ANTHONY: Fiscal Inclusion Should Be Priority In Budget 2016



George-hill Anthony is an executive director, Niger Delta Budget Monitoring Group (NDEBUMOG), and expert on budget tracking and monitoring. In this chat with The Guardian, he shared some of the anxiety out there regarding the yet to be discussed budget 2016.

At this time of the year, we ought to have commenced hearings on budget 2016. But there is nothing like that. Is that healthy?

HONESTLY, there is a lot of anxiety within the civil society, particularly, those of us working on the fiscal governance sector, as it concerns the possible direction that the government is headed on budget 2016. Constructively speaking, I want to believe that government at the centre would not want to toy with Nigerians on matters of fiscal inclusion, in a way that was demonstrated by the previous government.

Interestingly, there are diverse tools, which the civil society shall coalesce to benchmark the government at the centre on matters of citizens’ inclusion. Participatory budget shall be part of it, and as such, inclusion engenders transparency. Unfortunately, as we speak, there is a total blackout from the government on the policy direction or framework, which would give birth to the macro-economic projections for budget 2016. The government cannot whimsically flag a possible zero-based budget for year 2016, but only to rely on bureaucratic cranking to tailor the templates. Such has left the country with fiscal ruins in the past… Nigeria has depended heavily on incremental budget over the years, which either, zero-based or incremental, can be predicated on Section 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 19 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007.

Constitutionally, the window exists through Section 91, 93, 124, 125 and 135 of the Constitution, as amended, for the government to conceptualise whatever framework for the budget. However, keeping millions of Nigerians and the civil society in suspense regarding the direction of government does not augur well at consolidating participatory democracy. However, in fairness to the PMB Government, let us believe, the government is still being carried away by the unimaginable rots the APC government inherited. It should, however, be noted, the way a baby learns to walk, could determine, if the child would have bowleg, knocked- knee or unique steps.

We are yet to have the Presidency forward the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) 2016-2019 to the NASS for debate and inputs. Is this also healthy?

As a government, which took over power on a mantra of doing things differently for collective public good, one is still trying to track the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) shadows for 2016 budget, believing strongly, any Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) for 2016 budget shall evolve within the fiscal architecture of existing law. If the 2016 budget is forwarded to the National Assembly any moment from now as expected, there are indications, such would be in flagrant disregard to Section 13 (2) (a) of the FRA, which is a window provided by law for consultations of citizens, including the civil society and the media. Discussions within a section of the civil society, even last week, have not showed signs the processes are well blended towards the budget 2016. However, it is not late for the government to do the right thing. These are all evolving indicators that Nigerians would use to benchmark the Buhari’s government. For now, this law has partially been complied with, though not substantially, as it concerns the budget and the citizenry.

We hear the government wants to finance budget 2016 with a total of N8 trillion, but we are not told, where the funding will come from, knowing that oil revenues have whittled considerably?

Lack of communication,, insufficient communication could cause a populist government to lose enormous goodwill. The government at the centre must guide against this, since Nigerians are becoming more politically sophisticated each passing day. Instinctively, part of the information that is flying out there, concerning how the government want to fund the 2016 budget, is that, the over N1trillion of MTN’s penalty, artificial disruption to fuel supply, preparatory to final removal of subsidy are said to be avenues to free money for the government to pay N5,000 to unemployment benefits. We are told there could be a possible bullying of millions of Nigerians to stifle them to part with taxes, maneuvering PPPs, among others, are peddled as avenues to raise money for the 2016 budget… Lack of adequate and effective communication has created the space for these rumoured communication.

I think there are avenues, which the government can generate enough funds to fire up the budget, effectively from 2017, within an all-inclusive strategic plan. Part of it is trimming down frivolous overheads, marrying all agencies’ personnel into GIFMIS, bridging enveloping system with zero budget mechanism, through cost-spot templates on projects with huge capital outlays, narrow expenditure LIs and PPPs, including, ongoing reforms within the Customs Service and several other agencies generating billions, but using same as slush funds, even while same agencies are still drawing funds from the federal budget, etc.

Obviously, Budget 2016 could come with some delay. Will that be good, knowing that Budget 2015 has not performed?

The government is exhibiting extreme vigilance for the conceptualisation, formulation, passage and possible implementation of 2016 budget. The government can be excused for that, especially, 2016 budget, being the first budget for the President Buhari-led government. Be that as it may, I think the government cannot get 2016 budget right, no matter how fast or late.

For the Buhari government, 2016 is a reconciliatory budget for the government and every process of reconciliation, coupled with so much fiscal conflicts, expectedly takes a lot of time to resolve. In the process, many of the ongoing projects are likely to be cancelled, funds recovered, others may be varied, restructured, redesign, vired, and so on.

So, the 2016 budget, in my opinion, would have several turbulent waters to cross, particularly, as some interest of the opposition party within the National Assembly may also want to use the legislature to exert itself for survival towards 2019.

Therefore, it would be an uncommon political dexterity for the government to get the budget passed before April 2016. Even if it does, I am sure, President Buhari would further take some time to study what was passed to make sure, he does not sign padded envelopes, which may affect his integrity at the point of implementation.

How will you ask the government to act, as well as what priorities will you set regarding the budget?

No government can operate outside the fiscal and constitutional expenditure realities. I would advise the government to pay more attention to stimulating economic growth, which cannot be achieved without measurable fight against insecurity, not just insurgency. Many entrepreneurs prefer to hide their money, rather than being kidnapped without anyone coming to their rescues. How do we generate jobs then, when government alone cannot do it? Government must restore the sanctity to human life, which has fast becoming too cheap for ordinary citizens. The government needs to also correct groaning injustices, which the GENCOS and DISCOS in the power sector are inflicting upon Nigerians; such should go along with reforms for stable electricity and equitable tariff.

Further, the government should not also overlook revival and massive social infrastructure, including, qualitative transformative education and the Niger Delta question.

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