WEDNESDAY COLUMN BY USSIJU MEDANER
So much ado about the presentation of the 2024 appropriation bill to the National Assembly by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. We have spent the last few days ruminating over irrelevant matters while ignoring what really needs to be done to alter the status quo. While we encumber ourselves with the rhetoric of an empty appropriation bill box being presented to the National Assembly and the attendant hullabaloo that follows, we have almost forgotten that what we really need as a people and a nation at this point is a working system precipitated on a total movement away from inefficient practices that have all failed to work in the past. The ritual of annual budgeting has apparently failed to serve the interests of the people of Nigeria; and changing that or improving on the budgetary process should be our focus and not the mere manner of presentation. After all, all these past years, we have seen fully loaded ‘Ghana-must-go’ carrying contents of appropriation bills in the most elaborate manner for presentation, and we still get to the present state. Hence the need to look beyond appearance and surface.
National survival of all nations, democracies in particular, depends very largely on the effectiveness of national planning based on the ritual of annual budget planning, presentation to the legislature and the eventual passage into law the presented estimates, that represents the nation’s financial blueprint for the period under consideration; usually a twelve months period by those in authority that are saddled with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the country.
This bill, which on passage into law becomes the dictating element of the day-to-day running of all financial activities of all the federally controlled entities, ought to be accorded just so much important from its content generation, all-inclusiveness and attainability, to the sincerity of the implementers across the board, but that has not been the case going by the antecedents. Historically, to the majority of Nigerians, the exercise has become a mere rhetoric, a ritual that brings nothing to the table for the common man and the general citizens of Nigeria.
It has become a resultless tradition that has stopped attracting the attention of the majority of Nigerians overtime, save for the relatively few who feed on state systems for budget tracking, analysis and reporting and we may also add the army of critics, especially from the opposition who stay on public radar for relevance on the back of fervent if not virulent criticism of government actions including the most trivial. The best most Nigerians take from the annual appropriation ritual is usually a glimpse of hope for the year ahead, the hope that their conditions would improve which often is not the case; and the worse, is the frequent scandal often reported about lawmakers who pad the document to create an avenue for themselves to rip the country of its scarce resources. On the other side, we see ministries and agencies colluding with lawmakers to include non needed projects to create avenues for further corruption and more worrisome, having a sizable chunk of the allocation diverted away in the face of acute societal needs begging for urgent interventions.
And this has to change in this current dispensation. There can’t be a better time to alter the status quo with regard to the budgetary system of the country towards a more effective and efficient handling of the budget process. This Administration kickstarted the running of the country with a number of hard decisions that though are necessary and applauded across the board, but nonetheless have brought so much hardship on the citizens. Having a budgetary procedure and system that fails to depart from what it used to be would literally negate the posture of the President Tinubu government.
It would not be about the elements and content of the budget proposal or the eventual budget document; we have always had promising compendiums of financial plans for the country, without any tangible results at the end of the budget year. This time around, it must be about doing things differently and establishing systems that force the realisation of set goals as contained in the present budget document.
I am not surprised when the criticism began to flow in after President Tinubu presented the 2024 Appropriation Bill to the Joint session of the National Assembly some days ago; we would only be expecting a different and positive response from the people only when we have shown them that this is different through feasible, physical and measurable results, emanating from the implementation of the budget document.
The content of the 2024 Appropriation Bill, while ignoring the naysayers, is beaming with possible hope of seriousness on the part of the government. On the paper, the budget, as named, depicts truly a renewed hope for the country. It is by so many standard an aggregate of many key points that resonate loudly with the yearnings of average Nigerians, and if implemented to the letter, capable of creating a shift that would take a sizeable population of Nigerians back to the place of survival and trust in both the government and the future of the nation. The budget presentation speaks of tangible commitments to job creation and poverty reduction, of increased and improved social security amongst others. If the election campaign promises of president Tinubu on the same critical issue is anything to go by, then this is the beginning of the fulfilment of a promise that Nigerians have forever looked forward to.
