Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, is the executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, and an importunate voice against corruption in Nigeria. He spoke with icirnigeria.org on the 2012 budget
Was CISLAC part of the budgeting process in any way?
Yes. Informally, we were part of the process of making sure that the appropriation that was sent to the National Assembly by the Executive reflects the reality and yearnings of the Nigerian people, especially on those areas of wastages.
Specifically, we looked at the budget that was sent by the President and discovered so many duplications, so many wastages, and so many areas that are deliberately included for corruption purposes. And we pointed that out to the National Assembly for them to be able to use their legislative powers to ensure that those duplications and unnecessary wastes are removed from the budget.
But that is the level at which we were able to make our own input. As you know, it is the National Assembly that has the constitutional and legislative powers to make this appropriation in a manner that will reflect the aspirations of the Nigerian people.
We did submit our recommendations to relevant committees of the National Assembly. In fact, virtually all committee chairmen got a copy of that analysis. We also submitted it to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
When you said “we,” who are you referring to?
I am talking about civil society groups that came together to look at these budget. There are quite number of civil society groups that decided to come together as a group to look at the budget and then point out some of those faulty areas.
What was the feedback? Were your recommendations actually reflected in the budget that was passed?
Quite numbers of the National Assembly members were happy with the work done by the civil society groups, because it is not a paid job, it is not a consultancy job. It is a voluntary work done just to assist the nation and also ensure that the National Assembly gets it right.
Also, they were happy but what we did not confirm fully is whether item by item, all those things that we pointed out have been properly reflected. We are still looking at the documents to see if those areas pointed out are fully reflected.
But you also need to know that the National Assembly faces some challenges in terms of their independent capacity to be able to scrutinize and analyze the budget without the influence and blackmail of the executive.
The executive believes that whatever it sends to the legislature should just be taken without any scrutiny.
This is one big challenge that the National Assembly is facing and they have not yet been able to overcome it.
So you think the National Assembly is not independent enough to work of appropriation?
There are lots of challenges; capacity challenges, experience challenges, independence of mind and also sincerity to stick to the right position.
Well, we did an independent review of the appropriations for the MDAs and what we found was a lot of the wastages, repetitive votes you talked about. It’s like laying the platform for corruption.
The truth is that if appropriation and budgeting is not properly done, it could be an instrument for legitimate corruption because you appropriate the money and because of the poor legislative oversight and the poor implementation of the budget, some people would use that opportunity to short-change the nation.
And they have been doing that and nothing has been done to curb it in a very fundamental way.
It also goes back to the National Assembly. You said you pointed out the lapses in the budget to the National Assembly but they still went ahead and passed it. So, doesn’t the corruption also fall on the National Assembly?
Yes, of course! You cannot exonerate the National Assembly. At least whether consciously or unconsciously, they allowed those wastages and duplications to continue to be in our appropriations because it is they who are expected to look at it. The president on his own cannot approve those expenses and budgets, it has to be legitimized by the National Assembly. This means that if the president or any MDA has done any deliberate inclusion to misappropriate public funds, the National Assembly is there to checkmate him. That is why there are checks and balances. And if you negate your role & responsibility, then you are to be blamed.
Part of the problem is that about 60-70 percent of the budget is for recurrent expenditure. Only about 30-40 percent is for capital votes. So, how can there be development? Why does 70 percent goes to recurrent expenditure?
With the current way and manner we do budgeting, we cannot attain any fundamental development; because we are supposed to be doing five – year rolling plans for our budgets. That will give you space to plan for capital project so that every year, you know you have expectations on these.
But the way we do yearly budgets, it leaves you only with expenses that are not for development but for consumptions such as travelling, fictitious trainings, all sorts of allowances, entertainments, feeding, fuelling generators, buying petrol & buying newspapers, all sorts of dubious budgeting.
These are all budget heads that are being deliberately included to sustain and justify looting and stealing of public funds.
But unfortunately, many Nigerians don’t know budgeting process; they are not involved; they have no role to play; they just hear the formal announcement like we hear in the military regime.
