On July 17, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari’s letter of July 11 to the National Assembly for virement of N242bn from the 2018 budget was read on the floor of the Senate. The money was meant largely for the conduct of the forthcoming 2019 general election.
According to the President, out of the needed figure, N164.10bn would be provided through virement or supplementation of 2018 Budget. It also requested that the balance of N78.34bn, mostly related to personnel allowances, fuelling and other costs not required until election proper be provided for in the 2019 budget.
The sum of N189.21bn was earmarked for the Independent National Electoral Commission; N4.3bn for the Office of the National Security Adviser; N12.21bn for the DSS and N3.6bn for the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. The Nigeria Police Force got a proposal of N30.5bn while N2.6bn was earmarked for the Nigeria Immigration Service. Specifically, President Buhari requested that N164.10bn of the total funds proposed for the elections be funded from the N578.31bn inserted in the 2018 Budget by the National Assembly.
Also to be sourced from the “inserted funds’’, he stated, was the additional N64.75bn for reinstatement of critical project cuts in 2018 budget, bringing the total figure from the “inserted funds’’ to N228.85bn.The letter stated that the request to deduct N228.85bn from the N578.31bn was in view of fiscal constraints, which would not allow for over-burdening of the 2018 budget.
In its official reaction to the proposed virement, the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party, said President Buhari’s request to the National Assembly to vire N242bn already approved for other projects in the 2018 budget to finance INEC and other agencies was a plot to frustrate the 2019 general elections. The party further said that the request by the President was a booby trap deliberately set to drag the elections into a financial controversy and ultimately subvert the entire process.
My take on the raging controversy is multi-fold. First, was there a prior discussion with the leadership of the National Assembly on this proposed virement? Did the President get assurances that this was the best way to fund the 2019 elections which is barely 200 days away? If there was no such informal meeting and assurances, why did the President not seek virement from other budget heads? Indeed, why were the funds for 2019 elections not part of the 2018 budget given the fact that INEC had served a two-year notice on the dates for 2019 elections? Should the National Assembly turn down the President’s request, what is the government’s Plan B?
One is saddened by the fact that we treat elections in this country as an event and not a process. In my May 16, 2018 article on this page, I raised three major impediments to a credible 2019 elections. They are insecurity, non-conclusion of the reform of the legal framework and funding for the elections. About three months after, none of the three has been fully attended to. Yes, the President has signed five constitution amendment bills with three of them having a direct bearing on the elections. However, since June 25 that the revised Electoral Amendment Bill 2018 was passed to the President for the second time for assent, mum has been the word. The conundrum of insecurity has not been resolved with Boko Haram baring its fangs in Yobe and environs recently while the killer herdsmen are still having a field day. To worsen matters, the funding for the elections is just being sought when it should have been readily available to INEC for proper planning and disbursement.
Recall that INEC on March 9, 2017, informed the nation that the 2019 elections would hold on February 16 and March 2. It has even gone ahead to give dates of the general elections for the next 55 years. The Commissioner for Voter Education and Publicity at INEC, Prince Adedeji Soyebi, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018 on Sunrise Daily, a programme on Channels Television, said though the conventional budget for the running of the commission had been approved, the budget for the elections, which was submitted separately, had not been approved, adding that it was worrisome given the fact that the 2019 elections are less than a year away. That was before the 2018 budget was passed and signed into law. I ask again, why was the funding for the 2019 elections not part of the 2018 budget? Why is the President just seeking virement to fund the polls? Is there a ploy to frustrate INEC or orchestrate a postponement of the elections as being insinuated by the PDP?
I have read opinions suggestive of padding or inflation of the cost for the 2019 elections. Someone even said the N242bn meant for the polls should be shared out to Nigerians like the Abacha loot while the current holders of office retain their positions. Balderdash! Elections everywhere are generally expensive more so when technology is being deployed. Besides, INEC will need an estimated one million ad hoc staff to conduct the 2019 polls. The commission’s staff strength is barely 16,500. Also, it seeks to procure additional 27,000 Smart Card Readers ahead of the polls. Most of the procured Direct Data Capturing Machines being used for Voter Registration since 2011 have become obsolete and have to be replaced for the purposes of the ongoing Continuous Voter Registration.
Apart from the aforementioned, monitoring of the congresses, conventions and party primaries of the 68 political parties has huge financial implications, likewise the annual audit and monitoring of campaign finance of political parties. Voter education on a comprehensive and sustainable scale attracts enormous cost, most of the sensitive and even non-sensitive election materials are procured abroad with attendant need for foreign exchange. When politicians mess up their candidate nomination process or are aggrieved with the election outcome, they join INEC in their election petitions. In many instances, INEC has to outsource their defences to private lawyers with attendant huge legal fees. This has to be done because the commission does not have a sufficient number of lawyers to take on the huge task. On top of this, it is expected that INEC should prosecute electoral offenders. Prosecution of cases also has its own cost. When courts order a re-run of elections or an elected person dies and there is a need to conduct bye-elections, these attract huge costs. I am sure INEC did not envisage the recall bid of Senator Dino Melaye earlier in the year, but, that alone we were told, gulped about N100m. All these are capital intensive exercises that the commission is statutorily saddled with.
This is why it pains when an estimated 17 million persons who registered refused to go and collect their Permanent Voter Cards. Hence, one is rankled when there is low voter turnout at elections and the huge resources spent on preparing for the elections are wasted. This is why I am happy that good sense prevailed when National Assembly decided to remove the offensive Section 25 of the Electoral Act amendment bill 2018 which seeks not only to reorder the sequence of elections but also added one day to the two INEC initially proposed. That alone would have increased the cost of elections by about 30 per cent. If Nigerians must know, but for the support that INEC is getting from the international donor partners, the cost of running elections in the country would have doubled.
While I am in full support of INEC being well-resourced for its duties, the commission must also ensure value for money. It must make public its audited reports for previous elections, especially from 1999 to date. That way, we all will know if the commission’s spending is justified.