By Elisha Bala-Gbogbo
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 budget proposals are riddled with errors and provisions that may undermine his anti-graft war, civic groups say.
In some instances, the same purchase of vehicles, computers and furniture are replicated 24 times, totaling 46.5 billion naira ($234 million), 795 million naira is set aside to update the website of one ministry, while no purpose is assigned to a 10 billion naira provision in the education ministry’s spending plan, according to Oluseun Onigbinde, partner and co-founder of BudgIT, a Nigerian group that campaigns for transparency in public spending.
“The key line items you find in the budget are a disservice to the idea that this government has come to represent change,” Onigbinde, whose group first publicly raised the discrepancies, said in a Feb. 9 phone interview. “It would have been better that they took a very good look at every line item and ensured that it was justified.”
Buhari has proposed a record 6.1 trillion naira budget this year to help revive an economy reeling from the impact of the low price of oil, the source of two-thirds of government revenue. Brent crude, which compares with Nigerian oil grades, fell 0.3 percent to $33.21 as of 8:33 a.m. in London, down 42 percent this year. Additional spending will be funded through tax revenue and the deficit of 3 trillion naira through borrowing, according to the Finance Ministry.
Former ministers and high-ranking civilian and military officials that served under the previous government are under corruption investigation. Sambo Dasuki, the former national security adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, is facing charges related to alleged misappropriation of $2.1 billion meant for weapons procurement. About $150 billion stolen by corrupt officials in the last decade is in foreign banks, Buhari said in July.
The government was the first to detect initial errors in the budget and Buhari wrote to lawmakers to correct them and welcomes further criticisms, Garba Shehu, a spokesman for Buhari, said by phone on Feb. 11.
“If they know the one who padded the budget, they should announce that to the government,” Shehu said. “Anyone disagreeing with the budget is welcome to say their views, it is the only way we can make the country better.”
Buhari, 73, defeated Goodluck Jonathan in March in Nigeria’s first democratic transfer of power. He came to office promising to curb widespread corruption and end an Islamist militant insurgency ravaging the country’s northeast.
“The budget has become an instrument of the corruption process in this country over the last few years,” Jibrin Ibrahim of Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development said in a Feb. 12 phone interview. “If the Buhari administration doesn’t succeed in stopping that process, then the anti-corruption war will be completely futile.”
Africa’s largest oil producer came 136th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2015 world index of nations perceived as least corrupt.
Onigbinde’s Lagos-based BudgIT was the first to draw public attention to spending proposals he described as “suspicious and wasteful” amounting to 111.32 billion naira, which includes 53.7 million naira repeated 52 times, 37.8 million naira appearing over 369 times, and a 3.9 billion naira allocation for the presidential clinic that exceeds funds designated for all 17 of the country’s teaching hospitals combined. These revelations have sparked public outrage and criticism of the government.
“There was a lot of expectation that there’s a clear departure from the past where previous budgets have been padded,” Onigbinde said. “All we have seen with this budget is that they have done even worse than the past.”
The budget controversy began last month when lawmakers alleged that the original document presented by Buhari on Dec. 22had been substituted. The president said in a Jan. 19 letter to lawmakers that the original document contained errors.
It was while poring through the latest submission that BudgIT found unusual entries, including 31 million naira set aside as “rent” for the presidential residence, owned by the government, according to Onigbinde.
Under a new “zero-budgeting” approach introduced by the government, spending plans were made afresh without building on the preceding budget, according to Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun. “What zero-budgeting simply does is start from the scratch so every single line of has to be justified,” she told lawmakers in October. “The only problem is that it’s extremely complex and needs a lot of time.”
The Budget and Planning Ministry in an e-mailed response to questions on Feb. 11 blamed the budget errors and discrepancies on the new budgeting system as bureaucrats grappled with it.
“However, the ministry has zero tolerance for malfeasance and whenever any wrongdoing is alleged, it will be thoroughly investigated and sanctions will be applied,” Charles Dafe, the ministry’s director of information, said in the statement.
Despite the explanations, criticism of the government is mounting with civic groups questioning Buhari’s running of Africa’s biggest economy.
“The executive should recall the budget,” said Ibrahim. “They have to look back at what was submitted, identify the alterations, correct them, make sure they deal with those who did the alterations, and resubmit.”
Other analysts see in the blunders signs that the government isn’t in full control.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Clement Nwankwo, executive director of Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre. “It doesn’t seem like the government managed to put together a first budget or has any control of its expenditure framework.”