A lot has been said and written on the 2016 budget currently before the National Assembly. There is no doubt that this was a budget put together in a hurry. It started seemingly from zero-based and quickly migrated back to the lazy envelope system. What you then have is neither zero-based nor a well-thought-out envelope-based budget.
The padded figures, the inconsistencies, the allocations within and between ministries, departments and agencies lacked equity and strategic direction. Some unpatriotic, value-challenged civil servants further complicated the matter by exploiting the newness of the ministers and their non-surveillance instinct to create a budget of their own.
I am inclined to believe that the exposé on this budget must have embarrassed the President because the President that Nigerians voted for to bring change would not have allowed this level of exaggeration, misallocation and unprofessional job. I have often wondered aloud, in matters like this, who is protecting the President? Does the President currently have a structure that can avert this in the future? In a matter as important as the budget, the ultimate authority through his proxy has to invoke the dictum, “trust but verify.”
But I want to address a much more fundamental question – Whose budget is before the federal legislature? Watching the budget defense at the National Assembly got me extremely worried. Ministers are disputing and disowning the figures in their budgets and heads of parastatals are openly disagreeing with their ministers.
The exchange between the Minister of Finance and the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service in the open got me troubled too because the Minister, as the Treasure of the country, should have supervisory control over one of the key revenue generating agencies – the Customs -as it has always been. Let’s be very clear: the budget before the National Assembly is the President’s budget – no minister, head of department, parastatal or agency can or should alter it.
The idea of going before the National Assembly to argue for more resources or for re-allocation is to grossly misinterpret their roles. The ministers, on behalf of their parastatals and agencies, should be invited to clarify and defend the President’s budget for their respective ministries as people carefully selected because they share and are willing to advocate the President’s vision.
The President and his vice are the only elected members of the executive. The visioning and the strategic direction he wants to take the country are his responsibility and cannot be out-sourced. But he can outsource the translation of his vision and strategic thoughts into programs and projects to his ministers and the civil-service.
That is why the President can exercise great latitude, with due respect to the extant laws, in merging, de-merging of ministries; in appointment or de-appointment of personnel; in allocating and de-allocating resources to certain ministries in accordance with priorities and options that he thinks best translates his vision to reality for the benefit of the populace.
The negotiations and bargaining that the budgeting process often entails are to clarify the vision, to link vision to plan, for internal consistency, to offer alternative pathways to actualizing the vision, to inject equity and to remind the President that he is the President of all. But all of this must be concluded before the budget is presented.
Since the President is the visioner, elected on the basis of what he promised the electorate, it is therefore fundamentally problematic for his appointees to disagree with his budget or to ask for more or less from the National Assembly. How else can you hold the President responsible for the management of the economy after four years if the budget, one of the most important instruments for managing the economy, is outside his control? This later point must agitate the minds of the legislators and moderate their actions as they play their appropriation role.
The budget is an annual plan of the government. It should, strictosenso, be derived from a long and medium-term plan. Now that the budget is functionally and structurally aligned with planning in one ministry, one can expect greater cohesion between the budget, especially the capital budget and medium or long-term plan. I must say that I strongly supported this move. If the president has a four-year plan, the budget would be an annual expression of that plan. If the President is able to negotiate and agree on his four-year plan with the National Assembly, it would make the annual budget exercise smoother and simpler and the defense less dramatic. We are not there yet, but it is what we should aim for.
And that brings me to another important point that I want to make. In an environment such as ours with numerous developmental challenges, including issues of national integration, planning and budget effectiveness would require elite consensus. We cannot afford to play politics with everything. All energy and resources of this nation must be channeled where it would benefit the nation most.
The discordant tone among the elite and the sense of alienation that it fuels weaken socio-economic planning and derogates it as a developmental tool. The pull and tug, sometimes witnessed between the executive and legislature and between political parties, and the winner takes all mentality, exacerbates our fault lines and denigrates our sense of oneness. The absence of a collective sense of purpose blurs the vision of leadership and offends the principles of long-term planning.
This is because people would not be willing to make the necessary sacrifices and compromise; and, more importantly, leaders would be unwilling to commit to building strong and credible institutions that can tie their hands and force them to think beyond their tenure. To build elite consensus requires a pragmatic, disciplined and charismatic leader.
In their book entitled Resilience, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy talk of a translational leader as a requirement for building a resilient economy, an inclusive economy that is planned for all. Such a leader would enlarge the tribe, the Nigerian tribe; weaving together different constituencies and different hierarchies.
He is a leader who would resist the temptation of his party, which says our time has come to chop; a leader that thinks and acts differently, discerning of the big picture but can also pay attention to details; a leader with ability to connect with groups that may feel alienated; a leader that courageously promotes the change that endures, rewarding competence wherever it is found and fighting to restore ethical behavior among all classes of the society.
Such a leader would have the courage of American President John Adams who lost an election to Thomas Jefferson because he negotiated an end to the war with France against the wishes of many in his party; and the courage of Abraham Lincoln whose emancipation proclamation was made in the face of war, anger and bitterness. President Muhammadu Buhari can join the league of these distinguished, courageous leaders who acted selflessly and create a new national ethos for Nigeria. And he deserves all our support.
Osita Ogbu, a former Chief Economic Adviser to the President, is a Professor of Economics and Director, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.