Just as evil is perpetrated in darkness, so does secrecy in governance encourage ignoble acts in leadership. The emblem of autocratic regimes and corrupt democracies is to keep the populace in obscurity. Individuals, organizations and governments whose activities are shrouded in secrecy give room for corruption to thrive and often times are against the light of transparency. Democracy, a widely accepted form of governance, rests on the key pillars of justice, rule of law, equity and transparency. Information asymmetry in public governance and thick opaque shield looming around public funds in Nigeria needs to be removed to strengthen the social contract.
The yearning for all Nigerians to understand the budget is highly known during the last Occupy Nigeria protests. A familiar slogan during the protests has been a fact that the State House has a meal bill of almost a billion Naira – an amount 95% of Nigerians might not gross in their life time. The amount on social media was quickly broken to N3m per day that quickly became a song on protesters lips. Citizens are quick to relate that Nigerian Universities get N450m as capital expenditure yet the Vice President who Nigerians seen as healthy has a medical supply budget of N300m. Digging deeper into the budget performance is to see that while recurrent expenditure over performed by 1.68% as at June 2011, capital expenditure riddled with several stages before expenses are made get 11.21% performance. It is of this narrative a staunch resolve of Nigerians emerged that government cannot be living on bloated expenses while the citizens feel anguish of fuel subsidy removal.
Every ministry in Nigeria has a meal allowance in millions, security votes and millions spent yearly on buying computers, buses, fuel, generator, office equipment and of most alarming is software acquisition that is over N3bn in 2012 budget. That Nigerians found out that the Vice President building costs N16bn according to 2011 Budget half year review seems alarming and that the same Vice President Office will use N45m to read newspapers in a year means 600 newspapers per day at the rate of N200. One wonders why can’t the National Assembly swap budgets with the Universal Basic Education Programme or why will Amnesty Programme budget will be four times larger than Universities capital expenditure? Even at an N400bn budget for education (exclusive of ETF projects) which 79% is of personnel cost, have we done enough to erect learning structures? Nigerian government overhead cost does not reflect market realities and a quick review of 2009-2012 shows the budget looks a template where the gaps are simply filled by Ministry Leads. An example of a project like the Dredging of Lower River Niger (Warri-Baro) has been in the budget from 2009. When will it finally get done?
With many Nigerians currently having web access through desktops and mobiles, putting the Nigerian budget in a creative content across all platforms would enable Nigerians become key actors in participatory governance. The niched knowledge of the budget to that of common understanding will initiate a more transparent and open society. This drive for open data must be driven down to states and local governments and I implore them to make their budgets to the finest details like the Federal Government’s budget to Nigerians. The budgets at subnational levels are currently too opaque and convey little or no details about the capital projects that benefit the citizen.
The maze of thick document riddled with complex financial terms has made the budget a mere news item with little understanding to most Nigerian citizens. It is time to open it up for all. Gradually, a budget participatory model whereby few months before budget presentation, town hall meetings, referendum, social media meet-ups are constituted is another next step. In such forums, citizens can inform government of their pressing issues, hence improving service delivery and efficient allocation of government resources. Nigeria like other countries at all levels needs to embrace open data where public expenditure from government officials and ministries is accessible. Government needs budget scrutiny by the citizens to adjust its expenses and free more funds for capital projects that impact on citizens. Citizens should be able to independently appraise the budgets by verifying every budget item performance. When no one has the privilege to withhold information about stage by stage flow of public funds, we would strengthen the social contract and deepen the trust between the electorate and the leaders. Once the budget data is made open, citizens can be the core agitators of its performance especially projects located within their vicinity and correct the anomaly that skews performance to the recurrent components of the budget.