2016 Budget: A deliberate sabotage by civil servants
As the embarrassing situations surrounding the 2016 Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly unfolds, one is forced to conceptualise and re-analyse the sense of judgment of President Muhammadu Buhari when he referred to his then yet to be appointed ministers as mere noise makers in September 2015 during an interview with French television station in France.
President Buhari in a bid to defend his delay in composing his cabinet stated that the civil service provides the continuity, and he was comfortable working with them to assess the damage purported to have been done by the immediate past administration of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.
In his words, “the civil service provides the continuity, the technocrat. And in any case, they are the people who do most of the work. The ministers are there, I think, to make a lot of noise, for the politicians to make a lot of noise. But the work is being done by the technocrats. They are there, they have to provide the continuity, dig into the records and then guide (those of us) who are just coming in.
“They have been there, some of them for 15 years, some for 20 years. So I think this question of ministers is political. People from different constituencies want to see their people directly in government, and see what they can get out of it.”
With all due respect to the office of the president, it is clear that he misjudged the competency of the civil servants or over trusted their abilities. In any case, the president admitted that some of the civil servants have been there in the last 15-20 years, if those years are put into broader perspectives, it will be observed that we are looking at civil servants engaged at the tail end of Military era and early days of our fledgling democracy. In essence, the Civil Service has, at present constituted, can be equated to an establishment accustomed to laxity and utmost disregard for service delivery. Nigeria civil or public servants are career public sector workers fixated into a regimented work schedule, anything outside that torments their working ethics. One from this end can start understanding why President Buhari’s purported Zero Budgeting is or was a complete mess.
Without holding brief for the gross incompetence of the current Administration and without indulging in undue blame game, one still cannot dissuade the humorous errors, padding and outright misplaced priorities in the appropriation bill to the crass corruption inherent in the civil servants, who have over the years and particularly in the last 16 years embroiled themselves in consumerist attitudes of taking without giving.
As against the president’s belief, appointed ministers are often men and women of inimitable stature who have distinguished themselves in other spheres of life and might have contributed immensely to the making of the government. They are politicians and private sector technocrats who work within established guidelines and timelines. For the politicians, they are often overtly conscious of the next election date while the private sector technocrats over the years have been used to delivering service even if it is at an exorbitant price. But the civil servants are architects of indolence. It is a common parlance amongst the civil servants to say, “one man cannot finish government’s work,” so it is acceptable to do what you can do and leave the rest no matter how small what you have done. It was within this context that a former Minister of Communication Technology, in the last administration, Omobola Johnson, was quoted, “President Buhari is being unfair to ministers who work hard and don’t make noise. The civil service is broken and it needs to be fixed.”
Anyone privileged to have been present at any of the budget defence sessions, would have observed albeit crudely one recurring decimal; each time the ministers passed the baton of answering any question posed by the senators or honourables to the supposed civil service technocrats, so much trusted by President Buhari, they wobble and fumble.
They are particularly incoherent in defending the budget performance of 2015 Appropriation Act and even the technical details of 2016 appropriation supposedly conceptualised under their watch are fraught with errors. In instances where the civil servants declare 100 per cent budget performance for 2015, a rule of thumb scrutiny reveals that the budget only performed in paying consultancy fee on projects never executed. Or in other instances, in a bid to falsely torch all constituencies, they splitter projects in piece meal across the country pretending to do so much while doing nothing.
Another unforgivable flop observed in the 2016 budget proposal is the disconnect between the change mantra All Progressive Congress/Buhari/Osinbajo campaigned on and what is reflected in the budget. The budget is more of “transformation and continuity” than of change, a practical case of locking the goat in the barn full of yams. During the campaign, Buhari and his party leaders went about town making promises; they stepped it up with opinion polls seeking what the people wanted prioritised by the incoming government. Nobody asked for this over bloated contraption and confusion. The Federal Ministry of Health practically disowned the budget proposal submitted on its behalf by the Ministry of Budget and National Planning.
The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, while addressing the Senate Committee on Health during its budget defence session, made allusion that the proposal drawn up by the ministry and submitted to the budget office had been doctored and that alien appropriation, different from what was submitted, had been sneaked in.
“This was not what we submitted. We’ll submit another one. We don’t want anything foreign to creep into that budget. What we submitted is not there,” he was quoted to have said.
The unfolding scenarios show the importance the current administration attached to its first budget, knowing that the budget of a country is the second most important document after the constitution. It is worrisome that the ‘budget of change’ meant to redistribute the ever dwindling petro-dollar towards delivery of public goods and services to the people is now tagged, ‘budget of corruption’, thereby putting to test the integrity of the president and his cabinet.
As against what Nigerians were cajoled into believing, the Buhari-led Administration does not seems to have a clear cut development plan to redirect the course of the country’s economy. The budget as presented on December 22, 2015, succinctly puts this assumption to bear. In an article, “The 2016 Budget and Public Administration Reform in Nigeria,” recently published by Dr. Otive Igbuzor, he enunciated that there should be a “synergy between plans, policy and budget.” He said that this policy plan is, “particularly important for a new Administration that wants to implement change agenda.”
Even though budgets are prepared by the bureaucrats (civil servants), it cannot be done outside the scope and guidelines provided by the Presidency. It is not enough to profess zero budgeting. Ideally, the president should have presented his own economic plan to the bureaucrats and directed that the 2016 budget be fashioned towards achieving set goals in the economic plan.
Another depressing outcome from the presented budget is that it was not scrutinized at all by Buhari’s cabinet. And being who they are, the civil servants considering Buhari’s perceived hardline on corruption and conservative posture, decided to systematically legalise what will be their loot by stuffing and inflating even the most basic of the items. It is indeed courageous on the part of Ministry of Budget and National Planning to admit the terrible mistakes in the 2016 Budget, though it blamed the error on its insufficient knowledge of Zero-Based Budget it adopted for the first time in the 2016 Budget.
The National Assembly should be given special kudos for standing up to the occasion. Consequently, it has postponed the scheduled passage of the appropriation bill until further notice to allow for in-depth scrutiny. It will now be passed later this month, on March 17. The 8th Assembly has also sought the expertise of civil society organisations and the media in fashioning a more robust, pragmatic and people oriented budget. In order to justify the huge amount of money spent on the National Assembly, the lawmakers should prioritise engaging in a thorough and dispassionate oversight when the budget is finally passed.
Capacity building for civil servants is paramount for this current Administration if it sincerely desires to bring about change in Nigeria’s socio-economic milieu. Many a Nigerian, will agree with Dr. Otive, that “there is a huge capacity gap in the public sector.” This obvious truth with historically backing, cannot be neglected if we desire to bequeath a Nigeria that our children will be proud of. The task to make Nigeria great is a task that must be done.
Mojeed-Sanni writes from Abuja (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Twitter handle: @OmoMojeed