The bill makes a case for conscious spending aimed at overhauling the nation’s internal security framework in all ramifications to improve upon the physical safety of lives, investments and properties of Nigerians. Then we see the element of investment in human capital development, with focus on education of the younger population of Nigerians and also accessible and affordable quality healthcare infrastructure.
Expectedly, there would be talks and public outcry as regard to the expectations of the the people and a couple of issues already raised about the presented appropriation bill before the National Assembly, but in the overall, what would and should really matter to Nigerians are the content of the bill, and the political will of the President to effectively implement the budget when passed. If there is anything we should be engaging in right now, it should be on what to do in order to achieve tangible implementation in the next fiscal year and beyond.
We should begin to see a different National Assembly’s handling of the appropriation bill, beginning with this bill on their table. It is the right of the lawmakers to fight for an equitable spread of projects across the country; getting government attention to their constituencies and districts would be a plus for the country with respect to even distribution of public projects and social services. However, the practice of padding bills to get personal returns to the pockets of members of the National Assembly is not in the interest of the nation, and cannot be allowed to perpetuate itself; that the presidency and the leadership of the National Assembly must ensure we do not see again.
We should begin to see layers of budget monitoring systems that put all implementers on their toes. The structure of the National Assembly’s oversight should stretch beyond the normal to evolve a transparent oversight procedure that is documented and open to public view permanently throughout the cycle of the budgetary process. This will mark a total departure to the rhetoric of oversight visitations that ends up with brown envelopes and everyone keeping quiet while the budget implementation is derailed and the citizens continue to suffer for lack of basics such as portable water, drainage, road and power that are supposed to be taken care of with the budget instrument.
The executive would also have to demonstrate its seriousness and willingness to engage all political influences to see to the effective and total implementation of the approved budget. The presidency must have to set up a budget implementation status monitoring system that would, all through the budget year, follow the released resources and tie them to respective projects as per implementation. This should be a coalition of representatives of the presidency, the civil society, selected journalists, representatives of the youths, and other designated sectors of the Nigeria society; to form a system that produces a monthly assessment of budget performances of all agencies and ministries and make the same available to the public. If every minister, head of agency or parastatal knows it is no longer business as usual; if they know the public is scrutinising that spending, the chances that we will see a better budget performance would be high.
Another element that must be reevaluated if we are to see remarkable changes in the level of the national budget implementation is the effectiveness of the national procurement processes. We cannot continue to have the many bottlenecks that define our procurement as it is and expect speedy and timely budget delivery. We are at a point where we need wider awareness on the principle and effect of time in the handling of the procurement process as a base for our budgetary appropriation, our project costs overrun and performance assessments. This is the time for the presidency to rejig the Bureau of Public Procurement to engage better strategies on procurement time management across all tiers of budget administration as a path to effective and efficient project delivery to Nigerians.
Another step that needs to and must be taken for Nigeria and Nigerians to benefit fully from the 2024 budget would be to effectively recognise the document as what it is: an Act of the National Assembly, and just like every law, to have attached consequences for aberrations and defaults. If we can get to the point where public officials who fail to totally implement the terms of the budget as delivered to them and funds made available; if we can get to the point where such implementers are charged before the court and have certain penalties prescribed to them, such as rank demotion, removal from office or and some imposition of fine; obviously, we will begin to see changes arising from fear of the known from all corners and of course better deliveries to Nigerians. The prevailing order allows so much leakage from the system and even after that, another round of public spending through prosecution by the anti-corruption agencies.
Finally, as stated earlier, it is not about the procedure for the presentation of the Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly; neither is it absolutely about the colourful content but about the extent of implementation of the budget marked in all ramifications by a total departure from all the failures and aberrations that are the norms with our budget cycles of the past. We should all wait and watch to see the seriousness of the Renewed Hope mantra as it rings loud through the management of the 2024 budget implementation. For now, we have no moral basis nor right to discredit President Bola Ahmed Tinubu-led government on budget management.
GOD BLESS THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA!