I have known Senator Femi Ojudu for 25 years, since his days at the defunct African Concord. We were co-tenants of General Abacha’s gulag at 15A Awolowo Road and InterCentre at Obalende, Lagos, until I was transferred to Ikoyi Prison while he remained a ward of the State Security Service (SSS). In all that time, even as a founding editor of TheNEWS, I have not known him to be a man given to impulsive speech, sensationalism or self-exhibition. Thus, when he spoke recently of some curious things in the 2014 budget, I was all ears. At a sitting of the Senate, Ojudu informed his colleagues that upon comparison of the 2014 budget with those of 2012 and 2013, he found that in several instances each was a mere duplication of the other. He accused those who prepared the budget of not giving much thought to its preparation.
It can’t be any surprise to anyone that the annual song and dance about the budget, including its christening—2014’s is awkwardly named Job Creation and Inclusive Growth—amounts to an empty ritual aimed at giving the impression of thoughtfulness and determination. There was a time, Ojudu reminded his colleagues, when Nigeria’s budgets documented “meaningful development plans.” But not since we ceased to have such silly things and budgets became “a ruse to line the pockets of government officials.”
What is Ojudu’s evidence? Requests for funds by certain ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) for tasks that do not fall to them, for items that cannot be needed every year or at such incredibly inflated amounts that you would think it is all a joke. In the 2014 budget, as in the two previous ones, Ojudu pointed out, billions of naira are allocated for computer software acquisition, local and foreign travels, welfare package, and training. For unclear reasons, an agency has to replace computer software to the tune of
N10 million every year. The Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation alone requires more than half a billion naira. MDAs are seeking N45 billion for research and development, whether or not they have anything to do with R & D. “These are not universities or research agencies. What are they researching?” Ojudu asks, then states the obvious: that it is such “wasteful budgeting” that makes recurrent expenditure usurp 75% of the budget.
Recent budgets have had the whole country nearly apoplectic with rage over astronomical amounts allocated for feeding the presidency; replacing legislators’ cars, furniture and wardrobes, buying newspapers, entertainment, etc. Now, I’m not saying that there are no good things in Budget of Job Creation and Inclusive Growth. I’m all for a Mortgage Refinance Institution aimed at realising the dream of affordable housing for all; a Fund for Agricultural Finance in Nigeria (FAFIN) that promises to turn thousands into agricultural entrepreneurs; and the completion of important infrastructural projects in the wretched transportation and power sectors. Yet, when such absurdities as Ojudu cites recur in our budgets, then every good intention is rendered suspect; null, even, with budget indiscipline to complete the fiscal circus. And so I wonder: what do the high public servants behind such blatant budgetary deceptions think every morning when they set out for work? Do they worry about cost effective ways to solve national problems? Say to themselves, “I will discharge my duties to the best of my ability . . . in accordance with the Constitution and always in the interest of the . . . well-being and prosperity” of the nation, as their oaths of office enjoin? Or are they preoccupied with one question: How much can I steal today, no matter how laughable the ruse?
I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter—apologies to the few souls that labour in vain in the piratical corridors of power. Massive and endemic corruption has become such a way of life with us that public officials enter office with no sense of how not to be corrupt. We are in danger of losing a collective memory of probity and accountability. Shameless greed defines the new guidelines of official behaviour, such that even those who do not need to steal cannot help themselves. Incredulous about Ojudu’s findings, I asked him if he had not overstated the case. In the course of his further explanation, he recounted the case of a serving senator who wrote to MDAs under the committee he chairs to solicit donations towards his mother’s burial. Obviously, the MDAs were all too happy to oblige the poor senator; he later boasted of burying his mother with over sixty million naira!
Which is why I expected Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, our IMF/World Bank credentialed finance minister, to show in her rebuttal that Ojudu was one of those telling “a large number of lies . . . against the budget” not caring “about the impact of their falsehood on the economy and the image of the country.” Unfortunately, she was keen only to absolve herself of blame for the increase in recurrent expenditure and to accuse “some senators” of personalising the issue. The same way, of course, that the House Committee on Finance personalised its response to her answers to the 50 questions she was asked regarding the budget, scoring her an abysmal 20% and demanding additional information on 40 questions!