The 2023 budget controversy

QUESTIONS are being asked about the questionable insertions into the 2023 budget. The alleged insertion of fraudulent figures into the budget proposals submitted by some ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are said to amount to N423.8bn. During the budget defence process, the affected MDAs claimed ignorance of the curious amounts of money that were allegedly inserted into their proposals, a development which federal lawmakers adjudged to be gross abuse of the budgeting process. For instance, officials of the Ministries of Defence, Power and Humanitarian Affairs as well as the National Universities Commission (NUC) clearly dissociated themselves from certain estimates inserted into their proposals that ran into billions of naira. According to them, they could not own the figures because they did not originate from them. They laid the blame on the Finance Ministry which they opined must have inserted the said sums into their estimates.

In specific terms, the executive secretary of the NUC, Professor Abubakar Rashid, while appearing before the joint Senate and House Committee on Tertiary Education and TETFUND, alleged that a certain N12 billion inserted into the agency’s budget was a foreign addition. He said: “In the NUC’s budget, we have a problem. We had additional money given to us that we didn’t request, but I later went to the Ministry of Finance to find out because our budget was always hovering around N3 billion with about N2 billion for personnel, about N700-N800 million for capital and about N700 million for overhead. But last year, we saw an additional N12 billion given for World Bank projects. The World Bank projects are not processed through this mode.” On her part, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Faruk, while appearing before the Senate Committee on Special Duties, also disowned the sum of N206 billion which she alleged was inserted into the ministry’s 2023 estimates.

With respect to the Ministry of Power, the Senate Committee on Power discovered the sum of N195bn, which was purportedly earmarked as Nigeria’s counterpart funding for bilateral and multilateral projects. Speaking on the issue, the committee chairman, Senator Gabriel Suswam, said that following a session with the ministry in its budget defence, the Senate discovered that some ‘ghosts’ had planted the sum in the ministry’s budget. In Suswam’s words, “it is lamentable that year in, year out, budgetary allocations were made for projects but were never seen and the process of expending the money was opaque.” Doubling down on this, Senator Istifanus Gyang, vice chairman of the committee, said the sum of N8.6bn was discovered in the ministry’s budget and attributed to the purchase of military hardware, with another sum of N2.25bn also discovered in the budget purportedly meant for the Safe School Initiative. He said:  “The two items, when critically viewed, were not supposed to be in the ministry’s budget since hardware procurements are done by the Army, Navy and Air Force; and the Safe School Initiative is under the Federal Ministry of Education.”

The question then arises: if the ministries and agencies concerned are disowning the figures attributed to them in the budget, how did they get to the budget defence stage? Who made the budget padding and why? There is no denying the fact that sharp practices have become a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s budgetary process. A Nigerian aphorism clearly captures these irresponsible denials. It says that while wasps and bees are individually denying responsibility for stinging the farmer, the farmer’s face shows severe swelling. So, who made the fraudulent insertions into the various budgets? This is a question that the Muhammadu Buhari government must answer, and very fast too.

The messy back-and-forth is certainly an indictment on the Federal Government. Interestingly, the Finance Minister, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, also accused the Budget Office of wrongly coding the N206 billion which was earlier said to have been inserted into the 2023 budget of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. She made this claim when she appeared before the House Committee on Appropriation. According to her, “There was an error in the budget of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs as the N206 billion captured in the budget proposal of the ministry was wrongly coded by the Budget Office.” She also dismissed the allegations of budget padding, saying that her ministry was not involved in such.

If the Budget Office is responsible for the discrepancy in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs’ budget, which office was responsible for the multiple figures that the various MDAs have had to disown? Surely, the shoddy and opaque processes of budget-making and defence is indicative of massive corruption by those entrusted with the duty of making Nigeria work. Without the active connivance of some powers and principalities in the establishment, it would have been impossible to rob Nigerians blind through the process, as has been done over the years with no consequences for the perpetrators.

It is quite befuddling that budgets, which are ordinarily submitted by ministries after diligent checks, end up with items and figures which are later disowned by them. To cap it all, no culprits are identified and no one gets fired. How are these budget figures compiled and who bears responsibility for whatever is in the estimates? Nigeria cannot continue to behave as if there are no standard processes for budget preparation. To halt the tide, it is important to follow the standard procedure which would hold specific officials to their areas of the budget, so that they will not continue to regale the country with tales of padding and insertions that do not get openly resolved. There must be penalties for tampering with budget figures. The government should set out clear guidelines on budget preparation and stick to such guidelines. It should not continue to allow everybody the leverage to put whatever they want in the budget. Meanwhile, everything necessary must be done to get to the root of this padding roulette. The culprits must pay for their crime in order to show that the system is capable of redeeming itself.

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