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THEWILL EDITORIAL: When Ministers Speak In ‘Coded’ Language

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The resolution of the recent spat between the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, and her Finance, Budget and National Planning counterpart, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, over alleged N206 billion budget padding, through ‘coded’ language, is unbecoming of ministers in the Muhammadu Buhari Administration. A whopping N206 billion project inserted into the budget of a ministry with seven parastatals without the knowledge of the Supervising Minister cannot be explained away as a coded project.

The Humanitarian Affairs minister was apparently embarrassed when members of the Senate Committee on Special Duties insinuated that the 2023 budget of her Ministry, which she was defending, had been padded by N206 billion. Hajia Farouq, who has always been tongue-lashed by critics over the humongous amount claimed to have been spent on the School Feeding Programme, therefore had no choice than to initially call out the Finance minister for the alleged misdemeanour.

Clearly distancing herself from the act which has always become synonymous with most ministries, the Humanitarian Affairs minister had demanded an explanation in order to save her face. The controversy generated by that development and the manner in which it was explained away and eventually justified is not only tantamount to giving another name for padding but also a blow to the much-avowed and highly flaunted anti-corruption stance of the Buhari Administration.

Special Adviser, Media and Communications, Ministry of Finance, Yunusa Tanko Abdullahi, while defending the whopping sum, said the minister, Ahmed, had dismissed the budget padding allegation, saying the N206 billion was an oversight. According to the minister, the N206 billion was for the National Social Safety Nets Project funded by the World Bank and domiciled in the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry.

And in a surprising volte-face, Farouq also claimed that the ministry requested some projects for the North-East Development Commission (NEDC) and the National Social Safety Net Project in the 2022 budget, which were not released.

According to Farouq, her ministry was shocked to see the money inserted by 10 times in the proposed 2023 budget for her ministry.

“Yes, we made mention of the projects for 2022, which was not released, and part of it was for the NEDC. The money was not released and now we have seen it recurring by almost 10 folds. We are also going to clarify from the Ministry of Finance to know the reason for this increase, despite the fact that the previous year the money was not even released for the project. So, we will get the details and then send them to you on that,” she had told the committee.

Apparently singing the same tune to explain away the coded project, as it relates to the National Safety Net Project, Farouq said: “These projects are under the National Social Safety Net, the conditional cash transfer, the updating of the national social register and the rapid response register as well to cushion the effect of inflation. This is all I can say for this. I cannot give full details of how this amount is going to be utilised because it is something that was negotiated between the Ministry of Finance and World Bank.”

Interestingly, the initial hullabaloo over the alleged budget padding has simply been toned down and the controversial project initially thought to have been wrongly inserted into the budget has simply been explained away. But not many Nigerians are fooled by these antics as political office holders have a way of generating funds to deploy to their parties especially in a pre- election year.

For a fact, the finance minister has recently been exhibiting an attitude that does not portray her as a team player in the Muhammadu Buhari Administration, despite occupying one of the most important Federal Government Ministries in the country.

Not too long ago, the same minister caused an uproar when she claimed that her ministry knew nothing about the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)’s plan to redesign the Naira as she requested the Senate Committee to ask the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, for explanation.

Distancing herself from the action of the same government, of which she is a part, does not portray her in good light and trying to disassociate herself from an action that has the support of President Buhari is like trying to commit a political suicide as she may be seen not to be in support of the action of a government of which she is a part. The latest case involving her ministry and the Humanitarian Affairs ministry is yet another pointer to the fact that the ministers seem to be singing discordant tunes as they appear not to be in agreement on issues of national importance.

The allegation of being responsible for the padding of the budget of the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry is therefore grave and an indictment on her office despite the denial and should not be explained away by any coded language. More worrisome is the simple fact of not carrying the Supervising Minister of the ministry concerned along in whatever has been planted in the budget of that ministry.

For the avowed fight against corruption, which the Buhari Administration has been struggling with since inception to be taken seriously, transparency must be the watchword, especially among public office holders.