…what the nation needs now is a leadership that understands the urgency that this critical time requires; one that is ready to go beyond rhetoric and take ACTIONABLE measures to arrest the situation. That the VP, unarguably one of the brightest minds in this administration, would show up in performative helplessness should worry us all.
Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, hugged newspaper headlines recently when he lamented the huge, unsustainable cost of governance in Nigeria. Speaking at a webinar put together to look into Nigeria’s ‘Economic stability beyond COVID-19’ last month, Mr. Osinbajo noted that Nigeria runs a large and expensive government and there is need for a national debate on issues surrounding the size and cost of governance in Nigeria.
In a sense, Mr. Osinbajo’s jeremiad is amusing and disheartening in equal measure. And in that show of performative helplessness lies the real problem with Nigeria, which manifests in its numerous indices of retrogression and complete annihilation of human agency.
First off, the debate on Nigeria’s huge cost of governance isn’t new. In 2018, Shehu Sanni, who represented Kaduna Central in the eighth National Assembly, revealed that every senator receives N13.5 million monthly as running cost, apart from their N750,000 monthly salary. Before then, the actual amount of their take-home pay had been kept a closely-guided secret, and it was for decades a subject of conjectures and half-truths in the media. Before Mr. Sanni’s revelation, and the outrage that trailed it, there had been conversations around the unsustainable system of governance that Nigerian runs, at the expense of real growth and development.
So when Mr. Osinbajo raised concerns last month, he wasn’t saying anything new. What makes his comment amusing, actually, is that this realisation is coming five years into the Buhari-Osinbajo presidency, itself characterised by the worrisome elevation of waste and misapplication of scarce resources.
Put matter-of-factly, even, the VP’s jeremiad (and, before him, President Buhari’s vows to reduce the cost of governance and ‘fight corruption’) moves swiftly from the amusing to the ridiculous when placed side-by-side every significant step taken by the government in that direction since it took over power in 2015.
To be sure, a major selling point of the Buhari-Osinbajo candidature (and, by extension, the All Progressives Congress, APC) was the urgent need to rescue the nation from the ‘marauding PDP’. And so, to some degree, its appeal rested on frugality, reduced cost of governance, and a careful and judicious application of our scarce resources – to facilitate development and inclusive growth in the interest of all.
To be sure, the rationale behind Mr. Osinbajo’s jeremiad is quite understandable: The times are scary and the outlook for the future, now disrupted by COVID-19, remains uncertain. If there was any time the nation needed to effect radical reform in governance, that time is now.
But five years on, the government has done everything but what it preached pre-2015.
First, a PREMIUM TIMES’ report of January 2019 established that the Nigerian government proposed to spend N7.30 billion on the presidential air fleet (PAF) in the 2019 budget proposal, a figure that was about 67 per cent higher than the N4.37 billion appropriation in the 2017 budget. Earlier in the year, one of Mr. Buhari’s daughters flew to Bauchi State in a presidential jet for a private function, an action that drew criticism from many Nigerians, who lamented the cost implication of such a trip. Legal luminary, Femi Falana, said that action had no precedent in Nigeria’s history.
It’s needless to point out here that the waste and abuse that characterised the management of the PAF was a major albatross of the Jonathan government before it was ousted, rather deservingly, in 2015. Yet, today, apart from the management of the PAF, there are numerous other underlying causes of the overbloated cost of governance that the nation deals with, all freshly introduced by this government or inherited from the previous government and now elevated to a new height. At different ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government, there is a preponderance of needless jamborees abroad, shady public procurement practices, and entrenched corruption – with devastating effects on the country’s treasury.
To be sure, the rationale behind Mr. Osinbajo’s jeremiad is quite understandable: The times are scary and the outlook for the future, now disrupted by COVID-19, remains uncertain. If there was any time the nation needed to effect radical reform in governance, that time is now. Last month, for instance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that the Nigerian economy would witness a deeper contraction of 5.4 per cent and not the 3.4 per cent it projected in April. Similarly, Nigeria’s Sustainability Committee, led by Mr. Osinbajo, said in June that Nigeria is facing its most serious economic troubles ever. The numbers across different sectors of the economy, since the COVID-19 disruption came, have been as scary.
Despite this, there seems to be no sign from government that the leadership understands the challenges ahead. In the last quarter, we have seen politicians at the national and sub-national levels make ridiculous appointments into already over-bloated governance environments. At the height of the pandemic, the National Assembly took delivery of new cars at a huge cost, even when Nigeria could barely afford ventilators and had to go begging for these on Twitter. From Abuja to Oyo to Cross River State, there have been needless, ridiculous appointments into government positions.
In essence, what’s not in doubt today is that the nation is dancing on the brink of (fiscal) collapse. Debates and national conferences have been held in the past with no actionable plans evolving from them. Committees after committees have been set up to look into reports of other committees.
What I find most interesting, and perhaps instructive, in Mr. Osinbajo’s jeremiad was the alibi he provided for the probable setback in government’s efforts to cut costs. Hear him: “There is no question that we are dealing with large and expensive government, but as you know, given the current constitutional structure, those who would have to vote to reduce (the size of) government, especially to become part-time legislators, are the very legislators themselves. So, you can imagine that we may not get very much traction if they are asked to vote themselves, as it were, out of their current relatively decent circumstances.”
Frankly, beyond an idealistic postulation, the VP’s take remains the brutal, honest and realistic truth. But what that revelation has equally done, all the same, is to inadvertently rob the federal executive (and its partisan APC supporters) of the eternal excuse of heaping all blames on the National Assembly when Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara, reputed as antagonists of Mr. Buhari’s developmental ideas, held sway. More importantly, if there was any doubt about the unwillingness of the present leadership of the country to effect genuine transformation hinged on personal sacrifice, the VP’s jeremiad may have put paid to it. For, the present Assembly holds the record of being perhaps the most obsequious, servile legislative arm the nation has seen in recent history. If both arms can’t seem to agree on an issue fundamental to the country’s development and fiscal survival (despite agreeing on every other thing, however selfish, ridiculous and mundane), danger looms.
In essence, what’s not in doubt today is that the nation is dancing on the brink of (fiscal) collapse. Debates and national conferences have been held in the past with no actionable plans evolving from them. Committees after committees have been set up to look into reports of other committees. That’s why, for me, the vice president’s call for a “national debate” is, frankly, laughable. I suspect that, as it appears when we dwell on the bigger question of “restructuring”, there seems to be an ideological gulf between him and those who call the shots in the ultimate sense. And therein lies the tragedy.
But then, what the nation needs now is a leadership that understands the urgency that this critical time requires; one that is ready to go beyond rhetoric and take ACTIONABLE measures to arrest the situation. That the VP, unarguably one of the brightest minds in this administration, would show up in performative helplessness should worry us all. If we look past the conflicting irony, Mr. Osinbajo’s jeremiad mirrors the pathetic condition of the Nigerian people who have for decades suffered the ripple effect of waste and misplaced priorities, as exemplified in poor healthcare system, dilapidated schools, broken roads etc. To some degree, it also mirrors the problem of the Buhari presidency and beneath it lies the big question mark surrounding the (fiscal) survival of the Nigerian state.
In all of this, what’s not negotiable is the urgent need to take bold decisions NOW. A stitch in time saves nine.
Oladeinde Olawoyin, a senior correpondent with PREMIUM TIMES, tweets @Ola_deinde; Email: OlawoyinOladeinde@gmail.com.