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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

WANTED: A state of emergency on cost of governance

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By Tunde Olusunle

The lobbies and lounges of the *Nicon Hilton Hotel* (now *Transcorp Hilton)* and *Sheraton Hotels and Towers,* (now *Abuja Continental Hotel)* were very boisterous in the early days of the Olusegun Obasanjo/Atiku Abubakar administration in 1999. Both hotels were the biggest and best, those years and they accommodated the cream of the political class who gravitated to the federal capital territory, (FCT) at the outset of the Fourth Republic. Conjectures, rumours and spins swirled in the breeze of both hotels throwing up the names of potential ministers, advisers and prospective government functionaries. As the names of potential top-ranking operatives became public, the question arose about the number of aides they would each be entitled to, and where such assistants will be sourced from. The civil service was poised to populate as many positions as may be thrown up in the new dispensation. They fancied themselves a reservoir of trained and ready bureaucrats who could be called upon at the snap of two fingers, the way a military parade is summoned by the sound of the bugle.

First, it was proposed that appointees at the level of minister and adviser were entitled to two aides, a “Special Assistant” at the level of Deputy Director on Grade Level, (GL) 16, and a “Personal Assistant” at the level of a “Chief” in the civil service on GL 14. But for the insistence of senior and influential members of the emerging Obasanjo administration, the civil service would have had its way. For an Obasanjo who is famous for frugality, whatever governance model which would conserve resources for government, suited his desires. The President was, however, reminded that the minimum compensation that could be accorded the foot soldiers who made his ascension possible, was to avail some of them positions in the new government.

Obasanjo was also admonished about the fact that democratic governance as different from an insular military government, should expand the space for qualified and competent Nigerians by way of sustainable engagement. Members of the national assembly agreed mutually that they should each have five legislative aides, who were of necessity drawn majorly from their home constituencies for obvious reasons. With a total of 469 in both chambers of the federal parliament, over 2000 jobs had thus been created. If Obasanjo’s cabinet was to be composed of 42 members and each of them took two people from the unemployment market, such tokenism will at least keep many hands from becoming workshops of devil.

Since Obasanjo was a newcomer to popular politics who was still undergoing demilitarisation from his erstwhile professional fixations, the new President was also reminded he could seek reelection in 2003, as provided for by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If he nursed any such ambitions, the real groundsmen at the grassroots in the polling units, the wards, the local government areas, the federal constituencies and so on needed to be practically cultivated. If they were not physical appointees themselves they will be glad enough that they have their eyes and ears where decisions concerning them were being made. Obasanjo consented and to a substantial extent, his prototype was in place until the expiration of his rulership in 2007. In several instances, qualified loyalists of the party were also appointed and deployed to departments and agencies under the supervision of various ministers.

Obasanjo’s equally frugal successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua inherited and ran with his benefactor’s template. Yar’Adua by the way, purportedly appealed to Obasanjo as baton-changer among other reasons, because of his predilection for thriftiness. In the course of Obasanjo’s state visit to Katsina State Yar’Adua’s erstwhile address as governor in 2002, the former Nigerian leader was delighted with Yar’Adua’s good works as with the impressive balance sheet of the state. Obasanjo has also noted elsewhere that he was also swayed in the direction of Yar’Adua because of the absolute loyalty with which Umaru Yar’Adua’s elder brother, Shehu, served him when he was military Head of State. He desired to honour the memory of a colleague who died desiring the democratisation of his country and on whose political platform he largely profited en route the presidency. Atiku Abubakar was Yar’Adua’s de facto Number Two man in the Peoples’ Democratic Movement, (PDM). He it was who led that critical political tendency to coalesce with other groups, to become the bedrock of Obasanjo’s success in the 1999 presidential poll and thereafter.

A certain liberalisation of the preexisting archetype of engagement of personal aides by top appointees began to take root during the administration of Goodluck Jonathan. He succeeded Yar’Adua who passed away in May 2010 and was somewhat soft on certain goings-on in the governance apparachik, his gaze trained on a shot at the presidency on his own steam in 2011. Call cards in the public domain during that era reportedly alluded to new coinages in the Jonathan milieu hitherto unheard of. His police aide-de-camp in his years as Vice President, Matthew Jitoboh, for instance gave way to a military officer, Ojogbane Adegbe, following Jonathan’s concurrent designation as President, Commander-in-Chief. Rather than report to the Inspector-General of Police, (IGP) for redeployment to regular police duties Jitoboh transmuted into a “Chief of Personal Security to the President” under Jonathan’s watch! What with the numbers and diversity of security personnel who hitherto secured the seat of government? Every such needless creation, pitched for operational resources thereby diminishing government capacity to provide basic services and infrastructure.

Things went on a perverse descent with the advent of Muhammadu Buhari as President in 2015. Buhari was never famous for hands-on leadership, a fact which soon became very evident as his rulership began. Ministers, advisers and so on were at open-ended liberty to populate their schedules with as many aides as they desired. Some public officers indeed fancied a whole bureaucracy of personal aides which could include a Chief of Staff! There could also be: Special Advisers; Special Assistants; Technical Assistants; Personal Assistants; In-house Consultants; Resource Persons and so on, engaged by top government officials. Buhari, renowned for never being *awia* of goings-on around and about him, was not in a position to check or moderate such excesses. Sadly but interestingly, government at sub-nationals like the local government level, equally ape existing precedence at the higher rungs. They cram up the space with all manner of frivolous appointments. Local government chairmen also have their chiefs of staff and a retinue of preposterous aides all remunerated from resources transmitted from the centre. It got so bewildering in my local government at some point that the “wives of councillors” were allegedly paid a month’s stipend of N50,000 monthly, for being “first ladies of their wards!”

