By Ayo Olukotun
Reducing the high cost of governance has been a constant item in public discourse in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. Almost every administration has mooted the idea, or articulated policy around it, but none has had the courage to implement it. Remember the Steve Orosanye Panel of 2012? Set up by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, it made far-reaching recommendations such as merging some ministries, cutting redundant ones, and generally bringing down the cost of governance. Of course, we all know what happened to that report. Like several reports that never saw the light of day, the suggestions of the Orosanye panel are gathering dust somewhere in the archives of government. Even the 2020 budget read to the National Assembly, on Wednesday, by President Muhammadu Buhari contains some motivational words about trimming public expenditure, by rewarding Ministries, Departments and Agencies, which are able to reduce cost and expenditure relative to performance.
Before the budget was read, advocacy for tackling the high cost of governance came from an unlikely source; the immediate past governor of Imo State, Senator Rochas Okorocha, who advocated that instead of three senators per state, Nigeria should make do with just one senator per state. An unlikely source, because the former governor is still battling with allegations of extensive property acquisition and profligacy, with sanctions imposed on him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. That, of course, does not mean that Okorocha cannot make credible suggestions. It is just that our memories of his own governmental record play trick on us, even tempting us to throw away the baby with the bath water. One former governor who is reputed for cost efficiency, and for haggling about the cost of projects to the very last kobo, is Peter Obi, who, it was often narrated, offered to be the only person to go for a conference, along with his security aide, because the ministry had drawn up a hefty budget, replete with overnight allowances, out-of-station allowances for something like 30 people, which greatly astonished him. Obi reportedly threw the estimate into the waste paper basket, and announced that he would attend the conference alone, and he would come back to brief the relevant ministry on what new things he had learnt. These anecdotes are bought up to underscore that we are dealing with a systemic weakness in the structure and processes, even day-to-day routines of government.
There is a problem broached at, by our incapacity to retrench the escalating cost of governance, even while admitting that it is a major problem, after almost 20 years of return to democracy. Have you noticed that Italy, a European country beset by soaring debts, has recently reduced the size of its parliament? It was done in a fit of self-discipline and an effort to save the country from looming bankruptcy, by the parliamentarians themselves. The Lower House was reduced from 650 to 400 while the Senate was reduced in numbers from 315 to 200, saving thereby 1,000,000 Euros, in one year and 10,000,000 Euros in ten years. It did not require long speeches, endless seminars, and workshops to get to that point. Why should a drowning man need to be talked into taking, or cooperating with steps, and initiatives that will throw him a life line? But here, is a very different terrain. Responding to criticisms, and public outcry regarding the N5.5bn budgeted for the purchase of SUVs for senators, one of the Senate leaders from Kebbi North, Yahya Abdullahi, bristled at a press conference that “what is the problem there, it is an insult to say that a Senator of the Federal Republic cannot ride a jeep in Nigeria. It is an insult. I was Permanent Secretary; I know what ministers get; we cannot even compare ourselves to ministers because we are higher than the ministers”. It is this kind of mindset and refusal to take cognisance of the hard facts, of our ‘borrow borrow’ status, that had made it extremely difficult to make progress on this issue.
Still on the legislators, recall that a former senator, Shehu Sani, let the cat out of the bag, last year, when he revealed that the running cost of a Nigerian senator is about N13.5 per month. This, presumably, does not include their monthly salaries which is around N1m a month, their constituency allowances, and other hidden benefits. That is why, when citizens are admonished to tighten their belts further, by paying more tax, they wonder whether prudence has been the guiding principle in the disbursement of various taxes paid. There is overspending, redundancies, and waste in other sectors as well. In contrast to the United States, where the size of the cabinet is about 20 members, we are asked to bear the cost of a cabinet, consisting of at least 40 memebers, not counting Special Advisers and Advisers to these Special Advisers, Special Assistants, and an entourage, noted more for visibility, than for carrying out assigned duties. This arithmetic of obesity reproduces itself in the 36 states around the country, where commissioners, Special Advisers and Local Government officials constitute a distinct debit on the payroll. When these issues are raised, we are told that this is what the 1999 Constitution prescribes. True, but how long does it take, with the right quantum of political will to revise the constitution? If the constitution, to employ an illustration, has prescribed death or long years of incarceration for every Nigerian that reaches a certain age, will it be cited as an excuse for carrying out that stipulation? Or would it have been amended the very moment it was noticed?
The prodigal culture of office holding in Nigeria includes big and self-awarded pensions for office holders, not only by the Federal Government, but also the states and local governments. Sometimes, these pensions are still being paid while the public official is still enjoying perquisites in another public office. It took the intervention of a Non-Governmental Organisation, for the former Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, to drop pensions being paid to him by the Kwara State Government, where he had ruled for eight years as governor.
Ayo Olukotun is a Public Affairs Analyst.