So, budgeting under democracy as currently being practiced in Nigeria is not different from what we used to have during the military regime. In fact, budgeting during the military is not even as bogus as what you have today and it’s not characterized by the kind of corruption we have today.
During the military, there was an envelope for every ministry and parastatal for budget and, therefore, you don’t need to go for any budget defense and in the process have to pay bribe to get your budget through.
But I think there is a total misconception of democracy by the current people who are running democracy in Nigeria. I think they have succeeded in democratizing corruption, wastages and devaluing our value system and completely turning everything into a monetary thing.
Therefore, there is nothing that is done without monetary incentives put into it, which is really a very bad situation.
Yes, we don’t want military regime; but we cannot continue to claim that the current democracy we are practicing is in any way better than what we used to have during the military.
There are more killings, more corruption, and more abuses of people’s rights right now.
And what is democracy if it has even given licenses to people to be killing and bombing innocent people and places. I don’t think this is the kind of democracy we fought for.
It is alleged that legislators hijack the budget for constituency projects. MDAs have their own budgets and plans, but it is alleged that legislators sometimes corner these projects as constituency projects and sometimes insist on bringing the contractor.
Well, the whole idea is that if the executive is disciplined enough, they would have been able to stick to their roles as implementer of government programmesand policies. Therefore, they are supposed to have a due process in place. No contractor should be given any contract without following due process.
So, the executive also is responsible for that failure. I think that both the executive and legislature have compromised their responsibilities and the losers are the Nigerian people.
In what practical ways do you think that budgeting processes can be improved from the ministries to the legislature?
If we are to go into what we usually referred to as participatory budget process, it has to go back and start right from the people. Let the people identify that they need water, not classroom; that they need health care system, not bridges. Let the people identify their priorities and their needs. Then, let it be reflected in the budget.
But what we are seeing now is that some people just have interest in acquiring money. So, they will create a project that has no relevance, no bearing and no economic benefit for the nation and deploy so much money into it and at the end of the day, the people do not benefit, the nation looses huge amounts of money.
But what process will make it possible for the people to be part of the budge?
It’s just about translating this democracy properly. If we say democracy is for the people, of the people and by the people, then let the budget also begin to reflect that.
In other countries, they do it. In Brazil, there is grassroots’ budgeting process; in Uganda, there is grassroots budgeting process; even in Ghana here, their budgeting process is reflective of their own needs. So, why not in Nigeria?
I suggest we go back to what the Minister of Finance did between 2003 and 2006. What she did was to subject the budget proposal by the executive to the stakeholders to look at it.
But immediately after she left, during Obasanjo period, that process never came back.
Even now that she is back as the Minister of Finance, she has not returned that people’s forum where people can constructively and creatively critique whatever is in the budget even before sending it to the National Assembly.
It is even expected that the National Assembly ought to be more democratic, more open, allow more participatory budgeting process in the way and manner we do the budgeting but everything is in close-doors now.
Everything is in close-doors because it is also another opportunity for corruption. A ministry or parastatal comes to do what they called budget defense, and at the end of the day, they must bring bribe or if they did not bring physical bribe, they will include something in their budget.
And after the budget is passed, they will now go to them and asked them to bring that money.
That has been happening and it has been documented and some of the ministries even tried to resist that but they were overwhelmed because there is no political will of the executive to deal decisively with whoever is asking for that kind of bribe.
If today, you have a willing government that will close its eyes against anybody who violates the rule whether in the executive, judiciary or legislature, things will begin to change.
But because the system is so flexible anybody can steal. In fact, if you are caught, it means that you have not stolen well. If you are caught in corruption, it means maybe you have stolen small.
If you steal big, then you will settle your way through plea bargaining. This is the kind of process we allow that has encouraged corruption.
So, if today, the executive arm of government will seat up and ensure that its role is not compromised; legislators would also sit up and begin to do their homework to ensure that they do not also compromise in their legislative oversight.
