Budget Tracking and Citizens Engagement in Nigeria: Matters Arising!

August 16, 2019

It has been recognised that the budget is perhaps the most important instrument for the development of any modern state apart from the constitution. It can be argued that it is only through the instrumentality of the budget that government can allocate resources to deliver services to the people especially the poor and excluded. But in Nigeria, there are a lot of blockages to effective budgeting. These blockages include lack of participation of citizens in the budget process especially in identifying projects that should go into the budget and effectively tracking the implementation; lack of access to budget documents and regular report by government; inadequate auditing and oversight by relevant bodies; poor linkage between plans and budgets and a lot of frivolous expenditure that cannot stand any reason.

Since return to civil rule in 1999, citizen groups have engaged in advocacy to address some of these challenges. The advocacy issues have centred around the need for increased allocation to infrastructure, agriculture, health and education; the need to remove frivolous expenditure that defies logic and reasoning; improvement of citizens’ participation in the budgetary process, the need to monitor the implementation of the budget and effective legislative oversight. Specific advocacy issues have included advocacy for reduction of recurrent expenditure, budget realism, more citizen participation, effective legislative oversight, effective auditing from the office of Auditor General, more allocation to the social sectors, effective implementation of the budget, reduction of frivolous expenditure and reduction of service wide votes to international acceptable standards of between 3 and 10 per cent.

According to the 2012 Open Budget Index, Nigeria scores 16 out of a possible 100. A proper citizens’ budget, which is necessary for inclusive understanding of the planned spending, is not published. The mid-year review and audit report of the budget also are not publicly available. In the absence of the above documents, it is difficult for citizens to track and understand the government’s financial performance. Although the enacted budget is fairly detailed at the national level, information at the sub-national level is overly protected. It is also difficult to obtain details of the expenditures approved for capital projects, limiting the ability of citizens to track projects in real time.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has an estimated population of 168.8 million people. Early reforms through liberalization of the telecommunication industry led to a sharp growth in the number of mobile subscribers. Although it has 119.5 million active mobile subscribers as at April 2013, Nigeria ranks low on the financial inclusion index with 34.9 million people, who represent 39.7% of the population, lacking access to banking services.

With such a huge segment of the adult population without access to the financial industry, there is a staggering number of citizens who cannot interpret and understand the budget. The persistent gap in interpretation of data concerning the key budget items, the specific allocation to the local environment, and performance metrics has not improved public awareness of the budget. Excluding citizens from the budget, which is adjudged to be the most important legal provision after the Constitution, through its arcane presentation and opaque structure has not fostered the civic participation needed for a functional democracy.

The lack of budget transparency and accessibility to the Nigerian citizen led to the emergence of a creative start-up named BudgIT. Making the Nigerian budget simpler and accessible to the average citizen is a core goal of BudgIT. The availability of budgets in non-readable pdf formats by the government website provided an initial opportunity for BudgIT to implement its innovative idea by simplifying the budgets using infographics and interactive applications.

To go beyond budget access through the use of infographics and interactive applications, BudgIT developed a new platform known as Tracka (http://tracka.ng). This website allows the citizens to track service delivery and report that to relevant institutions. These are the next steps based on users feedback and BudgIT intends to see that projects as stated in the budget come to reality and fulfil societal needs. For instance, the 2018 budget is based on an Oil benchmark crude oil price of US$45 per barrel; an oil production estimate of 2.3 million barrels per day; and an average exchange rate of N305 to the U.S. dollar; and target Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 3.5 per cent.

First and foremost, there are still issues with the process of making the 2018 budget. Citizens and communities do not participate in the selection of projects that go into the budget. Legislators are not consulted on the selection of projects into the budget. The oversight of the budget process by the legislature, civil society and the media is still weak. The Public Accounts Committee which was very popular in the second republic has become very ineffective. There is still confusion on the limits of legislative power in appropriation.

Secondly, there is no much improvement in the content of the budget. There is still low budgetary allocation to sectors that will have impact on the lives of citizens such as Agriculture, health, education and infrastructure. For instance, while the budgetary allocation to education by Republic of Benin and Ethiopia is more that 20 per cent of the total budget since 2012 that of Nigeria is less than 10 per cent. In the 2018 budget, the allocation to education is 7.03 percent. It is very clear that allocation to education is very low in Nigeria especially when compared to other African countries: Burundi -16.59 % in 2010; 14.98 % in 2011; 16.43 % in 2012 and 17.24 % in 2013; Benin-25.02 % in 2012; 22.34 % in 2013; and 22.23 in 2014; Ethiopia 26.30 % in 2010; 29.67 % in 2011; 30.54 % in 2012 and 27.02 in 2013; and Madagascar- 19.78 % in 2011; 20.33 % in 2012 and 13.99% in 2013.

Frivolous, inappropriate, unclear and wasteful estimates have also continued in the 2019 budget. With poor literacy on the contextual understanding of the budget standing as a limiting factor to demand transparency and service delivery, starting with a baseline analysis of the level of public literacy and level of interest in matters of governance, an approach must be adapted for each defined class in the society. BudgIT describes the society’s citizens and their literacy by the four categories that Nigeria must follow for proper engagement: Public Finance Experts & Researchers, Active and Literate Citizens, The Inactive Literate Citizens, and The Grassroots. The above classification of budget literacy classes was crucial to the development of the BudgIT’s engagement strategy. It contributed to an understanding the data simulation approach and the best communication tool for each citizen.

The budget is crucial in allocating resources and delivering services to citizens. But there are a lot of blockages to the budgetary process in Nigeria. Previous advocacy efforts have led to some improvement, but a lot still needs to be done especially in terms of process, content and implementation issues. There is the need to promote citizens engagement in the entire budget cycle from selection of projects through implementation to monitoring and evaluation. There is the need to promote budget literacy and enhance social, economic and political resilience. Citizens groups need to work more closely with the legislature and the media to ensure effective tracking, monitoring and oversight.