YEARS ago, during the fugitive seventies, a friend used to review each Nigerian annual budget with diligence and with methodical competence. Year after year after year until he was told that he was reviewing fiction, which the budget was. At that time, it was not well publicised that the budget included heavy inclusions from other people’s scripts, other people’s wishes. All the evidence that those who advised our friend to stop reviewing the budget had was that extra-budgetary spending was usually more than what was in the budget.
Today, there is no doubt in the minds of the writers of this year’s budget that what they have written is fiction. And to show how fictitious it is, there are two discordant copies. Editors must now sit and bring out the one that should be published and distributed and passed as the authentic budget.
What are the pleasures of fiction that we can get from reading the budget and what lessons do we learn from fiction which we can learn from reading the budget? What is the theme of this 1,84something novel written by President Buhari and re-written by Ghost Senior Service Workers? Which parts are more interesting – the part by the president and his ministers or the part by the Ghost Senior Workers? How does a close reader of the novel detect the hands of the real writers and those of the ghosts? Finally, is this the first time that such fiction had been written as a national budget? If this is not the first time that this fiction had been inflicted on the country, what is different now?
Many public commentators have said loud and clear that they are not surprised to discover the existence of two budget fictions. Usually, the latest is taken as the authentic one. In this case, it means that the one by the Ghosts is the relevant one. Which brings us to the vexed issue of ghost writers and ghost workers. Generally speaking, ghost writers have always had a bad press. After all, they have always been prepared to pass on their work to others for a huge amount of money one-time payoff, not caring about their reputation and fame as writers. But when ghost writers are also ghost workers, there is very little to say against ghosts as workers and as writers.
The novel was initially entitled The Budget of Change. Then, with the input of the ghost worker/writers it became, according to a columnist, The Budget of Short-Change, which shows the long-lasting change that the novel will make to the family budget of some ghosts. Other titles have been suggested for the title of the novel as budget but there is no need to bother about those other titles since they are not of much consequence.
The theme of the budget, apart from change and short change, is impunity. How much can corruption achieve before the corrupt are called into order? What national institutions can be taken over by the 23,000 ghost workers in the federal civil service of Nigeria before ghost busters come to deal with the ghosts? This is a difficult question. Ghosts operate everywhere. There are ghosts in the judiciary. They are in the armed forces. They are in the professions like law and medicine. They can be found among the unemployed and the unemployable. They are in the cabinet where ghost ministers take decisions for which nobody can be blamed.
In the annals of the achievement of ghosts, this episode written about in this novel of change is considered a high jump.
The achievement of ghosts is measured in jumps as part of the technical tools for judging these achievements. In fact, besides the dwindling export of excuses and 419, the export of ghost workers from Nigeria is a thriving business bound to replace oil export and help to diversify the economy of the country. The jumps are hop step and jump, the lowest level of achievement for ghosts, long jump the second and finally high jump the highest level of achievement yet reached by ghosts.
The novel is interesting because it is familiar and yet strange. In many parts, it resonates with readers and yet it is beguiling. For instance, it is the first time that it has been shown that a vehicle, like an SUV can be bought for any amount of many the buyer likes, the price having nothing to do with how much the seller bought it for and how much profit he or she wants to make on the item. The same item can cost 10 million in one estimate while costing fifty or even one hundred in another.
Familiar because we know how our mothers go from stall to stall looking for a bargain. Strange because this is the opposite of a bargain, what has become known as gain-bar where the buyer gains nothing and the seller might not even make a sell. Very entertaining indeed.
The style of the novel is quite pedestrian, nothing elevated except the figures that occur in the text. Billions and trillions, which make the reading thrilling but that’s all. In fact, some critics have called the style a shopping list kind of style where there are hardly any adjectives or adverbs. True, this is what Nobel-winning novelists have always advocated – avoid the adjectives, cut out the adverbs, mention the specific figures large or small. To that extent, this novel is a good teacher of prose writing.
What does this novel teach us? First of all, we are limited in the area of comparative impunity. We do not hold copies of previous budget fictions to allow us to compare the achievements in jumps of this novel. But we do know now that the theme of change is its own change. What this means is that when change confronts impunity, impunity changes and becomes a high jump, out of sight. Some critics, especially the radical Marxist critics, call this particular budget a post-government, post-state fiction, something that occurs only after the state has been destroyed. But there are others who feel that this is a little bit of euro-centric rather than afro-centric criticism.
How do you get a copy to read? You don’t. You can in fact write you own budget fiction. Just take over a ministry. Happy reading!