Again, Buhari’s Hard Choice, By Sonala Olumhense
It is both pathetic and scandalous. Twenty-two states have not been able to pay their civil servants for between six and ten months. It’s no news, really. It is news now because the governors of the affected states are asking President Muhammadu Buhari to bail them out. I do hope the president has a good response to his millionth challenge.
Come to think of it. Buhari has not been lucky with the economy, In 1984, when he stepped into the shoes of ousted President Shehu Shagari, the economy, having haemorrhaged badly, was pale. Then, as now, state governments owed their civil servants salary arrears of between five and eight months.
Buhari found himself faced with the very critical responsibility of managing poverty, not prosperity. It is the economy again. Fate has dealt him a poor hand again on the economy. He has to manage poverty in a country that has always been both averse to and incapable of managing its financial affairs during lean times. I offer my commiserations.
Something has gone badly wrong with the national economy. We should quit all pretences that President Goodluck Jonathan bequeathed to Buhari a well-managed and robust economy. It is fiction.
It is no use asking what went wrong in the affected states. A million things went wrong and are still going wrong. The temptation to blame the financial crisis in the 22 states for their profligacy is pretty strong. We are inclined to blame the governors, past and present, for poor fiscal management. We accuse them of outright stealing of much of the money. We believe that what they did not line their pockets and those of their friends, business associates and family members with, was wasted on bogus elephant projects of doubtful social or economic benefits to the people.
At the end of every election circle, the EFCC lends credence to point a) above by announcing the arrest of a former governor or two on allegations of corruption. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former minister of finance, repeatedly accused the state governors of financial recklessness. She never wasted her sympathy on their financial woes. Good old chickens will always head home to roost at some point.
It would be foolish to dispute the fact that many of the state governors, then and now, are not poster children for prudent financial management. The fiscal recklessness of many of them boggles the mind. But we can blame them and criticise them from head to toe; it will solve no problems, even if they give a damn. This should not deny the new state governors of our sympathy. They came into office, rearing to go but find themselves hobbled by financial mountains created by their predecessors in office. Some of them went to the treasury only to find that even the bottom of the barrel had been scraped clean before May 29.
The other 14 states seem only marginally better. They seem to exult in not being numbered among the 22 because they manage to pay their civil servants. But governance carries greater responsibilities than the payment of monthly salaries to civil servants. However much we are pained by the corruption in the system at federal and state levels that has denied us the right to benefit and enjoy our God-given resources, my take is that everything that had to go wrong with the economy has gone wrong. These are rescue times, not hnd wringing times. There are structural defects in the management of our fiscal resources.
There are no excuses for corruption and profligacy but these do not really tell the whole story about the admittedly poor management of our financial resources at all levels of government in the country. At least three factors are at play here. The first is the centralised nature of our federalism. Through it, the generals who ruled us for so long imposed uniformity on the country. Consequently, all the states must pay the salaries and allowances to their civil servants. They must also pay a uniform minimum wage. Uniformity is anathema to the letter and the spirit of federalism. The generals did not give a damn.
On the average, Akwa Ibom takes home between N50 billion and N70 billion a month as its share from the federation account. That is about the amount of money that comes to nearly all the states in the north. Does it make sense to insist that Zamfara, the state that generates the least internally revenue in the country, should pay its civil servants what Akwa Ibom pays its own? Is it fair to impose on Zamfara the burden of paying the same minimum wage as Akwa Ibom State? Even if the governor of that state does not chop one kobo, paying his civil servants would still be an uphill task every month. Why can’t we allow each state to pay what it can to its workers?
The second factor at play here is that since the military regime, governance in the country has been top to bottom, instead of bottom to the top. This is the major cause of corruption in government. Our development projects are entirely contractor-driven. Federal and state budgets are mere ritualised routines. No governor bothers to check what is provided for in the budget before he approves a jumbo contract submitted to him by his friend or business associate for an elephant project not captured in the budget. This is the main area of leakage in the system.
The third factor at play is the lopsided nature of budgetary allocations at federal and state levels. Okonjo-Iweala also repeatedly said that fully 80 per cent of the budget is spent on recurrent expenditure. This leaves almost nothing for capital development. No one should wonder why our economy remains stagnant. It cannot grow because recurrent expenditure has never been known to reflate an economy and generate employment.
What the president and the state governors face here is not a laughing matter; it is a weeping matter. One of two options would dictate the president’s response. One option is to tell the president to let the poor and impoverished states stew and learn their lessons the hard way. This would qualify as an emotional reaction rather than a measured response to removing the hurdle in our path.
The second option is to ask the president to bail out the states so they can put their civil servants back to work, if only to save our pavements from being pulverised to death by the growing army of job seekers and food hunters in our towns and cities pounding the pavements day and night. This, clearly, is a delicate problem. It needs to be handled with care and tact because it is quite capable of undermining the president’s economic blueprint.
So, which option should the president choose? I would favour the second option with these provisos:
a) Each bailed out state should freeze employment for six months from the date of its being bailed out by the president;
b) There should be no payment of gratuity, pension and other benefits to former state governors who left their states with a mountain of reckless debts until the debts have been cleared;
c) None of such states should create new ministries or employ a large retinue of political hangers-on euphemistically called special advisers in their various categories for one year from the date of its being bailed out;
d) Each of the affected state governors should show the auditor-general of the federation full and indisputable evidence that he has fully utilised the bail out fund for what it was meant for.
I rest my case.