Ningi and the ‘Underground’ Budget (1)

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By Olusegun Adeniyi

Since the conclusion of my ‘missionary journey’ to Aso Rock almost 14 years ago, I have written more than a dozen columns on the need to reform the budgeting process in Nigeria. The kernel of my interventions has always been to underscore the fact that what we call budget in Nigeria is essentially about the distribution of ‘political spoils.’ I have also repeatedly referenced a Twitter thread by ‘Laolu Samuel-Biyi who once concluded: “If you want to keep hope alive in Nigeria, don’t look at the budget.”

Had I heeded that admonition, I would not have spent the whole of Monday and the better part of Tuesday perusing the 1,000-page ‘2024 Appropriation Act FGN Budget Details Volume One.’ By the time I was done, I was depressed enough not to bother with volume two of the same report. That second volume contains 1,962 pages plus an additional 55 pages that are devoted to chronicling “Zonal Intervention Projects.” Had our lawmakers been content with what they will get from that aspect of the budget, we probably would not have had this controversy. But before I get ahead of myself, it is appropriate to ask: What exactly was I looking for?

Last Saturday, Senator Abdul Ahmed Ningi alleged that the N28.7trn 2024 budget being implemented by President Bola Tinubu was “done underground” with an “added sum of N3trn.” He then delved into the arena of sectional politics. The presidency was quick to debunk Ningi’s allegation, accusing him of lying. At the end, I was not surprised that Ningi received a three-month suspension from the senate or that he walked back on his allegation. There is neither North nor South, East nor West when it comes to sharing the proverbial ‘national cake’ at the National Assembly. This much could be glimpsed from the contribution of Senator Agom Jarigbe before he was shouted down. “All of us are culpable. Some so-called senior senators here got N500m each from the 2024 budget. I am a ranking Senator; I didn’t get anything. No senator has any right to accuse Senator Ningi…” Jarigbe said to the displeasure of colleagues, in a scene described by a former governor as ‘Off the Mic 2.0.’

No matter how ill-motivated his allegations may be, Ningi cannot be casually dismissed. He is one of the most experienced lawmakers in Nigeria today having served in the National Assembly since 1999. He has also, at different times, been Majority Leader in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate. When a man like that makes such weighty allegations, it is safe to conclude that there is no smoke without fire. But let’s first look at the bigger picture in the 2024 budget.

Under ‘Capital Supplementation’, many items come with round figure sums which raise questions about the process by which they were arrived at. For instance, ‘Contingency (Capital)’ has a vote of N200bn; ‘Outstanding Liabilities’, N50bn; ‘Clean Energy Initiatives: Development of Local Infrastructure, Conversion to CNG, Electric Vehicles etc.’, N130bn; ‘Consumer Credit Fund’, N100bn; ‘Infrastructure Project Preparation Fund’, N21bn; ‘Mortgage Development Promotion Fund’, N65bn; ‘Recapitalization of Ministry of Finance Incorporated (MOFI)’, N20bn; ‘Restructuring/Recapitalization of NIPOST’, N10bn; ‘Special Projects SGD’, N30bn; ‘Subscription to shares in International Organizations’, N15bn; ‘Recapitalisation of Development Finance Institutions’, N10bn, etc.

The interesting bits of course come with the breakdown of budgets for the Ministries Department and Agencies (MDAs). I have decided to pick the budget of the Ministry of Works. Not because of the quantum of money allocated to the ministry (more than N1trn) but rather because I recently commended the Minister, Dave Umahi when he made a declaration of preference for concrete roads as opposed to bitumen roads in the country. From the budget, I doubt if he would be constructing any serious road this year—bitumen or concrete.

As an aside, in view of Senator Jarigbe’s allegation, I did ‘research’ on the N500m projects. There are nine road constructions/rehabilitations under the Ministry of Works with each allocated N500,410,000. Two are in Akwa Ibom State, another two for the Ibadan-Ogbomosho Express road, one for the Enugu-Port Harcourt Road, one for the Ilorin-Jebba-Mokwa Road, and one for the Bida-Lambata Road in Niger State. The one for the ‘Ifaki-Oye-Ayedun-Omuo-Kogi border in Ekiti State’ is simply for a rounded figure of N500m without any ‘addendum’.

In the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, 20 projects totalling N18bn (and most of which have nothing to do with agriculture) are going to Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District being represented by Senate President, Godswill Akpabio. There are also five ‘empowerment’ projects in the Ministry of Women Affairs each costing N500m, all to the same senatorial district in Akwa Ibom State. You find many such projects in the constituencies of National Assembly Principal Officers across several ministries. And these are not part of the ‘zonal intervention projects’ that are solely for the lawmakers.

Now, to the Ministry of Works. The 2024 capital budget for the ministry is N916,574,239,856. There is an additional allocation of N70,611,518,333 for the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA). Aside the N2.2bn for vehicles and N4.1bn for electricity, provision for the construction of roads takes N438bn while ‘Construction of Infrastructure’ takes N209bn. Then you have another N242.9bn allocations for ‘Rehabilitation/Repair’ of roads.

In all, I counted 961 projects in the ministry’s 2024 budget listed as ONGOING. Interestingly, I have been told by those who should know that when you see ONGOING after a project, it is to circumvent the public procurement process. Many could be new projects. But let’s even leave that matter for now. Any critical observer will see that most of these ‘ONGOINGs’ are just about leaving small money ‘on the table’ for some local operatives, considering the amounts involved. For instance, there is a vote of N4.1m each (yes, N4.1m) for more than 20 ‘ongoing’ road constructions/rehabilitations in this ministry. They include ‘Special Repairs of Ilesa-Ijebu Road in Osun State Route number F117 (Phase 2)’; ‘Special Repairs of Birni Kebbi-Argungu-Kan Iyaka (Sokoto State border) Route 219’; ‘Special Repairs of Talatan-Marafan Sokoto Border Road, Routes 85’ and so many others. If we can excuse all that, what about the vote of N1.4m for each of these major projects? ‘Reconstruction of Benin-Warri Dual Carriageway (Section 3: Ibada-Elume-Warri) (Km 66+275-KM+800 in Delta State’; ‘Construction of Bidda-Sacci-Nupeco Road across River Niger linking Nupeco and Patigi in Niger/Kwara State’ etc.

I know we have magicians in Nigeria but to construct a road and bridge across River Niger for N1.4m is something else. Under NEW projects which I will come to shortly, there is also a N1.4m vote for the ‘Rehabilitation of Makurdi-Gboko-Katsina Ala Road’. The ‘Design and Construction of Ogrite (Enugu State)—Akpanya-Oduru (Kogi State) Extension 2 With Extension to Obollo Afor’ takes N61.5m. The same amount is voted for ‘Washout and Critical Threatened Road Section of Federal Road in Kaduna State’ and more than 30 other road projects across the country. And please don’t bother to correct the grammar. I merely dubbed what is in the 2024 appropriation law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And please also don’t ask me how; but those amounts of money will leave the treasuries.