By Dele Sobowale
YOU are entitled to your opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts—Senator Daniel Moynihan. US Senator from New York State, 1970s.
TWO wrongs never make a right – whether in politics or in private relationships. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria placed the 2019 Budget before the National Assembly, NASS, in late December, approximately three months behind schedule and then had the gall to ask the lawmakers to pass the budget in the national interest. That is bad leadership. A good leader builds with both hands; a bad leader who gives good advice but provides bad example builds with one hand and destroys with the other. When it comes to annual budgets, Buhari has spent the last three and a half years constructing with one hand and demolishing the edifice with the other.
Every single one of the budgets he had presented had arrived late. And, instead of improving, his latest one is the worst yet. Obviously somebody is not learning. Is it because they can no longer learn or because they don’t care to learn? Anyway you look at it, it is not the way to lead a nation in financial distress and whose masses are diving deeper into poverty. He asked for more time. The question is: will the 2020 Budget be laid before the NASS in January 2020? Given the track record, that is a distinct possibility. There is nothing to show that anything new had been learnt even from this latest blunder.
If Buhari deserves condemnation for coming with the Budget only two days before the NASS went on Yuletide break, the reception by a segment of the legislators was just as puerile. One might not like the occupant of the seat, but a President performing official duties deserves full respect from all those in attendance. Not applauding is a right; but, booing during the presentation was totally un-called for. Some have claimed that the boos were meant to counter the applause with which the “minority” wanted to deceive the public that the budget was well-received. Even if that is correct, it would still amount to a display of bad manners to respond as they did.
“Like all God’s creatures [political opponents] have a purpose in the world. They offer criticism of one’s conduct, albeit unsought, that is not always provided by friends.” (Rosenblat in VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, p 48).
That said; we are still left with a bundle of documents called the proposed appropriation bill for 2019 and the logical thing is for Nigerians to ask what it would mean for them in the aggregate. That question can be quickly answered by looking at the size of the budget for next year – which starts tomorrow. The new budget is nominally less than the outgoing one. That by itself means that Nigerians can expect less than whatever they got this year. But, how much less? With an election coming in February, Buhari and his team had sought to minimise the damage to be expected. It had taken Atiku, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, to reveal some (and only some) of the truth to us.
According to the man who might eventually inherit the budget if Buhari is not returned, “The planned spending is lower than the 2018 budget by N300 billion. Allowing for 11 per cent inflation rate, its real value is N7.95 trillion.” Atiku, understandably went on to make strong remarks about the “fundamental flaws” in the Buhari budget which will pose great risks to the country if not addressed urgently. We will ignore Atiku’s comments, as mere political talk, at our own peril for two very significant reasons.
First, the PDP candidate appears to have more competent economists working for him than the President who is saddled with Osinbajo, the Minister of Finance and other economic lightweights. The President’s team, as usual handed him a budget which cannot possibly be implemented as it is – just as all the previous three were muddled up. The most significant reason for saying this was presented by the Director-General of the Budget Office, Mr Ben Akabueze, just last week. According to Akabueze, less than half of the revenue expected for running the 2018 budget had not been received from Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, with less than two weeks to go in the year.
Ask any Chief Executive Officer, CEO, what would happen to his organisation if he budgeted N100 for revenue and received less than N50 by November. Most likely he would be out of a job if he has an active Board of Directors. But the CEO of Nigeria Incorporated went before our elected representatives to present a new budget without as much as acknowledging the failure of his management team to collect up to half of the revenue he promised us last year for 2018. It was neither a honest nor a competent performance.
Readers have to be reminded that in 2016, out of capital budget of N2.3 trillion, only N770 billion or 34 per cent was released by the third quarter, Q3. In 2016, 2017 and now 2018, there had been an annual pattern of significant revenue shortfalls which the Buhari administration made up by borrowing. Was it then surprising that the nation experienced a recession in 2016; achieved only 0.8 per cent growth in 2017 and is headed for less than two per cent growth this year. In no single year was the budget fully implemented. Why then should Nigerians or anybody else believe they can do better in 2019, 2020 and beyond?
And, just before some people actually started giving them the benefit of doubt, we have the delayed 2019 budget, the turmoil in the international crude oil market and the report that MDAs are sitting on close to N2.5 trillion which should be in the Federation Account. We also know that government business under Buhari – PPPRA, CBN, NPA, NRC etc – is rotten business. Nigerian taxpayers are paying Board and Management of those parastatals just to rob the public. Nobody gets sacked for poor performance as long as Buhari can borrow more money to keep them going and impoverish Nigerians more.
Forecasters, be it in sports or business always look at the track record before placing their bets. When Nigerians go to the polls in February 2019, one of the most important questions they must ask themselves is this: given three years and nine months of the Nigerian economy under Buhari, are we prepared to risk four more years of our lives on this President? He has legitimately requested for more time. Are we ready to give him a second chance knowing that the error cannot be corrected until 2023 – if it is ever reversed? Personally, I doubt it and let me quickly answer why the pessimism.
“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1802-1883.
The presidency is the premier institution in any nation today. For better or worse, he/she determines how the people live; and even how they die – directly or, more likely, indirectly. That MDAs seat on trillions of naira belonging to all of us is not an accident. Those are revenues needed to fund better healthcare for millions of Nigerians. They sit on the money because Buhari has not insisted that every kobo must be in or the Board and CEO are out. So, Akabueze laments; and his tears are wasted because Buhari loves mediocrity. A Buhari-led government cannot implement even the flawed 2019 budget crafted by it; let alone a better budget written by those well-versed in economics.
Finally, with the bunch of economic illiterates serving his “institution”, how on earth can we expect faithful implementation of the bill? GIGO was a common term in the early days of computer programming. It means Garbage In Garbage Out. A budget is only as good as those preparing it. Who in that line-up do you know who understands how an economy works? That document was a waste of everybody’s time. Nigerians will pay dearly for it. Mark my words.