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Weeks before the 2016 budget woes became public, a source confided to me a story that sounded like fiction. The source said that shortly before President Muhammadu Buhari formally presented the budget, some politicians in the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, approached the Minister of Budget and Planning, Udoma Udo Udoma.
Buhari was racing against time and the group told Udoma that the government didn’t need to trip over itself in haste. The group then gave the minister a disingenuous idea: Stuff a box with plain white paper, seal it and dress it with a covering note for the President to present to the Senate. After the ceremonies are over, the government could then retrieve the empty sheets and send the “real” budget through the backdoor.

The minister thanked them, but said nothing, giving the impression that he was open to the idea. Two days or so after he received the unsolicited advice and after the budget had been presented, the same group apparently went to a major TV station and tipped off journalists there that what Buhari presented on December 22, 2015, might be empty sheets of paper! They assumed that Udoma had accepted their advice and fallen in their trap.

The journalists followed the lead and called everyone they could, including Udoma, but
found out in the end that it was a wild goose chase.

Unfortunately, as it was from the start, the path of the 2016 budget has been marred by a slew of drama and intrigues. Buhari has been hammered for purported errors of date in the covering note and the presidential aide Ita Enang who removed a copy of the budget in cahoots with administrative staff of the National Assembly has yet to tell the full story of his shameful adventure.

The 2016 budget is getting more than its fair share of farce for good reasons. Buhari came to office with the promise of change. The budget is the first test of change; it tells us not just about the money but invites us to follow the money and see where it leads.

According to a report by Premium Times, N4.9million was budgeted for books in the office
of the Vice President. That sum is N2.6million less than the budget for books in that same
office last year, but it is still over one million naira more than the budget for books in 11 out of the 22 federal polytechnics in the country.

Nearly N1billion was set aside for vehicles and vehicle maintenance, with the office of the SGF getting N400million, even though the same office received N291million for new cars between 2014 and 2015. The State House clinic will get an upgrade of N3.87billion, about N500million more than what was budgeted for the 16 federal-government owned teaching hospitals, responsible for hundreds of patients across the country. In an editorial on the budget, PUNCH asked, “how can a government of change justify spending N3.8billion on the State House Medical Centre over N1billion on the purchase of vehicles and N89.17million on canteen and kitchen equipment at a time of belt-tightening for the State House?”

There are no easy answers
The muted official responses and the alarm by Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, that his ministry’s budget contained dodgy figures reveal the tardiness of the process so far and how embarrassed the government must be.

But it’s a good thing. The budget would have been another pork barrel affair if Buhari
didn’t promise change and citizens didn’t feel obliged to hold him to his promise.

Not that we have never cared about budget, but government in the PDP years didn’t care about any standard of accountability above the waistline. As a result, public objections didn’t matter. Things got so bad that in 2012, government budgeted N22million for typewriters, when the Daily Mail of London reported that typewriters sold fewer than 800 pieces in 2010!

The promise of change will not remove the demons overnight, but it is exposing them.
I’m sure Buhari himself would have seen by now, that these demons are flesh and blood. They are mostly the same civil servants he had praised as saints when he described ministers as noisemakers. He obviously thought he was coming back to the same civil service he left 30 years ago and hoping to find the same work ethic.

Now, he knows better The dodgy figures did not insert themselves in the budget. Civil servants, who have mined the budget as their “oil block” for years, did it in cahoots with
politicians who are desperate to recoup their election expenses. They defraud the country in at least three ways – one, by inflating the budget; two, by demanding items they don’t need; and three, by holding off expenses till year-end, when they can cream off unused funds.

Of course the fall in oil prices has also forced us to inspect the budget more closely. And
zero-budgeting is making sure that unlike in the past when estimates were based on sexed up historical records, ministries and government departments will now justify the cost and value of every line of expenses. That does not mean there won’t be problems, it only means that the process has become more open and transparent and it should be easier to catch and punish those who abuse it.

It’s not enough, for example, for the health minister to reject the figures allocated to his ministry. Those who were responsible for the fraud should be traced and punished; it is not enough for the Senate to say that N10billion was “smuggled” into the budget of the
Education ministry, it’s even more important to root out the culprits and make them face the law.

The 2016 budget has obviously been hijacked by special interests. Corruption, which the President has invested considerable time and energy chasing, is now confronting him face-to-face in his first budget.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan faced a similar problem. In December 2014, he complained that some persons who wanted to divert unused funds from the budget at year-end had sabotaged the electronic payment system, making it almost impossible to pay salaries.

That was an understatement. We now know that the fraudsters captured both the budget and the budgeter. The only way Buhari can prevent that from happening to him is to find the culprits and punish them.

Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and member of the board of the Paris-based Global Editors Network.

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