But everything now has become settlement – settle me, I settle you. And because they are seeing that the president is not interested in any anti-corruption war, anybody can do anything.
We observed that the National Assembly vote is actually first line now. No breakdown, nothing! There is no accountability…
This is why I said that the executive has truncated its own roles and responsibilities. Public fund is public fund. If any amount of money is budgeted and allocated to a particular arm of government, it must be accounted for.
And therefore, one of the funny things that is happening in this democracy is that the National Assembly wants every government agency to be accountable to it but they are not accountable to anybody. And it cannot go that way.
Today as I speak, even the National Assembly members do not know their own budget. It is only the principal officers that know the budget.
So, the National Assembly members are like you who don’t know their own budget too. It is the principal officers that do everything.
This is the system that has been going on and that is why even development partners laugh at us because Nigeria is just a heap of corruption.
Now, talking about post-budget monitoring and evaluation, there is so much secrecy about the whole process. The Ministry of Finance and Budget Office have refused to give information about last year’s budget to us. So, how can civil society do any kind of evaluation or monitoring?
This is a big challenge that despite the Freedom of Information law that we have. Information is still not available for many Nigerians who want to do one research or another.
Government agencies are not willing and they are not interested to allow any information get to the public because of probably fear of exposing the dubious and corrupt practices that are reigning there or attached to the budget implementation.
It is a struggle we must continue with. We cannot give up. We must ensure that as long as it is public funds, the Nigerian public must have the right to ask questions and seek for clarifications on some of the things that have been done.
And that is because it is not their personal resources. It is public resources and that is why we must continue to demand for accountability.
We will not give up in terms of our resistance for the process to be open, transparent and accountable because this is our country; and we have collective responsibilities and obligations to make things work.
Therefore, we must not be deterred by blackmail or lack of access to information. We will continue to push for greater transparency in governance.
What is your assessment of the Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria in the last one year?
The freedom of information regime that we have in the last one year is just beginning to be recognized by different arms of government. Many of them did not think that it is law that they need to even know or adhere to.
But thanks to the efforts of civil society groups; they are making this to be a serious matter. Therefore, if any government agency refuses to comply with the law, already some groups have begin to test this in our courts and this will begin to compel government officials to change their mindsets and attitude about public information, because everything is secret.
If you want to know the numbers of staff in this ministry, it is secret. If you want to know anything about the budget, it is secret; everything is secret because everything is shrouded in corruption.
So, though the implementation of the freedom of information has not gone anywhere, at least, the knowledge of the existence of the law is fast spreading.
Do you think government itself is doing enough in meeting its responsibilities? For example, the Attorney-General’s office needs to do a framework and so on. Bit it has not been done
They are not fast enough because many of them were taken by surprise that civil societies made that giant effort to ensure that we have the law. Many of them don’t believe in any transparent process.
So, they want the secrecy to continue and this also affects some of the government’s officials. Even when the legislators want to get information, they don’t get it because everything is secret.
It is even in the interest of everybody that we have an open government and open system because the risk in secrecy, in hiding information, is more than making it available. Because in the process of hiding the information, even what you did not do, people will say you have done it.
Finally, what do you think about the president who signed the law and has completely ignored requests made for the declaration of his assets?
I want to tell you that the president did not willingly assent that document. It was a struggle, even though we are still happy that he finally assented to it. But it was not an easy struggle to convince him to get that law passed.
Now, having passed the law, if they have their way, they will definitely frustrate it; they will make it unworkable.
That is why you see that one year after, the ministry of information and the attorney-general’s office have not tackled this law with the speed that is required for them to act; because they are still thinking on how to sabotage this law.
Why do you say the president doesn’t even believe in it?
The president signed that law because of the pressure from both the international community and the civil society groups in Nigeria.
Secondly, he wanted to gain cheap popularity. We thank him for signing it but we want him to comply with the law. We want him to lead the process of implementing that law.
That is the only means he can convince us that he signed that law willingly and because he wants Nigeria’s progress.