by Tonnie Iredia
When journalists claim that it is their exclusive preserve to set the national agenda of a nation, not many people fully appreciate the weight and significance of their claim. One politician said the other day that the agenda setting theory of the media is unrealistic in Nigeria because it is not the media but the political class that initiates and directs the course of the nation’s agenda. If indeed, national agenda refers to the predominant topic of discuss, then the politician is correct because what Nigerians are forced to discuss is set everyday by politicians. For example for the better part of last year, Nigerians were manipulated to discuss election campaigns in place of the abduction of over 200 of their young compatriots.
To make matters worse, the media, as if to confirm that their agenda function has been lost to politicians merely help to publicise what our politicians want us all to discuss. Otherwise, what would have made Nigerians to busy themselves through a whole week on a frivolous matter like an alleged missing budget which can reproduce a million times? We submit that the type of national agenda that the media are supposed to set concern not just a determination of what people discuss but issues that should positively impact on the people.
Against this backdrop, it is important to draw the attention of media correspondents at the National Assembly that to merely publicise whatever happens in their location amounts to post-office journalism just the same way a post office delivers a letter untouched as it was sent.
Media professionals are not supposed to so serve as repeater mechanism for what politicians say; they are rather obliged to go beyond telling a story of where when and how an event took place, by undertaking the interpretative dimension of a news report which enables society to understand the implications to their lives of the event being reported.
To hype irrelevant alarms such as a missing budget only to downplay the substantive issues of governance such as the exact use, into which a budget is put, amounts to blowing cosmetic matters out of proportion just to manipulate the people. Unfortunately, that has been the fate of our national budget for long. Indeed, since 1999 when democracy was resurrected in Nigeria, we have never had a budget, what we have always had is a communiqué of political negotiations in which the polity is usually overheated in a cat and rat game between the Presidency and the National Assembly which always short changes the citizenry.
So it is always a tale of delayed budgets influenced by multifarious antics. There was even a time when the budget could not be presented because the two chambers of the National Assembly suddenly feigned a disagreement over the appropriate venue of a joint session for the event. Painfully, the public can hardly comprehend what fuels the contrived controversies. Could it be “constituency project”. If so what does it mean? How much does it cost? Is it ever executed? How many times is it recycled? Which contractors are involved? What is the difference between a “constituency project” and other projects captured in the budget? Are the latter not located in constituencies? One analyst answered all these questions the other day when he said a “constituency projects vote” in the legislature is the same as “security vote” in the executive while some judges try to create one for the judiciary through election petitions. The summary is that all the antics normally lead to delayed budgets yearly. In 2012, for example, it took four months for the budget to be passed. Thereafter, it took the President’s aides a whole month to study the distortions introduced to jack up the budgets of some sectors.
While signing the budget on Friday April 13, 2012, an angry President Jonathan threatened to sack heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) who lobbied to get their budgets increased by the legislature. Jonathan was probably alone. In 2004, government had uncovered a- N55million “public relations lobby fund” used by the Ministry of Education to influence the legislature to increase its budget. The issue led to the removal from office of the Senate President as well as the Minister of Education. The threat by President Obasanjo to deal with other MDAs found to have also ‘bribed’ legislators yielded nothing thereafter except that the MDAs that got scared of the threat and avoided lobbying lost out.
So, lobbying to distort the budget continued. It cannot change because budgeting in Nigeria is an annual ritual with static processes and procedures. To start with, an organization prepares a budget proposal; several months later, without reference to what informed the proposal it is temperamentally moderated. Thereafter, another authority makes a decision on what fraction of the approved budget to be released; yet another authority decides on whether or not due process has been followed in the award of the contracts for the proposed projects; all of this takes no less than three quarters of a year leaving the public bodies with exceedingly short period to implement the budget; and then while all hands are on deck to rush a few assignments at the tail end of the year, a circular emerges with a directive that all unspent funds be returned to the treasury!
Can the 2016 budget change our fate? We hope it does. Anyway, now that the alleged missing document has been found along with the thief, there is no need for prosecution; instead let us merely use its content for the benefit of Nigerians. We are not even sure if the theft would not be beneficial in due course. In this regard, the rumour that the Presidency has reduced the allocation for exotic cars by N7billion is heart warming. So is the other story that the allocation to the State House Medical Centre has also been rationalized. But who uses the centre – is it the same people who fly abroad to treat headache or is that one of changes we should look out for?