Balancing budget cut and provisions of basic needs

Following the advent of COVID 19 pandemic and the need to generate adequate resources both human and finance to tackle the scourge, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has consistently called on the federal government to look inward for funds. Taye Odewale writes.

Initial appeal

Recall that the SERAP had few weeks ago appealed through a letter to the leaderships of the National Assembly to forfeit its N25billion allocation in the 2020 budget for the refurbishment or renovation of the National Assembly Complex for use the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to plough into the provision of essentials in the fight to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The organisation had reasoned that with the amount be made available to the NCDC, the hardship occasioned by limited funds for the provision of essential palliatives would in some way be addressed.  The SERAP had then pleaded with both the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, to consider the request seriously and subsequently surrender the amount to the Ministry of Finance and Budget and National Planning for urgent release to the NCDC.

Though the SERAP had needlessly placed ultimatum on the NASS’ leadership, it has however not been heard whether its request, seen as patriotic especially considering the times that we are and the inevitability of using every available free funds to fight against the pandemic, was given even a fleeting thought of by Senator Lawan and Honourable Gbajabiamila.

Still the SERAP has remained undaunted. 

Yet another patriotic request

Sometime this week, the SERAP again gave “the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and leadership of the National Assembly 14 days to reverse the proposed illegal cut of N26.51 billion in basic healthcare budget and to cut the National Assembly and Presidency budgets instead, or face legal action.”

The SERAP is also calling on them to meet to “reverse the proposed illegal cut of N50.76 billion in the education budget. There is currently no proposal to cut the National Assembly and Presidency budgets.”

In the letters dated 18 April, and signed by SERAP deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization expressed: “concern about the scale of the cuts in basic healthcare and education budgets and their disproportionate impact on the poorest. These cuts are not inevitable. The authorities have a lot of choices as to what to cut but chose to balance the budget on the backs of the most disadvantaged.”

Needless cut

According to SERAP, “The cuts would leave the poorest and most vulnerable people without access to these essential public goods and services, and without anywhere to turn, and despite the COVID-19 crisis. This would put both the government and the National Assembly in breach of their constitutional and international human rights and anti-corruption obligations.”

The letters addressed to President Buhari, Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, read in part: “Continuing to neglect these basic public goods and services to sustain the apparently lavish lifestyles of members of the National Assembly and other powerful politicians wound exacerbate poverty, inequality, marginalization and impunity in the country.”

“The COVID-19 crisis is a good opportunity to cut the costs of governance, particularly the unsustainable spending on the National Assembly expenses, and the Presidency budget, and to focus on increasing budget allocations to healthcare and education.”

“The authorities’ approach to National Assembly and Presidency budgets ought to be ‘do more with less.’ While we understand that the country is facing difficult choices in budget allocations, the authorities should have prioritised cuts in National Assembly and Presidency budgets to increase the allocations to healthcare and education.”

“If the cuts are sustained, Nigerians will become justified in thinking that the government and the leadership of the National Assembly do not really care about improving access of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people to basic public services like healthcare and education.”

Healthcare facilities and pandemic

“Cutting basic healthcare budget, especially at a time of COVID-19 crisis in the country, will undermine the ability of your government to effectively and satisfactorily respond to the crisis and to protect Nigerians and ensure their well-being. Cutting education budget would mean that 16 million out-of-school Nigerian children would remain on the street for many years to come.”

“Basic healthcare and education should not bear the brunt of your government’s efforts to balance the 2020 budget. Cutting basic healthcare budget would exacerbate the effects of COVID-19, have long-term consequences for the well-being of Nigerians, and violate the government’s constitutional and international human rights obligations to the people.”

“Any perceived budget crisis does not excuse this flagrant violation of constitutional law and international standards. Any budget cuts to healthcare and the Universal Basic Education Commission will only worsen Nigeria’s ailing health and education sectors.”

“These essential public goods and services must be protected even during these lean budget times. Doing the opposite would cause significant health challenges to the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

“Disproportionate cuts in healthcare and education budgets will also continue to deny Nigerians particularly the poorest and the most vulnerable people access to effective and functioning public healthcare and education services.”

What should be cut to free funds

“SERAP proposes cutting among others, the following aspects of the National Assembly and Presidency budgets: the N15 million monthly allowances/running costs per senator, about N10 million monthly allowances/running costs per member of the House of Representatives, as well as budgets for the Presidency on travel, feeding, and vehicles.”

“Other aspects of the National Assembly budget revealed by the chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), and which SERAP proposes should be cut include the following: basic salary (N2,484,245.50); hardship allowance (N1,242, 122.70); constituency allowance (N4,968, 509.00); furniture allowance (N7, 452, 736.50); and wardrobe allowance (N621,061.37).”

“Others include: recess allowance (N248,424.55); accommodation (N4,968,509.00); utilities allowance (N828,081.83); entertainment (N828,081.83); vehicle maintenance allowance (N1,863,184.12); leave allowance (N248,424.55); severance gratuity (N7, 425,736.50); and motor vehicle allowance (N9, 936,982.00).”

“Continuing to spend scarce public funds on these expenses would deny the most disadvantaged access to public goods and services, and burden the next generation.”

“SERAP further urges you to instruct Mrs Zainab Ahmed, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning to work with the leadership of the National Assembly to work out the details of cuts to National Assembly and Presidency budgets, and the reversal of the cuts to basic healthcare and education.”

“According to our information, your government has proposed to drastically cut basic healthcare budget by N26.51 billion, that is, from the N44.49 billion initially budgeted down to just N17.98 billion. Your government has also proposed to cut education budget by N50.76 billion, that is, from the N111.78 billion initially budgeted for UBEC down to just to N61.02 billion.”

“SERAP notes that access to basic healthcare is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights, including the right to education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, and access to information. These and other rights and freedoms address integral components of the right to health.”

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