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National budget as a communiqué

The last time I spoke with my brother, Joe on phone, he wondered how my weekly column is always able to follow with ease, the ‘goings-on’ in Nigeria when I am hardly in the country these days. What my brother did not immediately appreciate is that people abroad do not need to spend too much time searching for Nigerian events or indeed what the details are. A few minutes of “browsing” will expose the typical issues and because Nigerian matters take the same pattern all the time, any analyst can easily fill in whatever gaps there are. It is not difficult, for instance, to understand the unending annual tussle over budget by the National Assembly and the Presidency. A simple check will show that it is always about what our legislators want for themselves and what a well-fed Presidency is unwilling to let them extort. Hence, every President has a problem with our legislators at the beginning of every financial year with respect to the budget.

Since 1999 when democracy was resurrected in Nigeria, we have never had a budget, what we have always had is a communiqué of political negotiations.  Before what is wrongly called budget is signed, the polity is usually overheated in a cat and rat game which always short changes the citizenry. Temperamental declarations by our legislators such as “sack Director General X or Y” must not be understood to mean that they are unaware that they have no powers to simplistically direct and order the President about. On the other hand, when the President ignores the orders, it is not that he does not hear the legislators; it is also not necessarily a matter of ego of who blinks first the way we on-lookers imagine, it is that there is more than meets the eye in the posture of each of the combatants. So, when the law makers order the President to sack any of his own employees, they know it is an improper demand, but they suspect that the said employee is under the secret cover of the executive. Again when the President decides not to sign a budget, it is not just because so much has been added to it by the legislature. Rather, it is because what is added is an incredible extortion which goes into the big holes in private pockets.
The contention always centres on a term known as “constituency project”. What does it mean? How much does it cost? Is it ever executed? How many times is it recycled? Who is the contractor? What is the difference between a “constituency project” and other projects captured in the budget? Are the latter not located in constituencies? One analyst answered all these questions the other day when he said that what is called “constituency projects vote” is the same as “security vote”. He is no doubt persuasive because every project in a budget ought to be located within a constituency meaning that every project is a constituency project. If so, to select another group of projects and officially name them constituency projects as if they are to be executed in heaven suggests that constituency project is more or less a nebulous term. As for security vote, I must confess that for long, I could not quite comprehend its essence.  It became clearer only when I realised that as the security vote for the executive increased yearly, insecurity correspondingly increased. In other words, although we have security votes in our budgets, they are never used for security. The factual meaning of security vote was later illuminated by Governor Kwankwaso of Kano, a two time governor, who testified that security vote is a device for stealing. If so, it is not uncharitable for us to conclude that it is because the executive has security vote which is uncounted for, that legislators want constituency projects vote to be put into same use.
When I took up my childhood friend who is a legislator, on the matter; he angrily asked “why don’t you question Governors who commandeer local government finances? In summary therefore, Nigeria will for a while contend with security votes in every arm of government that is, security vote in the executive and constituency projects vote in the legislature. What about the judiciary? Is it correct to assume that it has not developed one for itself? Of course, it is simplistic to so assume because there is security vote in the judiciary too though it is not easy to see. But those who have cases before judges see it quite often especially in election petitions. It is security vote that is at play when some election panels unanimously give conflicting judgments on two cases with similar facts. All that such judges do  is to “skillfully” distinguish one case from the other by deciding that half a dozen is not different from six!!
In all of these, the issue at stake is that each arm of government pursues some security votes because “money is power”. Thus, we cannot stop the constituency project vote in year 2013 budget. Otherwise, the Legislature may unanimously resolve that the President should choose between it and remaining in office. Indeed, the Presidency has to learn that having a World Bank expert as Minister of finance will not stop some Onitsha market trained economists in the National Assembly from “correcting” the errors in the estimates presented by the executive. The Legislators often add more constituency projects because they claim to be nearer to the people and know what the latter want. The President may not be persuaded by the claim since the same people voted for him too and indeed more massively than anyone else. He is also conscious that if the issue is about proximity to the grassroots, then it is local councilors and not national legislators that deserve community projects vote. Give and take therefore, the 2013 budget will eventually not be a financial document that it is elsewhere, but a communiqué of the material personal desires of those in the corridors of power. It is a price which civil society is paying for its docility. For how long this will last is as Eric Osagie would say is buried in the womb of time.

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