Government finances are strained by these overloads which come with specific fiscal requirements. Emoluments have to be paid to those purportedly offering services to government; residential quarters or hotel accommodation has to be provided for them; means of travel have to be provided or paid for. Where such officials are allocated official vehicles and there is a shortage of chauffeurs in the pool, new drivers are hired, the costs consolidated on the hunchback of government. The entourage of our modern-day big men on local or foreign travels ballooned with appropriate *per diems* or estacodes, imperative. Officials themselves concot all manner of trainings, conferences and similar offshore engagements, flying in comfy classes. They savour the best hospitality facilities in their global junketing at our collective expense and the discomfiture of our already be-laboured resources.

Despite this dampening scenario, unfeeling officials prefer foreign destinations for such mundane convergences as interactive workshops and meetings. Early March this year, the Accountant-general of the Federation, (AGF), Oluwatoyin Sakirat Madein herded Commissioners of Finance from the 36 states and FCT to the United Kingdom for an early-in-the-year rendezvous, in the name of a week-long workshop! The theme of that engagement was “Public Financial Management International Public Sector Accounting Standards,” (IPSAS). The AGF who should be better apprised than the rest of us about the country’s most disturbing fiscal situation was the orchestrator of yet another pipe-leak in the name of a foreign engagement for the nation’s exchequers.

Last April, governors of 10 Nigerian states congregated in the United States to discuss security issues ravaging their various states! All governors from the North West: Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano and three states from the North Central, Benue, Niger and Plateau, participated in the three-day parley. If their homes have become metaphorical furnaces in the grips of bandits, kidnappers and similar miscreants, couldn’t they have moved over to another state, say Akwa Ibom which would provide the necessary serenity and security for engagement? The resource persons with whom they engaged in the United States could as well have flown to Nigeria.

Public officials are not sparing a thought for the sustainable rehabilitation, upgrading and operationalisation of our existing touristic capital and other facilities which should easily earn foreign exchange for the country. What happened to the *Obudu Cattle Ranch* and the *Tinapa Resort,* both in Cross River State? The state indeed opens the window to a myriad of other pristine treasures including the *Slave History* and the *Old Residency* museums; the scenic *Tortuga Island,* not forgetting the archival home of the famous female Scottish missionary, *Mary Slessor.* What have we done with the *Yankari Game Reserve* and the *Kainji Wildlife Park* in Bauchi and Niger states, which harbour some of the world’s rarest fauna? How about the *Lekki Conservation Centre* and the *Badagry Coconut Beach* overlooking the regal Atlantic ocean, both in Lagos State?

Under President Obasanjo, Abuja became the unofficial “conference destination” in Africa. It subtly displaced Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi, even Kigali in the contest for this designation. Back in 2003, Nigeria very competently hosted the *18th Meeting of the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations, (CHOGM),* which was attended by the Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II at the time. Fifty one out of the 54 Commonwealth member countries attended meeting, a measure of the global regard with which Nigeria was viewed. Today, however, our senior officials are ever pliable in flashing cigarette lighters to our very scarce resources, in their oftentimes frivolous gallivanting. They don’t seem disposed to helping to build our own endowments to the world class standards which will compel the world to come probing.

Last January, Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s President directed the reduction of the number of officials on his entourage to foreign destinations to 20. This was in response to public outcry about Nigeria’s typically overblown delegations to offshore events. This cutback was also extended to the travels of his deputy. In March, Tinubu issued a presidential order restricting foreign travel by government functionaries for an initial period of three months, starting from April 1, 2024. While these measures are commendable, government needs to take a holistic view of the question of unsustainable public spending particularly in a milieu when government is gasping for fiscal oxygen.

All arms of government are directly or indirectly guilty of various infractions on the national till. Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria mid-2022, petitioned the Chief Justice of Nigeria, (CJN), Tanko Muhammad. Led by the incumbent CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, the judges correspondence stopped short calling out seething malfeasance under Muhammad’s watch. Nigeria’s parliamoent remains the most pampered anywhere in the world, presumably operating a most opaque accountability regimen. Mammoth sums are voted for the procurement of bulletproof, luxury automobiles for leaders and members of Congress. The President of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio is said to have dozens of aides servicing his office in the name of “inclusiveness.” He never probably met most of them and may never do. We are told inexplicable provisions are made for “constituency projects” which are directly overseen by the legislators themselves. This subhead is said to have become a conduit for the pilferage of public resources.

Wasn’t Abdul Ningi, a ranking congressman representing Bauchi Central recently suspended for playing the whistle-blower on the expenditure proclivities of the same parliament to which he belongs? Undocumented allowances are made for the various breaks and holidays of parliamentarians, the type described as “prayers” by the Senate President the other day. Let’s not forget the jumbo millions in foreign exchange which the federal government annually votes for some agencies of government, a part of which was found cooling off under uninterrupted air-conditioning in a flat in highbrow Ikoyi, in Lagos, a few years ago. In that 2017 incident, $43.4m; £27, 800 and N23.2m, totalling N13 Billion at the time, were discovered in that singular instance!

Pointed and pragmatic pruning down of government expenditure transcends piecemeal orders and instalmental directives. Government should ideally declare a “state of emergency” on public expenditure which should bring all the arms of government at various levels of administration to a roundtable. More than ever, it is necessary for us to lay the issues bare, agree on subsisting profligacy in governance and administration, and deploy the scalpel without sentiments and biases. We must agree we’ve been collectively profligate. We must concur to the fact that there are services and developments we can avail our people without the humongous budget paddings which have become the norm. We must re-commit to serving the mass of our citizens to whom we are primarily obliged. We must re-dedicate to working for this country with every altruism. We must be resolute in exerting ourselves for its sustainable growth, to the standards of other forward-looking nations.

Olusunle, PhD, is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (FANA).

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