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The annual budget rituals and our hopes

It is the budget season. On November 7, President Muhammadu Buhari kicked off the season in a big way. He laid the 2018 budget of N8.6 trillion before the national assembly. This scary figure tells us that the country is not broke and that even if we are only about to reach the shore from the choppy seas of our wobbly economic management and recession, we have reasons to hope for a brighter future. The president calls it a budget of consolidation. He called this year’s budget Budget of Recovery and Growth.

In the next few days or weeks, the state governments would liven up the season with their own annual budget presentations. But do not expect the salary arrears to be cleared or the abandoned capital development projects to be revived. Most of the states are not even able to keep their heads above the waters. It makes it rather agonising that the governors of these states would have the temerity to go through this annual ritual with long but false promises wrapped in pious words.

So, what does the federal budget promise us next year? More of the same, obviously. Recurrent expenditure is still the king. It has a kingly allocation of N3.494 trillion. Capital expenditure would make do with a princely allocation of N2.652 trillion. We are still going to spend more on the salaries of civil servants and public officers and less on say, fixing the roads. This has been the pattern of expenditure at the federal and state levels for as long as anyone can remember. It is futile to expect this would be reversed any time soon in favour of the capital expenditure. I think we are caught up in a vicious circle. We may struggle but we cannot break out of it.

The 2018 allocation closely follows that of the 2017 budget. As it was in this year’s budget on power, works and housing, so it is with next year’s budget. In the current budget, the three sectors got much more money than all the other sectors in the budget. Buhari has stuck to this pattern of allocation. He is putting his money where his hope for national development is. Splendid.

It is difficult to quarrel with the treatment accorded these sectors. Power is critical to our national development. All of us are sick of the epileptic power supply in the country. The various experiments, beginning from the Obasanjo administration, have achieved less than their intended objectives. And so, the generators merchants are still laughing at us and to the banks.

I am yet to see the details of the sectorial allocations but I hope that in addition to the three sectors, agriculture has been allocated a fair share. Local food production remains a critical challenge to our development ambition. It is good to fix the roads for easier transportation of farm produce but it is also important to assist the farmers to produce more to properly feed the nation.

I would expect the president to have also numbered the funding of education among his priorities. I am yet to hear the president talk about education in a way that shows he appreciates that this vital sector in our national development has reached the point of a national emergency. It needs much more than funding. It needs, as I have repeatedly argued here and elsewhere, a complete overhaul for repositioning in the context of our national development ambition.

If we put next year’s budget against this year’s budget, we see some interesting evidence that we are not about to leap out of the league of developing countries soon. We are more likely to keep crawling. There is nothing bad about crawling provided you know where you are crawling to. In 2017, the president proposed a budget of N7.4 trillion. Next year’s budget of N8.6 trillion is bigger but by not that much.

These scary figures that no one can translate into any Nigerian languages, are intended to give us hope for a better tomorrow. The roads caught up in the blight of recession will now be fixed; power supply would dramatically improve and candle sellers would have to turn their attention to other businesses; the borehole would be sunk and the poor would have access to potable water supply. Talk of hope; talk of dreams. Unfortunately, these handsome budgets from way back, continue to make but fitful impressions on our individual and collective circumstances.

There are two problems associated with the annual budgets. The first is that the implementation of the budget starts late each year. This year’s budget was not ready for implementation until June, six clear months to the end of the year. It is possible for the national assembly to fast track next year’s budget but I doubt it would beat its record. By the time the budget is ready, we would have lost three, four, five or six months. Given the experience with this year’s budget, I would have expected the president to present next year’s budget much earlier than the first week of November.

The second problem is the release of fund for the prosecution of capital projects. Buhari allocated N2.7 trillion to capital projects in the 2017 budget. By the time he went back to the national assembly this week to lay before it next year’s budget, only N400 billion out of that handsome capital budget had been released. Indeed, only five lucky ministries – power, housing, works, agriculture, defence and transport – were given an amount of money worth writing home to your mother.  From what I have learnt from the newspapers, the rest of the ministries received something in the region of ten per cent of their capital budgetary allocation. Over all, according to information from the ministry of finance, the performances of the capital budget come to a paltry 20 per cent. A full 80 per cent of our hope for a better tomorrow went up like a puff of dark smoke.

The problem with the annual budgets, federal and state, is that they raise our hopes for a better now and a greater tomorrow only to dash them against the hard rock of the shenanigans of life. A budget is an expenditure proposal based on anticipated earnings and borrowings. It is always dicey for a mono-cultural economy such as ours. If there is a glut in the crude oil market, which is a buyers’ market, everything goes out of kilter; plans go awry and capital projects are abandoned in various stages of execution.

But let us take comfort in the fact that life is essentially driven by hope. Let us hope that the inappropriately named 2018 budget would be luckier in the hands of the executive and the legislative branches of government. Let us hope that the national assembly would pass it in time for the executive to begin its implementation. Let us hope that the 2018 earning based on $45 per barrel of crude oil would receive no devastating jolt in the world oil market.

It is all so iffy.

About By Dan Agbese

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