I am not a fan of Chief Mathew Aremu Okikiola Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ), a born again general, democrat-in-reverse, writer, and NOUN student. I detest his holier-than-thou attitude and poor concern for others’ quotient. But he boasts of several quotable quotes. And when the spirit is right, he can give Ali Baba a run for his money in the comedy domain. One of those days was when he declared, five years ago: I just de laugh!
There was nothing laughable about the issue at stake: the emergence of his frenemy (friend and enemy), Atiku Abubakar, as the northern consensus candidate of the PDP in the 2011 presidential elections. And even though national budgeting is a very serious affair, and despite the grievous implications of the 2016 budget charade, I will borrow this quotable quote from OBJ – I just de laff!
Recently, Ndy Nkpa published the outcome of an interesting assignment given to a group of Nigerian students, which bothered on the definition and advantages of Nigeria’s zero-budgeting (ZB). The winning answer defined ZB as a practice of adding several zeros to every cost item in the previous budget, with the major advantage of ability to appear and disappear!
That definition was ingeneous and unbeatable and I forwarded it to the Nigerian Economic Society as a possible theme of their 2016 conference. The Guinness Book of Records is also considering it as one of the greatest intellectual outcomes in 2016. However, my only problem with this definition remains: which budget? Is it the ORIGINAL, MISSING, DOCTORED (counterfeit), CORRECTED or the OMNIBUS budget (which harmonises all of the above)? Even when the National Assembly (NASS) continued to dance Awilo with the budget and has rescheduled its passage several times, my question still remains: which budget are we talking about? Which budget was President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) lobbying them to pass? What type of acceptable lobbying will an anti-corruption President undertake, and why did he bypass the head of NASS (Saraki) to negotiate directly with the appropriation committee chairmen (Goje and Abdulmumin) who, of course, are his brothers? Which budget did they eventually pass on March 23, 2016? It is a serious matter but it is indeed laffious!
For the first time in world economic history, a national budget went missing! Eventually, it was announced that PMB’s personal staff violated the integrity of the massive document. Well, a son sent by his father to steal does so most brazenly! Surprisingly, the House insisted that its copy was intact and unadulterated. Eventually, PMB wrote to withdraw and replace the budget, blaming the gods, some ghosts and budget mafia for the fraudulent manipulation. While PMB agreed that what the minister prepared was not what was being debated, and declared that he was embarrassed by the budget-gate, Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, declared that there was no padding. While the government declared that it operated a ZB framework, the Auditor General declared before the hollowed chambers that it was ‘not zero-based in anyway’. Indeed, as a lawmaker observed, they took the 2015 budget template and just started throwing figures. Incidentally, the only punishment for those budget rats was mass transfer! To transfer their figure manipulation skills to other areas or an indication that some MDAs are juicier than others? And while PMB did not blame Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ), this time around, there has been no apology, and nobody claimed responsibility. I just de laff!
Most commentators have not seen a copy of the budget and at best, only saw a soft copy of whichever version it was. Well, the budget is 1800+ pages! One thousand eight hundred pages! Just consider the following: The New Jerusalem Bible is 1463 pages; Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 1713 pages; New King James Bible (giant print, center reference) 1763 pages while Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (1977) is 1652 pages. Now that you have an idea of the size of the budget, your likely exclamation would be na waa!
When I was commissioned to review the 2014 budget, I read, read and read but the thing refused to finish! I believe that those who created a budget of this size did so deliberately: to intimidate, confuse, obfuscate and mesmerise. That is why it is possible to insert all the dead-bodies within the budget. That is why the popular Hilux Van cost N5m and 27m! That is why there is rent for Aso Rock and why the very busy Vice President would read N5m worth of books in this online age! To make communication meaningful, useful and usable, we are taught to always KISS (keep it simple and short). May be, that does not apply to budgetary communication. Probably, we should prepare an annual revenue budget, but only a weekly expenditure budget. Anyway, I just de laff!
PMB and the All Progressives Congress (APC) government had promised that it would never be business as usual; that the cost of governance must receive a serious haircut; that our priorities should be set aright; and of course, it advised us to tighten our belts. The 2016 budget specifically was to ensure that our resources are managed prudently and utilised solely for the public good. Well, the Presidency voted N39b for travels and transportation in a period when PMB should stay at home and face his face; N362m for wildlife conservation; N90m for restaurant/kitchen equipment; N1.1bn for new vehicles, even though PMB had said he needed no new cars because the ones available were good for the “next 10 years”.
One doesn’t have to be a Chike Obi to know that the figures do not tally with the objectives, and as Sonala Olumhense bemoaned, the budget showcased where government officials intended to lounge and luxuriate. Just a few days to the shifty passage of the budget, despite all the amendments, reviews, etc., etc., another set of 25 fresh errors amounting to N37bn or rather N500bn was discovered, including items without location, quantities or serially repeated. And even before then, the Ministers of Health and Information (the face of PMB’s government) disowned the budget of change. The Investment and Security Tribunal just represented the 2015 budget while the Minister of Finance and Comptroller General of Customs almost engaged in fisticuffs over budget figures and programmes. Even some ministers presented ‘repainted’ proposals that were still at variance with official figures.
When the budget of the Presidency, Ministry of Finance and Budget Office is infiltrated by spirits, what else do you expect from other lesser mortal Ministries and Departmental Agencies (MDAS)? Why I no go laff?
Anyway, as the Senate has passed a budget of N6.02trn, I have these interim questions: is this an envelope or a zero-based budget? How come the figure was N6.02trn after the padding, duplication, and several frivolous and ghost items were reviewed and hopefully removed? Why was there a budget-gate this year? Is it that the NASS is more serious this time or there was not enough lobbying, or that the present budget rats were greedier and more dubious? Was it a ZB or envelope-based budget? Anyway, long live zero budgeting; long live the budget mafia and long live the people of Nigeria!