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Losing Weight To Save Nigeria By Simon Kolawole

This story makes me grin all the time. After our wedding in 2001, my wife and I decided to pay “thank you” visits to family members, friends and well-wishers. We visited my mother-in-law’s boss at the time. As we chatted on various topics, we noticed he was sweating inside his well air-conditioned office. My wife, ever alert to people’s well-being, asked: “Sir, are you all right? You’re sweating.” The man smiled and replied: “Don’t mind me, my sister. This is how I sweat anytime I’m spending too much money. You know I’m an Ijebuman!” We had a good laugh. I wish this were the way Nigerian government officials sweat anytime they are spending our money.

It wouldn’t matter if the bulk of the money is being spent on building and maintaining roads, upgrading and equipping hospitals and improving education standards. As a matter of fact, our leaders do not need to sweat because of that. They should do it with a smile. Those are the things that will make life worth living for the majority of Nigerians. But the biggest component of public expenditure in Nigeria today is recurrent: salaries, allowances, security votes, estacode, duty tour, tea, kola nuts and so on. For the governors, chartered flights are a sure banker. For most northern governors, going for lesser hajj at the slightest provocation is non-negotiable.

Why don’t our leaders sweat, like my mother-in-law’s boss, when spending our money on chartered flights, phone calls and lesser hajj? Why don’t they shiver? To start with, it is not their money. They did nothing to make the money. My mother-in-law’s boss was spending his own money, so every kobo he spent pinched him. He laboured hard for the money and he was not too glad to part with it. That is value. Our money, however, belongs to “everybody” and “nobody”. The dream of many Nigerians is to be given political appointments so that they can partake in the sharing and spending of this money. Indeed, how many public officers really care about the financial health of Nigeria?

Some public officers want to travel for one-week conferences in Australia, collect allowances for the seven days and attend only one day. The rest of the stay is for shopping and philandering. In some instances, the conference or training is only for two days, but they will collect allowances for one full week. Some will not even travel at all, despite collecting the estacode. Spend, spend and spend to no end! Interestingly, the approvals for recurrent expenditure come in a jiffy, while capital projects take forever or never. So while recurrent is utilised 100 per cent most of the time, capital consistently performs less than 60 per cent. We are practically burning our money in Nigeria.

As things stand, Nigeria faces one of its crunchiest fiscal crises in this democratic dispensation. In simple English, Nigeria is broke. We are not making enough money to meet our needs. In the ideal world, all we need to do is make more money to meet our needs. If we need N100 and are making only N50, all we need to do is start making N100. Simple! Unfortunately, this is beyond us — except we want to tax Nigerians to death to raise the money immediately. We cannot command oil to start selling for $120. The diversification of the economy cannot yield immediate results. Even if we are dead serious, it would take more years for agriculture and industry to come through.

A second option is to keep borrowing in order to meet our needs, but the implications are not funny. If we want to spend N100 and are making only N50, we can borrow N50 to make it up. But it is said that “he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing”. A third option is to raise N25 from tax and borrow N25 to make things up. A fourth option is to ask ourselves if we need to spend N100 at all. How much of the N100 is really important and how much is frivolous? If we can establish that we need to spend only N70, then we can make up the balance through tax and, if necessary, loans. It would require us to cut our expenses so that we can live within our means.

Thankfully, President Muhammadu Buhari has decided to bell the cat. In a circular last week, the secretary to the federal government (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, said it had become compelling for government to adopt fiscal discipline and prudence “considering the high cost of governance and the nation’s dwindling resources as well as the determination of Mr. President to reduce cost”. Henceforth, travels require express approval of the SGF; all public-funded travels (local and foreign) must be highly essential and beneficial to the interest of Nigeria; and senior government officials are restricted to not more than two foreign travels per quarter. Exceptions apply.

I must commend Buhari for taking this step at all — at least it shows that he has accepted what Nigerians have been saying that the cost structure of running government is defective. But I am still waiting for the presidential jets to be sold off. We don’t need more than one. There are countries that don’t have presidential jets and their presidents and prime ministers are still alive and kicking. Also, I would want Mustapha to put an amount to how much the government hopes to save from these new measures. That would give us a fair idea of how significant they are and if they need to make further cuts. But this is a good start all the same. We can make progress from here.

One of the biggest wonders of our times is how government officials have habitually failed to tighten their belts as the economic realities dictate. It is always ordinary Nigerians that are expected to bear the brunt. They don’t want to sacrifice anything. Sacrifice is a message for the masses only. They still want to maintain the same lifestyle, drink the same number of cartons of champagne, receive the same allowances, maintain the same battalion of aides, buy new luxury cars and maintain the same kilometre-length convoys. It is either they do not understand arithmetic or they cannot be bothered. All these things add up, if I have to say that. That’s the way arithmetic works.

