“The economist, like anyone else, must concern himself with the fate of man.” Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924, British Economist.
Granted the horrors of the killings in Benue, Kaduna and Taraba are too important to be ignored because they portend a move towards anarchy. People incessantly under violent attack, if not relieved by government, soon resort to self-help. Outright war is not far behind.
So, it is understandable that all discussions about the 2018 Budget have been pushed to the back pages instead of being in the fore front at this time. But, that will be a terrible mistake for the National Assembly to make.
To begin with, part of the solution to the mayhem all over Nigeria lies in passing the 2018 budget on time. The late passage and signing of the 2017 budget contributed in no small measure to the disadvantageous position in which the Nigeria Police found themselves.
We were all witnesses to the fact that less than 20 per cent of capital votes were released across the board last year. The Police was not excluded. Even funds for overheads were not received on time everywhere. Just as an army marches on its stomach, a police department runs on funds made available as and when promised.
Outbreak of widespread violence cannot often be predicted with certainty. That is why the Police must have their votes readily available because they form the first line of defence against breakdown of law and order. Funds that are not available by the time large scale violence erupts often prove to be too late and too little. A lot of irreparable damage would have been done. We should not repeat mistakes.
The security situation in the country alone would have provided sufficient reason to urge the National Assembly, NASS to speed up the work of passing the budget. But, there is now another reason.
The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, raised a valid and important point recently when he pleaded with the NASS to pass the 2018 budget before politics takes centre stage in our national life. Nigerians are aware that most of our lawmakers are professional politicians and, as such, most likely will be involved in one contest or another. That is their right and their duty to themselves.
But, we believe that there is another duty just as sacred, perhaps even more. That is their duty to the nation. Political rivalry cannot take place peacefully within the context of an economy in shambles. Yet, that is certain to be one of the political consequences of not acting now before politics becomes top priority.
We need to remind our legislators that the 2017 budget is still running, and will continue to run until the second quarter of this year. Projects which should have been commenced and perhaps finished last year for the benefit of Nigerians have been delayed and the benefits deferred. We cannot continue like this.
Granted, recent developments, especially the rising price of crude oil, have raised questions about some of the underlying thrusts and basis of the budget. But, with goodwill on both sides of the Executive-Legislative divide, there is no reason the needed adjustments cannot be made and still get the budget passed by the end of January. At worst, the budget can be passed without making any alterations to the benchmark while watching the situation in the global crude market before undertaking a review in June. That way we would have been able to determine whether the recent upsurge is a permanent one or a temporary bonanza.
At any rate, it is not just crude oil benchmark that will need to be adjusted; exchange rate and the estimates for debt will also need to be addressed. It is inconceivable that with more oil revenue the nation will still need to borrow as much as was originally envisaged to fund the 2018 budget.
The SGF was being candid when he warned that failure to pass the budget before the lawmakers hit the campaign trail will mean that the budget will not be implemented. It is one of the verdicts of our experience in Nigeria that politicians suspend governance the year before the general elections. Nothing suggests that this year will be different. The ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, has a busier schedule than the opposition. It is still to hold its first convention. It must conduct congresses and hold primaries. All these activities are time consuming. As the ruling party, it is actually more in their own interest collectively to get the budget out of the way so they can have sufficient time for politics.
The Executive branch must also put its house in order. A recent report that the Attorney-General of the Federation, AGF, will soon start prosecuting the NASS members alleged to have padded the 2016 budget is not only distracting, it is vexatious. Irrespective of the merits of the case, and we believe it lacks merit, it will not be concluded this year. Meanwhile, if the lawmakers decide to retaliate by slowing down the passage of the current budget, the nation will be in deep trouble. As Gandhi, 1869-1948, the father of modern India, has warned us “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. If applied to Nigeria’s 2018 budget, it will make us poorer than we are now. The prospect of that should dictate what the AGF does on this matter.
A word is sufficient for the wise.