By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
My confidence in the president’s ability to rein in impunity is unshaken. But my fears that he lacks the adroitness and the personnel to do a thorough job on a comatose economy is accentuated Ministers are now distancing themselves from the budget the president, in broad day light, presented to the senate. Chinewtalu Agu of the Nollywood fame would have ejaculated – “azuikpokpo”! Unlike those unplanned newborns abandoned in trash heaps in Onitsha, those days, by nervous teenage mothers running from shame and elusive fathers , too fickle to take responsibility, this orphaned baby was birthed in pomp and handshakes.
The president had bowed and smiled with a deliberate awkwardness intended to display a repentant commitment to the rigours and rituals of democracy and a certain novelty of it all. He is a born again democrat. The air of moral superiority he moves with and the disdain he has for routine politicians will always lace his appearances at the national assembly with some condescension.
But who would have thought he came with rotten pork? The paddings were cruel. The chaotic prioritizations, inhuman. The multiple entries and bogus estimates, atrocious. And president’s negligence , extremely gross.
Nothing fathered by a living president should slip into this kind of destitution. Even Lai Mohammed, who finds nothing unsalable, finds this too ludicrous to put a spin on it. He does not want to be associated with it. The messiah has come and this was supposed to be a first taste of wonder. If the budget is just another sham what can be said of the presidency’s response to the scandal. He that is allergic to corruption and throws a fit at all appearances of disorder cannot remain this sedate, for this long, in the face this moral calamity. And it is baffling that everything else hasn’t been stopped to rescue a drowning reputation.
No one knows if he understands the enormity of the rottenness of that proposal and its wide moral implications. No one knows if anyone in this government understands the grave inferences that can be drawn from ministers publicly disowning budget proposals sent to the national assembly? Because that in effect means that this government , two months into 2016, nine months after it was inaugurated, is sleepwalking. If it isn’t sleepwalking how would it , in its very first budget ,which it christened budget of change, advertise to the world that its either interested in continuing where others stopped in the looting of the treasury or that it has caught the bug of cluelessness?
If it isn’t sleepwalking how are the president and his men so unperturbed, so unembarrassed, in the face of a scandal whose shame elsewhere could have buried governments , electrocuted politicians and smashed reputations to smithereens? How is it that the dismissal of a few officials of the budget office is considered adequate atonement?
The contents of that budget are so purulent Buhari should have had a whiff of its rottenness long before the day he bowed in the senate and presented it to the peoples’ representatives. With the benefit of hindsight that budget should have been delivered in a coffin. Its pall has now been cast over the enthusiasm of the president’s supporters. Is President Buhari’s piety so irreproachable that any attribution of evil to him is sacrilegious? Let us tell him pointedly : he has let us down! Why hasn’t he acted like one whose reputation is at stake, who is potentially grossly negligent at the very least?
When did the buck cease stopping with him? If this is an attempt by a group of persons to loot the treasury, why is the treasury’s custodian so obsessed with his self righteousness that he hasn’t even deigned to render a personal explanation. Buhari is so highly esteemed by the public, the only thing more absurd than what has happened is his lack of visible penitence. If Buhari is as oblivious of the enormity of this disaster as his disregard for the public consternation it has provoked suggests, then we need to worry. Has Buhari’s sense of self righteousness put him beyond fallibility and admission of blunders?
Can Buhari even feel the pulse of the nation? Has he, like others before him, been barricaded out of reality’s reach by sycophants? Buhari should at least have pity on his supporters. The political atmosphere is so polarized that his faux pas leave them vulnerable to the torment of the mockery they invite and scandals, like this budget, leave them tongue tied, sighing and grieving. But seriously, how can this budget ,heavy with pus, be a rescue plan?
When the stench started seeping out of the senate chambers, overzealous officials rushed in to render thoughtless, knee jerk ,explanations which have made these latter attempts by the government to claim ignorance, to pass the buck, look like face saving afterthoughts. Before a confused minister of health summoned the little courage needed to disown this budget, a presidential spokesman had told us we didn’t understand the health budget and that the eye brows raised by the comparatively grotesque allocation to the state house clinic were ill informed. A review of the annual allocations to that clinic elaborates the chronicity of the selfishness of our leaders.