To be fair, when crude oil prices fell and we ran into a fiscal crisis in 2009, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and his cabinet members took a 20% pay cut. Some governors mouthed plans to cut down on costs. But as soon as crude oil prices began to rise again, going past the $100 mark consistently in the following years, we went back to our old ways, ballooned the civil service, ballooned overheads and embarked on fancy projects, notably state airports, without a thought in the world for the inevitable rainy days. By 2014, oil prices began to fall again and states were battling to pay salaries. Even the federal government took loans to pay salaries in the first half of 2015. We never learn.

Now that President Buhari has shown the way by trying to reduce overheads, the federal lawmakers would do well to follow suit. The national assembly has been very arrogant. They see themselves as special creatures. They have always been arrogant, truth be told. In 2010, the then CBN governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, raised the alarm that the national assembly alone would consume 25 per cent of the federal budget for overheads. He was, typically, summoned. He got there and repeated his words: that their overheads of N136 billion was 25% of the federal overheads of N536 billion. Instead adjusting, the lawmakers would always choose intimidation and blackmail.

Meanwhile, governors and state lawmakers are getting away with murder. All our attention is focused on Abuja. Nobody looks at the travel budgets of states. Nobody looks at the allowances. Nobody looks at how they fritter away state resources, including bonds and loans. There is a lot of expenditure we can cut down on so that we can begin to make efficient use of our resources. It needs to be said again and again that financially, Nigeria is not rich. We have the potential to be rich if we use our brains positively, not fraudulently. Under the current situation, government needs to cut out wastes and leakages so that the budgets can deliver decent results.

My parting shot is a challenge to ALL government officials at ALL levels. When you sit there planning expenditures and making approvals, ask yourselves: if this were my personal money, would I spend it this way? If it was my personal company, would I spend this money like this? If I were broke and living on loans and bonds, would my attitude to money be the same? The notion that it is government’s money and nobody’s money and should therefore be spent anyhow is one thing we have to deal with decisively. No doubt, we need to sweat, like my mother-in-law’s boss, whenever we are spending this money — especially on Tom Tom, biscuits and jets.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

ONITSHA ‘GENOCIDE’

Tragedy visited Onitsha on Tuesday night when a tanker exploded, killing people and razing over 100 shops. Never one to miss an opportunity for political propaganda, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) issued a statement describing the incident as a “terrorist attack” designed to wipe out “Biafrans”. This is also called “genocide”. Tanker fires have occurred in Ekiti and Benue this year alone, while Lagos has also witnessed horrendous incidents. Those ones were probably “designed” to wipe out Yoruba and Tiv people. In January, the Yan’Katako Market in Rijayar Lemo area, Kano state, was razed, perhaps to wipe out Arewa people. Nonsense.

CONSENT GAME

The Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) says it cannot make public the asset declarations of past and present public office holders because it does not have their consent to do so. There is no provision in the Code of Conduct law requiring such consent. Maybe the national assembly (don’t laugh) should amend the law to give CCB the powers to go public. Also, did CCB get the consent of Justice Walter Onnoghen, the former chief justice of Nigeria, before making his assets form available to the petitioners? In the past, CCB came up with the excuse that public officers could become victims of armed robbery if their assets were made public. The latest excuse is amusing. Absolutely.

BORDER CLOSURE

Nigeria has taken the abnormal measure of closing its land borders in order to curb smuggling — with the Nigeria Customs Service announcing that all imports and exports, “illicit or non-illicit”, are banned through the route “for now”. Many Nigerians are unhappy over this development, which they hold responsible for rising food prices. For me, though, the problem is not whether people are suffering from the border closure — there will always be winners and losers — but how long we can sustain this. When we re-open the borders, surely full-scale smuggling will resume because the security agencies are clearly complicit. So what problem would we have solved? Intractable.

KANO ABDUCTIONS

If you are a regular reader of Nigerian newspapers, you would be forgiven for not having heard that nine Muslim children were abducted from Kano, taken to Anambra state and forcefully converted to Christianity. It did not make any front page (to the best of my knowledge). No columnist wrote on it. No editorial followed. It was a non-issue. Let’s now reverse the equation and say nine Christian children are abducted in Anambra, taken to Kano and forcefully converted to Islam. How would the Nigerian media treat the “jihadist” story? I sincerely think the time has come for us to have an honest conversation with one another in the Nigerian media. Introspection.

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