When the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari, recently expressed concerns about the calibre of presidential appointments, she spoke for many. Ardent supporters of the President are now openly questioning the lack of direction of this administration. It is almost two years since this government came to power and the President has yet to articulate his vision for the country. People need hope. The country needs to know where their Commander-in-Chief sees Nigeria in five, 10 or 20 years time and the government’s strategy for achieving this vision articulated clearly with deliverables and timelines.
The challenges facing the country could not have come to the President as a surprise as the government constantly alludes. They were evident before the election when oil prices started falling dramatically and many states stopped paying salaries. I wrote about this threat way back in November 2014 in an article titled, “Difficult times ahead as oil price plunges”. This was followed by Prof Chukwuma Soludo’s excellent treatise in January 2015; “Buhari vs Jonathan: Beyond the election”.
Whilst the President hit the ground running on the war against the insurgency in the North-East, the same could not be said about his preparedness for addressing the nation’s economic challenges. He seemed totally oblivious of the urgency of the moment. Donald Trump was only elected on November 8 and already there is a cabinet waiting to assume office. The same exercise took our President a life time.
The rejection by the Senate of the President’s request for approval of a loan of $29.9bn once again exposed the capacity issues at the heart of government. It is shocking that a request to the National Assembly for a borrowing approval of this magnitude was made in just two and a half pages of document. Even more embarrassing was the reference to an attached document that seemingly was not attached. The incompetence at the root of this is staggering and it was right for the Senate to reject the request outright. Did ministers not read the letter before it went out or was it the case that they didn’t know any better?
The whole of this saga raises the weakness of corporate governance at the very heart of government. Approvals for borrowing that will commit generations unborn to debt repayment should not be considered without a full cost/benefit analysis. It should be standard practice for all requests for borrowing approval to be supported by a robust business case setting out the purpose and business justification for the loan. The business case should consider the desirability of the loan; consider all the risks associated with the borrowing, especially the risks of making loan repayments in dollar denominated debt; and consider other alternatives to borrowing, such as public private partnerships, including raising whole or part of the loan from waste reduction and internally generated revenue.
Competency in the management of the economy continues to cause concern amongst Nigerians. Whilst the fall in oil revenue is the main reason for this recession, the ineptitude of government in managing the economy has not helped. The biggest problem seems to be the lack of direction and the seeming inability of the government to get the basics right. The whole kerfuffle that followed the presentation of the 2016 budget were ominous signs that there were competency issues in the machinery of government. Those who were responsible for the budget function seemed completely out of their depth. Whilst much was said before the election about adopting a more robust zero-based approach to budgeting, what the nation got instead was the complete opposite, described by an analyst as a shoddy “cut and paste” job from the previous year’s budget. The whole exercise lacked the critical scrutiny Nigerians were expecting from an administration that was voted in on the mantra of change. Ministers appeared to have been hoodwinked by civil servants who were themselves struggling to understand the whole concept of Zero-Based Budgeting.
With 2017 almost upon us, it appears the inefficiencies and capacity issues that plagued the 2016 budget are still with us. The Senate only recently expressed frustration at the late submission of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework. It was submitted a month late to the National Assembly and then rightly rejected by the Senate for lack of detail. In Senator Ali Ndume’s words, “the MTEF was empty”. This level of incompetence at the heart of government is troubling, and given where we are in the budget cycle, it is now unlikely that the budget will be approved in time for implementation by 1 January. This is unfortunate, given the vital role of the budget in reviving the economy, creating jobs and addressing the dire challenges we face. Again, there seems to be no urgency and discipline in government regarding critical matters such as this.
As someone who has led the budget process in public institutions in the UK, I do not understand why our leaders think it is acceptable to start the implementation of the budget half way through the fiscal year, making it almost impossible to fully implement the capital programme. We have just barely a month remaining in this fiscal year and some ministries reportedly have yet to implement 10 per cent of their capital budget because of the late passing of this year’s budget. These are funding for programmes that would have created thousands of jobs.
Wherever you look, there are deep flaws in the entire budget process. We set budgets we know from day one cannot be implemented in full because of wrong assumptions of income and expenditure. Is it any surprise that we find half way through the budget year that there is no money left for salaries? Surely, as a country we can do better than this! There is a need for a thorough review of the entire budget and budget monitoring process to make the process fit for purpose.
Nigerians expect the lessons from 2016 to inform the 2017 budget proposals. Nigerians expect a thorough line by line scrutiny and challenge of budget proposals to reduce waste and corruption. In this writer’s view, this challenge would best be done by independent external bodies with experience in this area. The Federal Government has no business sponsoring pilgrimages on the official exchange rate of N197 when thousands of pensioners are owed many years of unpaid pensions. This is not a priority. We have enough billionaire Muslims and Christians that can fund such projects. We expect the 2017 budget to prioritise resources to areas of the greatest need; not cars, or clinics in the Villa. Nigerians expect to see a drastic reduction in the budget for food and other corrupt and wasteful spending. Aso Rock is not a cafeteria.
With recession biting hard, it is perhaps time to drop non-performing ministers and DGs for the interest of Nigeria. You cannot give what you do not have- ‘nemo dat quod non habet’.