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The Budget: ‘We Heard This Before’

By Josef Omorotionmwan

WE remember Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “For forms of government, let fools contest. That which is best administered is best”. This is mainly true of budgeting systems. Nigerian governments have experimented with virtually every form of budgeting ever known to man but like Hamlet’s opinion of drinking, budgets have been honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

For too long, the basic difference between business and government has been principally in the way their functionaries are paid. In business, people are paid for satisfying customers but in government people are paid out of a budget allocation, which changes substantially what is meant by performance.

Over the years, under the traditional line-item budgeting system, the importance of a department kept being measured mainly by the size of its budget and its staff strength.

On the mode of budget presentation, in the First Republic, when we had the parliamentary system, the Federal budget was presented to parliament by Chief Festus Okotieboh, then Minister of Finance.

Buhari presents N6.08trn 2016 budget to NASS
File: Buhari presented N6.08trn 2016 budget to NASS

With our change to the presidential system of government, in 1979, the annual budget was presented to the National Assembly by the President, in keeping with the practice in the United States of America from where we virtually imported the new system.

This system continued into the ill-fated Third Republic and far into the Fourth Republic until President Musa Yar’Adua became so ill that he was unable to perform the function. The Minister of Finance stood in the garb.

Initially, President Goodluck Jonathan performed the function rather creditably until the last two years of his administration, when he developed cold feet, sometimes citing the possibility of being booed by opposition legislators on the floor, as reason for abdicating the responsibility to the Finance Minister.

Once more, we are back on track, and President Muhammadu Buhari has just presented his first budget estimates to the National Assembly.

As for the form of budgeting, the President Shehu Shagari-led administration toyed with the idea of the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System, PPBS. PPBS normally seeks to accomplish the injection of greater rationality into the process by first planning goals and objectives; then developing programmes to achieve the goals; and finally budgeting for projects within each programme.

There is hardly any need to ask if Shagari’s PPBS succeeded when the regime that brought it about was an abysmal failure.

The President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration is harping on the zero-based budgeting system, where the basic objectives of a programme are examined by taking an if-we-are-to-start-afresh look, that is to say that each programme is challenged for its very existence in every budget cycle.

Every budget has its jargons, which are probably intended to confuse the citizenry. The more confused we are the better for government officials.

However, in whatever language it is coated, a budget is nothing more than the financial plan of an organisation for a given period.
There are holes to pick in every budget. For example, at a time of global economic melt-down, when nations similarly situated with Nigeria are seeking ways and means of returning to part-time legislatures that meet occasionally to pass Bills and approve the President’s Budget, there is a provision of a whopping N175 billion for the National Assembly in the current Estimates. This is a height of insensibility to our economic plight – when State Governors are declining payment of the N18,000 minimum wage to the toiling masses. After all, budgeting is also about getting priorities right.

Again, the legislature has no business in project execution. Nigeria is perhaps the only nation where the bogus idea of constituency projects still thrives. The so-called constituency projects constitute a distortion on the budgetary process and a rip-off of the tax-payer.

In the past, we had cases where the nation’s budget only succeeded in making a few individuals richer than the Federal Government. Budgetary allocations have been used as slush funds for all manner of operations. Budgets provided veritable sources of stealing and graft. They appeared attractive at presentation but zero on execution.

In all, what has remained missing is the type of fiscal discipline that propels a good budget. We have also not seen a National Assembly that could have the courage and patriotism to devise a budget cycle, which would by superior legislation, compel vital actions to be taken on the budget by specific dates.

Elsewhere, we have seen budget cycles of 20 months of hard work from the date of initial conception to the beginning of execution – in spite of which party is in power or the system of budgeting adopted. A nation’s budget is not a haphazard document. It must be meticulously planned and carefully consummated.

Under a 20-month budget cycle, the budget for Fiscal Year 2016, for instance, would have started by April 2014 with budget call from departmental budget offices… culminating in the President’s presentation of the Appropriation Bills to the National Assembly by January 2015.

The Bills would have been assigned to the relevant Committees, which must report them out by specific dates, not later than June 2015. All legislative actions would have been completed and Appropriation Bill signed into law not later than October 2015.

But coming to Nigeria, what do we have? We have a fire brigade approach in which the budget proposals for next year, just in fulfillment of all righteousness, are thrown into the National Assembly a few days before the end of this year. The debates on the Bill would linger on and the Bill would be haphazardly passed by July of the Fiscal Year for which it is intended, thus reducing the effective life span to barely five months.

That explains why the recurrent budget would perform at near-100% level while the capital budget would be limping around 19%.
On presentation, the 2016 appropriation looked like business as usual, hence President Buhari had no problem reading clearly into our minds and lips – we heard this before! Will execution make the essential difference? Time will tell.

Here’s wishing our esteemed audience the very best of 2016.


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