and tariffs designed to make the budget work.

The last time Nigerians were treated to such a session was when Dr Okonjo-Iweala was Minister of Finance under Obasanjo. Since then, late presentation and passage on the budget, each year, had eliminated the Minister of Finance’s briefing. How much effectiveness we have lost as a result of this is incalculable. Yet, this is the same path we are treading at the moment.

To those who might foolishly argue that delay does not matter because the President knows what he is doing, the answer is: the President is not an economist. He cannot possibly know everything. That is why patriotic citizens must draw his attention to the things he should know; instead of the praise singers who assume he is infallible.

The sanctity of the budget cycle is one of those things about which a President can do little. He has no choice about organising the Executive branch of government to prepare and send the following year’s budget to the NASS for amendments and approval. Ideally, the entire cycle should be completed by December 31 of that year because the year starts on January 1.

That Yar’Adua and Jonathan delayed should be no excuse for Buhari to do the same. The change mantra must include doing the right things at the right time – not any time the President pleases. The imperative of timeliness must be obeyed; otherwise we end up with another weak government.

For those who might want a reason for the urgency, let me provide one out of several. The Federal budget is a huge document running to almost 1,000 pages sometimes with appendices covering a thousand more. Each of those pages contains figures about proposed expenditure which must be seriously interrogated by the legislators; otherwise they could be approving fraud.

And, it is not a novel which can be read quickly. Presidents, in the past, had bamboozled us by sending the budget in late and then stampeding the NASS to hastily pass a budget they had no time to study. This cannot continue…

 

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