Are There Low Hanging Fruits Ahead? By Ifeanyi Uddin
I had conceived this piece before the fateful events of this last weekend. In the understanding that we would be voting next week, this was meant as a contribution to the post-election dialogue. It is still directed at those who agree with me that in the last five years, our country has been adrift. On auto-pilot for much of the period, it has been the beneficiary of a rising tide. This tide having ebbed, we now run a real and present danger of being beached in the harbour. Thankfully, the shores are familiar ones — we have been stranded on the same spot, in almost similar circumstances, on at least three different times since 1960.
True, Heraclitus did warn against the impossibility of stepping in the same river twice. But in this case, we would only cavil narrowly if we focussed only on the ambient conditions. The more important responsibility is to describe a route away from the rot, as it were.
In this, we face two options: there are those changes to our system that we may effect immediately (those which consultant-types refer to as “low-hanging fruits”); and those changes, which, however desirable, are contingent on agreeing a consensus amongst the disparate interests currently in play in our polity. The latter are necessarily of a longer-term nature, but the one feeds into the other, while the other enables the environment for driving the one further.
The proliferation of ministers falls easily into the last category. It is arguably the reason why we have both so many MDAs and much overlap between them. This surfeit of public functionaries speaks, too, to the fat size of the recurrent portion of our annual budgets, and to how this has consistently crowded out capital spending. We gain, I am told, from this constraint on our ability to grow domestic capacity, a sense of inclusion from each of us having a representative in the federal cabinet.
Further, ex-President Obasanjo, who seemed to have been single-handedly responsible for the inflation of aides (special assistants to private assistants, for example) has argued that the country gains from having these young ones learn the ropes of office. Elsewhere, such functions, with such goals in mind are internships. They cost far less than our current contrivance.
Nonetheless, the sense of inclusion purportedly derivable from having 36 ministers is an untruth so self-evident, it is worth speaking to only in our peculiar case. Unfortunately, it is a lie told by our basic organising document. We will, therefore, need to re-write parts of our constitution in order to reap new benefits, especially by excising statutes that have become impediments to progress. The requirement that there must be at least one minister from each of the states of the federation is one such law; as are the Nigeria Railway Corporation Act 1955, and the provision of the constitution which makes inland waterways an exclusive preserve of the federal government.
We cannot change the constitution, though, without first persuading those who are reassured by existing statutes of why we need to change. So, there must, first, be a conversation around the new principles on which the state ought to be organised, looking forward. Two such principles should matter now. First, is that we ought to learn to leave to the state, only those products, services, and/or functions that the private sector is not, presently, organised to provide; and, second, that in the public sector’s provision of these, the principle of “Subsidiarity” should be key.
If the challenge is to move decision making as close to where values are consumed as possible, while strengthening the public sector’s capacity to impartially regulate the production of these values, then there are also worries over the structure of civil service compensation. Much has been made about the relationship between relatively poor pay in the public sector, and the venality of the sector. I doubt, though, that without addressing the many sinecures in the sector, a pay rise would be both possible and effective.
It, thus, makes sense that we should begin to take seriously the recommendations of the Oronsaye report on the restructuring and rationalisation of federal agencies. However, ahead of the necessarily traumatic nature of this reform, one apple hangs close enough to touch. Only last week, the federal government banned foreign travel by its functionaries. This way, it would conserve monies spent on hotels and travels abroad. Given public servants love for such trips, it would appear that the amounts allocated per trip more than compensates for the gains from such travels.
So we could do two things. Half the current estacode payable to civil servants who travel out of the country, ensuring that what remains just covers cost of flight (economy class), accommodation, and feeding wherever they travel to. Secondly, where the public servant is on a course abroad for which the associated costs have already been borne by his/her ministry, department, or agency, to pay only a proportion of the now halved estacode.
It may be that government on its own may not be able to enact this change — i.e. that the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission must agree on it. But these reforms have the unique advantage that the estacode is earned by only a small number (influential, no doubt) of civil servants. It should be able, therefore, to pass rather easily.
Whether these set of reforms, or others, government would function better if it is generally believed. Easily, the biggest contribution to improving government’s believability would be the separation of the functions of attorney general and justice minister. I would wager that the absence of an autonomous attorney-general’s office has helped the proliferation of interlocking (but not necessarily cooperating) anti-corruption agencies. Besides, an attorney-general appointed by institutions independent of the executive arm of government could contribute to both our definition of and our losing battle against corrupt practices.