The 2015 budget proposal is still government’s closely guarded secret almost three months since it was presented to the National Assembly December 2014. The pall of secrecy around the document raises questions among concerned Nigerians: What’s the fiscal health of government, asks BudgIT, a technology based agency promoting citizens’ right to access public budgets?
In mid-December last year, the Minister for Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on behlf of President Goodluck Jonathan, presented the 2015 Fiscal Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly for approval.
Along with the proposed estimates, the minister gave a stirring speech outlining the country’s precarious fiscal position and how the government plans to respond with fiscal and cost-cutting austerity measures.
The presentation entitled ‘The Transition Budget’ was immediately published on the Ministry of Finance’s website. However, the Bill, which contains the details and the specific line items that make up the budget proposal, has not been published anywhere despite repeated promises to the media by the Director General, Budget Office of the Federation, Bright Okogu.
This is an unusual, considering the speed at which previous Bills were put up online for further reviews by the public.
Not only should such a publication be made on a regular basis, it should follow the standard practice known the world over. The Open Budget Tracker (www.obstracker.org), an online tool that monitors the budget information governments make public, shows that, among the 30 countries covered, Nigeria was one of the few that has consistently failed to release an “Executive’s Budget Proposal” on annual basis.
One has to look beyond the region to countries, such as Vietnam and Iraq, to find places that do not make their budget proposal publicly available.
The reason it is so important to release these details to the public is not farfetched. Budget information are crucial for citizens to understand how government plans to steer the economy and invest in the New Year.
Under normal circumstances, academics, civil society groups, the media, and the private sector all pore over the numbers, raising questions on several line items that need intense scrutiny. Interested stakeholders then turn to legislators and the media to voice concerns and champion their causes before the official budget is finally passed into law.
At a time when falling global oil prices have left many deeply concerned about the state of the country’s finances, understanding in full, how the government plans to respond to the crisis is even more than crucial.
Indeed, despite the Finance Ministry’s attempt to keep it under wraps, much of the information contained in the 2015 budget proposal has already found its way into the public space.
Many government institutions were provided with copies of the proposal, including the legislature. With all those copies floating around, it is hardly surprising that some were ‘leaked’ beyond government circles.
So, what does the proposal contain? If one gave a close attention to the speech as presented by the Minister, one would expect that the high ratio of recurrent to capital spending would be reversed to aim for a more sustainable budget of around 60:40 (recurrent to capital) spending ratio.
In fact, analysis had revealed that the opposite was proposed. Capital expenditure, that is spending on items such as new roads, schools and hospitals, was slashed, while recurrent expenditure, which covers items such as government wages, was proposed to be slightly increased. Such discrepancies underline why the full budget proposal, rather than the speech, should be made public.
In trying to understand why the Ministry of Finance attempted to withhold the numbers from the general public, it is hard to look beyond the coming national elections.
Could it be that the government is concerned about criticisms right before Nigerians go to the polls? Are they afraid that the budget would sway voters in a tight race if the people know the numbers?
Whatever the reason, it is important that Nigerians build strong and independent public finance institutions that are not interested in political posturing in order to deepen trust within key domestic and international stakeholders who rely on the presented numbers to assess the financial position of the country.
Thanks to organizations partnering with BudgIT to promote awareness on the budget, such as the National Assembly Budget and Research Office, and Center for Social Justice, Nigerians are talking about the 2015 budget and publishing their analysis for all to see. The Citizens Wealth Platform, a coalition of non-governmental organizations led by Centre for Social Justice, has decried the huge waste and frivolous spending in the 2015 budget, which was hinged on austerity.
The sum of N304.5billion has been identified as potential savings from the 2015 federal budget proposal. The group has proposed that National Assembly consider this austere time to fully review all the proposals by Ministries and identify more funds that can be saved and spent on capital expenditure.
The general public has already been made aware – not only by the Minister’s speech, but by the numbers themselves – of what the proposals in the 2015 budget were.
Now that the election has been delayed until March 28, and budget proposal is no longer secret, isn’t it time to publish the official version? All we can say for now has been thanks for the speech Minister, but Nigerians continue to ask for the official budget numbers?