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Columnist: Why Government Must Shun Budget Frivolities And Focus On Citizens’ Essential Needs

By Daisi Omokungbe

The emerging figures on Nigeria’s fiscal distress should call for the concern of all and sundry, to begin urgent conversations on how the country can focus on the most essentials and re-organise our priorities through a sincere budgeting framework in the interest of ordinary citizens and the taxpayers.

Whether the people in government accept or not that Nigeria is broke, it   doesn’t change our current precarious situation as a nation.  Just last month, the figures in the fiscal performance report for the first four months of 2022 revealed how our cost of debt service was more than our revenue. The report showed that a total of N1.63 trillion was generated as revenue while a total of N1.94 trillion was spent as debt service, leaving a gap of N310 billion as a deficit. According to the report, “As of April, N773.63 billion has been spent on capital expenditure”, this amount raises dust about the state of infrastructure and how projects are being implemented by government agencies and contractors.

As if that was not enough, Nigeria’s BudgIT, a fiscal transparency organisation, said the federal government allocated N58.2 billion for vague empowerment projects out of the N100 billion for 2022 Zonal Intervention Projects (ZIPs) otherwise known as “constituency projects” nominated by federal lawmakers.

According to BudgIT, “the development was among other irregularities discovered in the 2022 Zonal Intervention Projects (ZIPs)”.  This new discovery is not the first as such vague empowerment projects and those inserted into the budget without actual location where the projects are to be executed is usually difficult to track and hold the government accountable.

For instance, in 2019 and 2020, a total sum of N1.245 billion was budgeted for the implementation of 17 constituency projects in the Federal Capital (FCT) by the Federal Government. According to PROMAD’s ‘FollowTheProjects’ independent investigative report, 15 projects worth N1.195 billion were untraceable as they were dominated by frivolous empowerment projects that are irrelevant to the needs of the people. The story is almost the same in Ondo state, in the 2019 and 2020 budgets, a sum of N3.905 billion was budgeted for the implementation of 86 ZIPs in 9 federal constituencies and 3 senatorial districts. These projects were nominated without input from across the communities by their lawmakers.

Among other issues with empowerment and most government projects is the fact that most times, such projects don’t really meet the needs of citizens and communities which the lawmakers represent. They usually don’t consult their constituents before nominating projects—as they only consider what will be easy for them to hoard and divert for selfish political gains and embezzlements. This practice over the years in our budgeting approach has left most of the critical sectors such as health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), environment, work and housing, amongst others left behind without due attention.

In the efforts to qualify for grants and loans from the World Bank under the States Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS), the majority of state governments claimed that they conduct annual budget participation town hall meetings to allow citizens to air their views and make contributions to the budget drafting and development. However, what they simply a case of the fallacy of participation, a situation where the government and public office holders have already decided what they want in the budget but only call a few of their loyalists for the opportunities to take their pictures and attendance as evidence that budget town hall meetings were held.

Are you not bothered about how the N1.14 billion used to purchase exotic cars for the government of Niger Republic found its way into the 2022 national budget? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a nation cannot support the other in tackling developmental challenges. But as a Nigerian, do you think the decision to donate such a huge amount at a time when the nation’s universities have been shut down for more than six months as a result of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) ongoing strike? How did we get to the level of trying to secure the citizens of another country when ours is going through major insecurity in history? Although, the spokesman for the APC Tinubu/Shetima presidential campaign council, Mr Festus Keyamo, SAN, said the Kuje prison and other attacks were just mere security breaches.

Over the years, the issue of the non-participatory budget process has been a bane to community development and created a vacuum. This gap has led to the award and execution of projects that failed to meet citizens’ needs at the grassroots, many more abandoned and thousands not executed at all—no wonder, there are over 11 million out-of-school children in Nigeria, according to the World Bank amongst other issues such as insecurity, ASUU strike, bad roads, insecurity and poor Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs).

What we must do as a nation

People in government need to know that citizens must be at the very core of their agenda through their annual budgets, giving birth to government projects and programs that focus on the essentials for pro-poor causes that truly reflect their aspirations and community needs. The conceptualisation and implementation of the projects and programs must be continuously evaluated with citizens and community input.

Our budget stages must give the citizens and community groups the opportunity to add their inputs for adoption. This will no doubt provide the much-needed legitimacy and transparency that seems to be lacking in our government and how it is being run. The broken wall of trust and relationship that has been lost will surely pick up again. Citizens will feel confident about the system and pay more taxes because they now believe the government is now championing better lives for them as their communities’ needs have been included in the budget.

In 2016, Nigeria joined the global Open Government Partnership (OGP) to ensure governments’ new commitments in the following specific areas, such as low citizens’ participation in the budget cycle, ineffective management of public resources, poor public services ratings &low budget performance among others. One of the main objectives of OGP is to ensure the conduct of the annual Needs Assessment Survey; the reports are expected to accompany budgets in selected sectors including health, education, etc. annually. There’s a need to help the government deliver this objective in order to ensure government budgets at the federal and sub-national levels capture the needs of communities effectively.

Thank God for civic tech. At PROMAD, we are implementing the “Grassroots Advocacy Project” (GRAP) as a civic-tech rural and urban participatory and community mobilisation project to investigate, assess and document the needs of Nigerian communities. The project is a budget participatory initiative using technology to document the needs of Nigerian communities for adoption into the annual budget. GRAP will harvest community needs data to produce the first comprehensive “National Needs Assessment Report” (NNAR), to shape and influence budget and project allocations based on citizen needs annually.

Essentially, through GRAP, PROMAD is advocating for an evidence-based budgeting framework as well as ensuring that budgetary allocations are made to execute projects and programmes that meet citizens’ needs. This way, the government can become more responsible for the people living across the underserved and underrepresented grassroots communities as well as the cities to get the dividends of democracy and pay taxes to the government.

Lastly, the over ninety million voters that have registered to vote in the 2023 general elections must make use of the election opportunity to get major candidates to subscribe to the idea of an open and participatory budgeting framework for Nigeria, going forward.

Daisi Omokungbe is the Founder and Executive Director of PROMAD. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria and can be reached via daisi@promadfoundation.org 

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