SaharaReporters has learned that the Muhammadu Buhari administration was considering firing several top civil servants who acted in various ways to sabotage or undermine the government’s efforts to produce budget proposals that reflected financial prudence and frugality. Two top administration sources told our correspondent that “bureaucratic resistance and entrenched systemic corrupt practices dogged every move by the Presidency during the preparation of the 2016 budget,” adding that Mr. Buhari had ordered that culpable bureaucrats be identified, fired or demoted.

One source stated that, after learning that the Presidency was considering a large budget of possibly N8 trillion in order to significantly increase capital expenditure, some bureaucrats jacked up the budget proposal to N9.7 trillion for overhead and capital spending, even without personnel spending. Of the proposed N9.7 trillion, the bureaucrats had proposed that an alarming N3 trillion be spent on overhead alone, but the Presidency eventually slashed the figure to N163 billion, lower by 8% than the 2015 budget which was N177 billion. “This indicated that the Buhari administration significantly cut some of the main provisions,” the source said.

Bureaucrats also proposed to spend N2.1 trillion on personnel for the 2016 estimates compared to N1.8 trillion in the 2015 budget. However, the Presidency also cut this down to N1.7 trillion in the final estimates sent to the National Assembly. According to our source, President Buhari found the bureaucrats’ games infuriating, but decided to maintain his cool in order to meet the deadline for presentation of the budget in line with the laws and regulations governing the budget process. “While Mr. President has always stood for prudence and against waste, the bureaucrats were sneaking in controversial provisions that clearly didn’t represent the president’s standards and priorities,” said our source. He added: “Anybody who knows the president would realize that he could not have approved or endorsed some of the questionable provisions.”

Our sources disclosed that many of the controversial provisions in the budget were essentially smuggled in by what one of them described as “the budget mafia in the civil service, made up of people who consider the period of budgeting as their time of massive opportunity to arrange the stealing of public funds.” The sources assured that several top civil servants involved in the “resistance” would be fired soon. There has been fierce public criticism of controversial provisions in the budget. Our investigation revealed that the bureaucratic opposition began when the Presidency decided to engage the skills of experts to help in the budgeting process, especially to ensure the adoption of the zero-based budgeting instead of the “usual envelope and incremental system used in years past by the federal government.” Zero-based budgeting requires a focus on need and costs rather than the former system that merely transfers expenses from previous budgets, but with added upward reviews. One administration official disclosed that the “old approach, which is mastered by bureaucrats, often leads to several acts of corruption both by civil servants and political appointees.”

The Presidency had made it clear to officials of the then Budget Office and then National Planning Commission that it planned to adopt the zero-based budgeting process. Even so, bureaucrats in the departments, which were merged into the new Ministry of Budget and National Planning, refused to brief their minister, Udoma Udo Udoma, on the zero-based budget. “For weeks after the minister was sworn in, the civil servants continued to plan on the old budget model, stalling the decision to use the zero-based budget until Mr. Udoma, a former senator, found out from the Presidency. Our correspondent learned that the bureaucratic stalling led to a huge waste of valuable time, with the civil servants calculating that the Presidency would be forced to abandon the zero-based budget once time was running out. However, by early December, Mr. Udoma and the Presidency regrouped the budget planning efforts around the zero-based budget. An expert who was brought in to facilitate the new process told our correspondent that some bureaucrats still found ways to sabotage the process. “They took longer than required to come back with revisions to their estimates. In the process, many of the provisions already marked down for revision simply got snuck in, effectively pushing the

Presidency into the defensive in the face of public backlash,” he said. A presidential aide added that many provisions that have drawn the ire of the public managed to sail through the budget, which has more than 6,000 items in all, “because some of the civil servants who were meant to supervise the final product were also hostile to the zero-based process. So their uncooperative attitude just compounded the problem.”

The source, who assured that the embarrassing problems would never crop up in future budgets, pointed to an example where Bureau of Public Procurement, the agency of government responsible for maintaining a price reference list, could not provide an updated list. “The list should be updated quarterly, but the bureau “maintained a list prepared in 2013,” said the source. 

The source added, “Some people were so bent on exploiting the system that the time was simply not sufficient to stop them. But since the budget is only an estimate, the implementation part now offers the Presidency the opportunity to tame the corrupt intentions and practices.” According to an expert who helped in the budget planning, “We were virtually doing vigils to beat the time since the budget had to be presented before the end of the year to the National Assembly. And while some of the civil servants eventually cooperated, those who were resistant caused the insertions of many of the provisions that are now embarrassing the government.” On the duplications that were rife in the budget proposals, the expert explained that it was “due to the difficulty experienced by the software that had been in use for planning the budget in the past. That software does not easily accommodate the zero-based budget template.”

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