They perennially vote billions to that singular clinic while starving Teaching and General hospitals . The country would then spend billions paying foreign medical bills of government officials , putative patients of that hospital, who won’t use the hospital. Buhari wants us to sympathize with his habit of using London doctors. It started since 1978, when he was perhaps not much more than a Colonel in the Army, and he won’t stop now. I admire Buhari and would like him to set examples, cure national mischief, through personal sacrifice.
Buhari whose democratic credentials are still being appraised perhaps performed that budget presentation ritual in the senate that day in mere fulfillment of democratic righteousness? For if he had a proper understanding of the weight of that ceremony he would have since tendered a copiously tearful apology. Our people shed their cynicism and put their trust in Buhari. That trust must be guarded jealously. Imagine that this budget would have become law if everything rested with solely Buhari and his men.
Yes, if he didn’t need the approval of the national assembly we would have perhaps paid rent for Aso Villa. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, that he knew not the contents of the budget, then we can’t but conclude that he was terribly negligent. That is the minimum . It is his responsibility to present a decent budget proposal. His honesty is not in doubt but he should not invite us to question his capacity for the role.
If the government had any direction , that budget should have been withdrawn at the first whiff of the stench. And a stricken president should have quarantined himself in Aso Rock until a real budget was prepared and re submitted to the national assembly.
There is a reason I consider it utterly lame to suggest that all other budgets have been similarly odious. Apart from this government putting itself out as being different and urging all to hold it to higher ethical standards, Nigeria no longer has the money it once had. Past regimes may have frittered away resources and that is condemnable. But prodigality on borrowed funds, under the present horrendous economic circumstances, will be really tragic. President Buhari is serious minded but he has to sit up, sit still, and exorcise resident ghosts that have haunted every government in this country.
Democracy is founded on accountability, and if you like, answerability. The masses are the masters. But they are perhaps no better than conquered people if filth can be thrown at them without a gush of genuine remorse following.
The sort of shoddiness exhibited by this government in this first budget, in this year that the economy tethers on the brink of a major depression, is shocking. It is alarming because of the expectations that were whipped up and the depth of the ditch our economy has been run into. To go from the euphoria of many walking hundreds of kilometers to welcome ‘change’ to this soul searing kilmanjaro of corruption and all it connotes , in a few months, is shattering. All the talk about body language has become distant history. Buhari is gradually being demystified , our inflated hopes are being pricked by many pins.
Many would argue that even the presumption of ignorance which many others and I have so easily made, cannot be made by anyone not afflicted by sycophancy, mawkish sentimentality or foolish fanaticism. And I understand them, we must meet Nigerian politicians with eternal skepticism. However, I trust the president. Comparatively, he is a saint. But in the absence of a spontaneous and meaningful apology, Buhari’s saintliness cannot stave off a collective deposition of the totality of the implications of that lepromatous budget on him. I disagree that this makes him a bumbling hypocrite. I have faith in this president.
But I am willing to entertain the suspicion that Buhari neither has firm control over his bureaucracy nor is he sufficiently conscious of his answerability obligations to the people. But assuming, without conceding, that unscrupulous civil servants were responsible, why was the president’s response to the scandal slow, labored and incoherent? Why were the people left to feel that they were mischievous critics , ill informed interlopers and petulant peasants?
Why was the supposed realization of heart stopping devious schemes of some unscrupulous civil servants , which has brought national shame and ridiculed the president, not met with venomous deterrent? Should we believe that the president was too stricken by the betrayal to speak? Must we then hope that a radical response is coming to banish these demons that have tormented our budgets since Lord Lugard?
My confidence in the president’s ability to rein in impunity is unshaken. But my fears that he lacks the adroitness and the personnel to do a thorough job on a comatose economy is accentuated. If this president is spared criticisms he will perform worse than his predecessor. The president can punish a thousand civil servants and a multitude of ministers over this, that should not impress us.
This scandal was so easily avoidable and that it happened at all now must keep us worried. We should never hesitate, never fail , on our part to hold the president personally responsible for egregious lapses. We elected him. We don’t want to be fed excuses any longer.