By Tonnie Iredia
In the next couple of days, if not weeks, many Nigerians especially economists, finance experts and planners would devote ample attention to discussing the 2021 proposed budget delivered by President Muhammadu Buhari to a joint session of the National Assembly last Thursday.
However, no one can stop lay persons like this writer from expressing our opinions on the subject from our simple understanding of the purpose of a budget which is to improve the living standards of the people. But before then, there are a few observations worth noting.
One of them is the display of discipline exhibited by the President in consistently keeping to an early budget which makes it easier to follow the orthodox schedule of January to December.
In other words, unlike many of his predecessors, Buhari has successfully streamlined the subject in a business-like manner. So, even if our annual budget fails to make the desired impact on many of us, there is some consolation now that the culture of kickstarting the process on schedule is taking shape.
As for the substance of the budget, there is hardly any need to bother much about the usual tradition of a speech laced with economic jargons which the ordinary citizen is not likely to comprehend with ease.
Luckily, some of our economists have since begun to make informed comments which appear to offer us some hope. One of them is Ben Akabueze, Director-General, Budget Office, who has counselled against public pessimism on the budget arguing that it was painstakingly worked upon. There is no doubt that some of the points made by Akabueze deserve to be appreciated.
For example, his suggestion that it is better to read the budget in full instead of picking segments that do not present an over-all picture makes a lot of sense. According to Akabueze, the figure of N127 billion under Education is only for Capital expenditure, so before we get disillusioned over the education budget, the sum total which is about N1trillion distributed to its several components ought to be captured.
What Akabueze can however not guarantee is that the budget will be implemented as planned. The reality is that what Nigeria has consistently shown to be good at, is well-articulated plans whose implementation gets feeble efforts.
Each time the issue of poor implementation is raised, many analysts look towards personnel lethargy. In truth, the problem is far beyond the capacity of public bodies to carry out their assignments; instead, the real problem is the huge difference between approvals and release of funds for projects.
For instance, whereas government has confirmed the release of not less than 50 percent of the 2020 capital budget to all her organizations, there are several bureaucratic practices that can hang such releases in the sky.
We can only hope there has been a departure from the old order in which by the time the releases eventually drop, a strongly worded memo is already in circulation directing the immediate return to government of all amounts yet to be spent.
How can cash-strapped agencies be so naive as to receive long-awaited funds only to watch until implementation time lapses? Government must change this by embracing sufficient pragmatism in her quest to develop society, otherwise the old order which allowed the means for achieving goals to supersede the goals would subsist.
There is now a high degree of consensus that poor revenue generation is the budget’s most intractable problem. But the assumption that the problem is caused by the smallness of what is collectable is rather simplistic because there is a huge difference between what relevant agencies collect and what gets into official coffers.
What explains this is the trend whereby many government officials collect so much for their pockets before performing their official functions. If what goes into private pockets can be captured, revenues that would accrue to government would significantly reduce the quest for loans.
Notwithstanding the numerous reforms in revenue generation, there are still many public officials who use the reforms to extort huge sums before allowing access to the relevant technological devices designed to track payments.
For example, many public revenue generating agencies have devices for payments for their services but such devices do not institutionalize uniformity in service delivery targets. If some citizens can get served before others, almost everyone would part with some funds to join those who get served early. Put differently, making rules for revenues to be paid directly to government does not guarantee that every revenue would get to government.
The unnecessary controversy on the international benchmarks on budgeting no longer exist with the clarity presented by UNESCO that an allocation of 15-20 percent of national budgets should be committed to education.
Is anyone in doubt that we have never adhered to such arrangements? Again, did that world foremost body on education realize that in countries like Nigeria, amounts approved in a budget are never same as amounts released?
These are the issues to be considered when dealing with the criteria for budgetary allocations. Nothing stops us from ensuring that irrespective of how small or large our budget is, an agreed percentage rather than temperamental dictations should go to prescribed sectors as is done in the countries we often seek to emulate.
Perhaps, if we do, we may reverse the trend whereby it is only such actors as essential health workers that have to go on strike before their legitimate salaries and allowances are paid. How come the nation never hears of lawmakers whose entitlements are in short supply and who are then forced to down tools to get paid?
The implication of this is that our legislature is comparatively over-pampered even though Nigerians are yet to know the exact take-home pay of an average federal legislator in the country.
Contrary to official pretensions, a lawmaker, Simon Karu who represents Kaltungo/Shongom federal constituency from Gombe state volunteered information at a public forum two weeks ago on what reaches him monthly to be N800,000 for salary and N8.5million for services totalling N9.3million.
A poor country like Nigeria that can allocate such inexplicable emolument to a lawmaker cannot in all honesty claim to have produced a good budget. It is because too much money goes to some sectors like the National Assembly that huge funds are paid to legislators, among them, former governors who also allegedly earn pension of over 200 per cent of the salary of serving governors. If such funds were available to lecturers, resort to incessant strikes by ASUU would have ended long ago.
The point that must be made is that we certainly do not have a balanced budget, just as allocations in the budget are neither supervised nor well utilized. The other day, officials of the Niger Delta Development Commission were reported to have explained off millions of naira as a provision to take care of themselves; they are not alone because inequitable allocations abound everywhere.
Even at state level so much is available to political office holders, hence Lagos state at a point spent N80million as estacode to wives of legislators on training in far-away Dubai. This posture rubbishes any articulation of a budget, we need to be more responsible.