Taming the behemoth By Sanya Oni




DiezWe must thank the House Public Accounts Committee for finally waking up to the duty of reminding us of one terrible absurdity that is less talked about – and yet inextricably linked to the nation’s crisis of public finance and by extension, governance.  I refer here to its latest finding that the combined financial expenditures of some powerful “statutory and extra-ministerial departments” actually outstrip the federal budget by a ratio of one to four.

Much as I would love that the issue be elevated, being an inescapable aspect of the discourse of the nation’s future, I suspect that the issues may have come too late in the day. For not only does the charged atmosphere of electioneering makes it an unlikely subject of interest at this point in time, (which is tragic really considering the mess that the current administration has made of the finances), it seems even more unlikely that our politicians would have the stomach for serious debate when the atmosphere is suffused with issues of stomach infrastructure.

To say that the federal behemoth is awash with cash is hardly saying anything new. We have heard it over and over again from its hierarchs that the federal government is not broke. We know what they mean – the huge pool available to service all manners of purposes under the sun – excepting everything that matters to the ordinary Nigerian. The good thing is that we are finally getting around to determining the size of the fiscal operation of that parallel arm of the federal government not known to be subject to the strictures of parliamentary budgetary process.

Having said that, I must confess that I have quite a bit of a problem in the attempt by the committee– after nearly 15 successive cycles of budget – to present it as serendipity finding. To the extent that this is the way the business of government has been run over the years, someone surely must be kidding to imagine that the subject will suddenly excite Nigerians only because the federal purse is shrinking!

Does that take anything from its legitimacy as a subject of interest? Hardly. Look at it this way: this year – no thanks to the slump in oil prices – the entire federal budget is projected at N4.3 trillion. Even with two months of its 12-month cycle already gone, that budget is still at the mill – undergoing processing at the two chambers of the National Assembly – a picture of what the process entails. Merely from what is indicated in the dry figures, the signs are that 2015 will be a very difficult year for everyone. For instance, we know for a fact that there will be little left for you and me for capital projects after removing the wages and salaries of bureaucrats and political actors – including the vote for their choice toys. If I may decompose the figures for the 2015 budget for better comprehension: Imagine that for every N91 the federal government earmarks for its operations, it plans to leave a left-over of nine naira to deliver on projects for the rest of us – themselves inclusive! Picture the same federal behemoth, now with a vastly shrunk budget –having a parallel one – four times as big, superintended by select appointees or nominees of the federal executive. Could there be a better infrastructure for the silent killer of corruption? Does anyone still wonder where all the cash moving around for all manners of purposes under the sun – including the slush for political activities are coming from?

Perhaps the House PAC has been deaf and mute to the cries by stakeholders about the sheer outlawry of agencies such as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which prefers operate in defiance of the laws of the republic in the last 16 years. Had the House done its duty in those years, that monstrosity would have been long curbed. This is where, if you ask me, the committee’s finding – if it is any finding at all, is a decade and half late.

I say this because, Section 162 (1) of the Constitution is explicit: “The Federation shall maintain a special account to be called “the federation account” into which shall be paid all revenues collected by the government of the federation, except the proceeds from the personal income tax of the personnel of the armed forces of the federation, the Nigeria Police Force, the ministry or department of government charged with the responsibility for foreign affairs and the residents of the Federal capital territory, Abuja”. Section 162 (3) also makes clear that; “Any amount standing to the credit of the Federation account shall be distributed among the federal and state governments and the local government councils in each state on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly”.

Of particular interest here is Section 162 (10). It says “For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section, “revenue” means any income or return accruing to or derived by the government of the federation from any source and includes–

(a)        Any receipt, however described, arising from the operation of any law;

(b)        Any return, however described, arising from or in respect of any property held by the government of the federation;

(c)        Any return by way of interest on loans and dividends in respect of shares or interest held by the government of the federation in any company or statutory body.”

Let me be clear at this point: as it is in the federal behemoth, so it is in the 36 states of the federation. Across the board, the tradition is to treat the operating surpluses of revenue-earning agencies as piggy-banks – exclusive fiefdoms of the executive arm!

Do I hear that somebody is still thinking of where to find the money to fund the 2015 budget? A good way is to bring the operating surpluses of Nigerian Ports Authority, the Nigerian Maritime and Safety Administration and those of the scores of agencies into the pool to start with. It seems to me a surer, more productive way to fund the budget than the endless chase for loans that ends up shackling future generations. As important as that is however, it comes nowhere the business of taming the monster known to bleed the treasury of billions annually.