Set against the many difficulties confronting the Nigerian state, it does come across a wee bit crass to cavil at the fact that on his return from one of his now innumerable forays abroad, President Buhari was welcomed by a detachment of tartan-kitted bagpipers. How, for instance, could those bagpipes matter given the current fate of the 2016 Appropriation Act?
The excitement that accompanied the relatively early draft of that document has been drowned by the deluge of strange spending heads it included. And now the process appears completely bogged down in familiar territory. As Q2 2016 ends, all is quiet on the fiscal front. This is not, of course, all bad. The framers of the constitution, apparently anticipating the snafus that have now and again held up the budget, thankfully provided that an incumbent government could spend up to 50% of the previous year’s numbers while working through the process of approving the current year’s.
Now, this 50%, is it of the total budget only, in which case government may then drive spending priorities as it wishes? Or, must spending on line items reflect this 50%? While each of this readings has clear implications for budget performance, a much bigger worry must be entertained. Over the Jonathan administration’s stay in office, we not only saw spending on capital items shrink in proportion to the main budget, but, invariably, by each year end, we were more likely than not to have spent only a fraction of the middling amount allocated to capital expenditure. Effectively, allocations for capital spending became budget buffers; to be raided to compensate for shortfalls in the recurrent bit of the budget.
Of course, as a consequence, we have seen a steady deterioration in the economy’s productive capacity ― no new bridges, no new roads, no public investment in broadband access, all accompanied by a rotting of existing infrastructure. Because of these considerations, much ballyhoo attended the Buhari administration resolve to commit at least 30% of total government spend this year on rebuilding the country’s inventory of fixed assets. In naira terms the budget number was never going to be enough even to maintain public infrastructure in its current decrepit state.
But, it was a good beginning. And it betokened a restructuring of priorities in directions towards which the economy had long clamoured for.
That was before the 2016 Appropriation Act went off the rails. Now the chances of the budget being implemented in full are a lot slimmer. And our hopes for investments in new assets this year that then promise a recovery in domestic productivity in the near term are as good as lost.
This is where those pesky bagpipers come in. Marginal though they would always be to any serious conversation on the economy, they do convey strong, if mixed, signals. I am told that bagpipes are pretty difficult to get the hang of. In which case the entourage that welcomed the president were not recently trained in their use. In other words, over the years in which domestic capacity in the healthcare industry has worsened, over the period in which a remiss public education system forced all manner of private provision of schools, in the period in which churches merged with and acquired warehouses previously used to keep manufacturing inventory, Nigeria continued to invest in bagpipe playing skills.
I do suppose that folk in the culture and art industries would find cause for cheer in this fact. Arguably, given our national homophobia, it was a stroke of artistic genius to have our bagpipers ditch kilts for Bahama shorts. The truth, though, is that within the larger picture, continued investment in such a marginal activity speaks to a less than rational set of priorities.
But then, that was not of the Buhari administration’s making.
All his administration has done by the new prominence it has given to this music form is remind us that in spite of our earlier optimism around the thrust of the proposed 2016 budget, we may not have agreed the right set of priorities for jump-starting this economy. Or, which is slightly worse, that if we have agreed these priorities, this government may not be the one that we have been waiting for to see traction in our preferred direction.