Chike Okafor is the chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Healthcare Services. Recently, the committee hosted critical stakeholders including the minister for Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, heads of health agencies, professional associations, United Nations organisations, local and international NGOs for a public hearing towards increasing budgetary allocation for health. In this interview, Okafor a former commissioner of Finance in Imo State speaks on the recently presented 2017 budget especially as it relates to funding for healthcare, the dearth of capital projects in the South-East in the estimates submitted to the National Assembly by President Buhari and how lawmakers can conduct oversight functions more effectively in order for the country to improve on budget implementation.
What do you consider the highpoints of the 2017 budget as presented by the president?
I am very happy the president singled out funding primary healthcare as one of the top priorities in the 2017 budget. His mentioning primary healthcare for special attention gives me the satisfaction that the little noise we (Healthcare Services Committee and health ministry) made on the pressing need to fund that level of healthcare service has been received by government. This is my understanding of what happened during the budget presentation. Before now, I doubt if any president had while presenting the budget specifically mentioned health and then zeroed-in on primary healthcare. For me, what this means is that our loud calls and cries for government at all levels, to greatly improve investment in primary healthcare has been heard in the highest quarters. We have started on a good note and when we now look into the budget details, the breakdown of the allocation to health, then we can further analyse and plan for revitalising the primary healthcare system.
Many don’t share in your optimism because they say the problem with earlier budgets, even up to that of 2016 has to do with its very low percentage of implementation. Aren’t you worried about this perennial challenge?
Sure, I share in their worry. The budget is an estimate sent to the legislature and government expenditure is a function of revenue and receipts. For example, in a year where you have the oil benchmark of $42.5 per barrel, what happens if the oil price drops to, say, $30 per barrel within that year? Though emphasis has been made on other sources of revenue, if this kind of scenario unfolds, the budget could be crippled, knowing that oil revenue remains the highest source of income. When the country doesn’t meet its estimated earnings and it in turn finds it difficult to implement the budget, you wouldn’t fully blame the executive or the legislature. What we have to look at is re-jigging, the age long system in which we neglected investing in and boosting key non-oil revenue sectors that can be big earners for the country. But the good news is that the current administration is determined to improve efficiencies in non-oil sectors capable of giving the country a steady stream of revenue. Look at the emphasis this government has placed on increasing output from agriculture. When the Federal Government moved against the importation of rice and the Central Bank of Nigeria removed items such as rice, cement, margarine, palm kernel/palm oil, poultry chicken, eggs and turkey from its list of those that would benefit from the forex official window, I knew we might suffer for a while. But in the long run, the Federal Government would have encouraged local production for consumption here and for export. In the long term, Nigeria will earn foreign exchange from exporting goods. So, in a nutshell, what I see as the main challenge for the 2017 budget is our ability to raise the funds to finance the budget, especially for capital expenditure.
How prepared is the National Assembly to effectively conduct oversight because this is equally necessary to record a higher percentage of budget implementation. Also how can the House especially, avoid the pitfalls of the 2016 budget process such as budget padding?
Like I said earlier, the budget is an estimate sent to the legislature and it is clearly stated in the constitution that the legislature has the power of appropriation. The budget is not cast in stone, so when it is sent to the National Assembly, it will be worked on and returned to the executive. Speaking to avoiding the pitfalls of the 2016 budget as chairman of a committee, I can tell you we have met with heads of agencies in our sector. It’s very important that we latch- on the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) that will implement the budget, so that we don’t carry out changes that will make them abandon the budget. This is what has happened in the past. You will understand that members of the National Assembly as representatives of the people, look for opportunities to take home projects that will endear them to the people. But sometimes these projects are not in-sync with the priorities of the Executive. This time, there is hope because the president had earlier sent out a circular to the minister asking them to please, liaise with lawmakers in the committees that oversight their ministries to be on the same page with them. I am aware some ministries did this. For my committee, we have held meetings with the relevant MDAs. But you must also remember that the health MDAs, like others, may be constrained by the fact that what they sent to the budget office may not come out the way they sent it and this fear was expressed by the MDAs when we met with them. They explained that even if we’ve had an interface with them, they will send their estimates to the presidency. The Presidency will send to the budget office and at the end of the day, the president will come to the National Assembly to lay a budget that was returned to him , which some ministries will look at and say, it doesn’t look like what they sent in the first place. So, you see that the bulk of the challenges we have to deal with regard to the budget lies with the executive, not with the legislature. With the budget presented by the president, other committee chairmen would have to wait until it is passed, the first and second stage after which it will be sent to the committees. We the chairpersons of the three health related committees have agreed to jointly work on the health budget. But let’s also hope that what comes to us is close to what the ministry sent, so that when we sit, we will be able to make inputs. This is because we are the people that know what the people need. We go home to hold constituency briefings where the people tell what their problems are. Anybody who thinks we would return the budget as it came is not being realistic. We just have to sit down with MDAs to disagree- to-agree on key aspects of the budget and when that is done, we can follow up with oversight. Again, we can’t talk about the budget without looking at the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) which shows that the shortfalls in the area of revenue to execute the budget will be taken care of through domestic and foreign borrowing. It’s our prayer and hope that as the president promised, the 2017 budget will put Nigeria on the path of recovery.
Some concerned observers from the South-East have expressed angst that the region hasn’t fared well in terms of distribution of capital projects in the 2017 budget. They say the highlights of 2017 Appropriation Bill suggests the continued marginalisation of the region under the current administration. Do you agree?
Well, I don’t disagree with the fact that we (Igbos) have not been accommodated in the scheme of things. So, I totally, politically and wholly agree with the fact that we in the South-East haven’t been fully carried along in terms of infrastructure, in terms of dividends of democracy and even in terms appointments.
The president has rationalised this before. But we are beginning to see changes in terms of accommodating us; let’s wait for him (president) with the hope that things will be taken care of.