by Oluseun Onigbinde
My closest contact with the Honourable Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was at last Saturday’s G8 Meeting on Trade, Tax and Transparency. Immediately, I introduced myself to her, she popped the question about Nigeria’s ranking in the 2012 Open Budget Survey (16 out of 100). She wanted to know if BudgIT ran the assessment of Nigerian budget index as she was fully convinced Nigeria got some things right and did not deserve such an abysmal figure. My organisation is not the local partner for the 2012 Open Budget Survey but I will share what Nigeria gets wrong on the budget which puts us on the low end of global standards.
Independence of the Auditor-General: For the budget to be adjudged credible in terms of performance, an independent body is expected to make public its assessment in terms of compliance with stated objectives, resource allocation and overall performance. With the structure and funding of the Auditor-General office coming directly from the Executive, it seems almost impossible for such statutory organization to stamp its feet with a thud. From a proposed allocation of N4.92bn in 2011, the Auditor General’s budget has been slashed to N3.56bn in 2013. Such drop in budget also applied to the extractive industry audit agency (NEITI) which complained last week of sharp decrease in funding.
We need to make the Auditor General truly independent by making allocation to that office a first line deduction. This full financial autonomy is what the likes of INEC, NJC and National Assembly benefit from. The Senate is on course for this and it needs to put full legal teeth to it. For that to improve the budgeting process, we must make the mandate of the Auditor-general clear, that is to appraise the annual budget report (possibly through amendment of the Fiscal Responsibility Act) and make that publicly available. Public Audit of the budget must be self-revealing on the challenges, infractions and achievements of the annual budget and medium-term projections.
Legislative Budget Office: Most people don’t even know that the US government has the Office of Management and Budget. Most are aware of the Congressional Budget Office set up by an act in 1974 to provide non-partisan and objective analysis of the budget. Every budget proposal or economic policy by the Executive ( Barack Obama) or Legislature (Ryan Paul) is put in the mill of the CBO to verify its workability and implications. In Nigeria, we have a National Assembly Budget and Research Office still in its infancy and seeking legal support as Presidents Yaradua and Goodluck Jonathan in the sixth legislative session refused to sign the previous bill.
Hastening the process to fully institutionalize a functional legislative budget office will be key to improved budget process. However, with my recent engagement as a consultant with National Assembly Budget and Research Office, I have reservations that we need to draw a thick line to avoid another sub-National Assembly agency and allow a non-partisan and standalone agency stuffed with versed professionals and bureaucrats. This will breed an organisation not seen in direct competition with the Executive’s Budget Office.
Documentation: The Budget Office of the Federation publishes the budget online though in a non-readable format but the document is not only within the context of the current operating year. Ideally, it has influences from the previous allocations and also tags with future projections. The budget published by the Budget Office of the Federation does not show previous allocations for projects, deep down analysis of budget statements, extensive comparison of debts over the years and also their accompanying projects.
The citizens’ budget is also too technical and does not adopt a creative communication and distribution approach as revealed in BudgIT. Most worrisome is the depth of the quarterly implementation reports (Page 28) that reveals too little on capital projects funding and also silent on previous allocations per project. We need to totally revamp the budget documentation process and publishing standards to foster openness and accountability.
Multi-stakeholder Approach: Reducing the stretch of apathy among citizens comes with inclusive budgeting. There has to be consultative framework in the budget which appreciates the contributions of multi-stakeholders (citizens, media, civil society, professional associations) in the budget process. The Kenya budget consultative process as revealed in how its Legislative Appropriations Committee meets with citizens in counties is a good example. There is also the need to institutionalize budget monitoring and evaluation process by applying a joint approach from the civil society, National Assembly, Constituency Offices and grassroot networks. That needs to be backed by the law to promote the inclusiveness regarding the budgets and delivery of capital projects.
Timely Information: Transparency is run on the tracks of details released in timely fashion. The allocations for states and local governments published after 2 months of disbursement does not help in citizen tracking. Data being not up-to-date on the Ministry of Finance Portal is also not of the top class quality expected. Non-release of comprehensive reports of government contracts, dates of award and completion, contract beneficiary details and the absence of central public registry by the Corporate Affairs Commission will continually diminish our Open Budget Survey performance.
We need to take an audit of the institutional structure that the budget needs to meet global standards in terms of documentation, transparency and performance. This is not about the Goodluck Jonathan. It is about laying stronger pillars for our fiscal and monetary components for the economy that disinfects corruption and promotes growth.
– Follow this writer on Twitter: @seunonigbinde