I was listening to a radio phone-in programme last week when a final year student of a state-owned tertiary institution called to say there was no way he would be able to complete his degree programme going by the tuition fees just announced by his university.
Other callers soon joined the programme to paint scary pictures of their uncertain future. From education to health institutions and markets, Nigerians are groaning under an astronomical hike in prices of goods and services. While these challenges have been with us for some years, they have now been heightened by President Bola Tinubu’s decision to halt fuel subsidy payment and merge the foreign exchange rates.
For those of us who have always advocated that Nigeria should stop “borrowing from tomorrow”, it is difficult to fault the president for the tough decisions he has taken in his first one month in office. To be honest, Tinubu had little room to maneuver given glaring threats of fiscal collapse since we were borrowing to pay for the subsidy anyway. But leaders who preach the virtue of sacrifice cannot live like emperor or revel in ostentatious lifestyle at a time millions of Nigerians are going through harrowing times. That is the meaning of the outrage that greeted the recent long convoys of both the president and that of the senate president, Godswill Akpabio.
I have heard the defence by supporters of the president that what was posted on social media (incidentally by a bragging Tinubu supporter) included the convoys of many governors and other top government functionaries. That may well be true, but they miss the point. What was on display is a metaphor for profligacy and abuse of public resources that have come to define officialdom in Nigeria. The real issue is whether a government that preaches sacrifice can continue with such indulgence, especially at a period when many people are going through hard times. Besides, most Nigerians are already aware that the length of convoys has become a source of power projection in the country. Yet, it is nothing but a symbol of waste that we must do away with.
Since the advent of the current democratic dispensation in 1999, Nigerians have been concerned about the cost of maintaining those who ordinarily are elected to serve the rest of us. On their website, the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) opens with a statement on ‘Reducing cost of governance’, seeking a review of the day-to-day government expenditure in the country. “The cost of running government in Nigeria has been on the increase over the years to the extent that stakeholders are worried about the problem and are seeking ways to address the anomaly”, the RMAFC stated. Curiously, it is the same commission that recently proposed a 114 per cent increase in the remunerations of the president, vice president, governors, lawmakers etc at this most difficult period for the ordinary citizens.
Nothing perhaps demonstrates the perplexing problem of high cost of governance in Nigeria better than the 2012 Oronsaye Report. The report identified 541 federal government agencies, 50 of which have no enabling laws, and made recommendations about scrapping some and merging several others. Both President Goodluck Jonathan who established the committee and President Muhammadu Buhari who inherited the report made a song and dance about its implementation. At the end, according to the latest infographic from BudgIT, the number of agencies in the federal government budget for this year is 929. So, rather than a reduction of these cost centres, we now have almost double the number of the federal quangos that we had eleven years ago!
Meanwhile, in a report published by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) 24 hours before he was sworn in for his first term in 2015, many Nigerians had expressed hope that Buhari would make reducing cost of governance a priority of his administration. “In most parts of the world, politicians do not go around with the long motorcade and number of aides they go around with in Nigeria,” Pat Utomi, a respected professor of political economy, had told NAN at the time. “Governance should not be about moving in motorcades, living in mansions, and not stopping at traffic lights.’’ The hope that Buhari would change the narrative turned out to be misplaced, though the real challenge now is in the states where governors must begin to embrace prudence and accountability even if, like the former Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, they have trillions of “intellectual money,” with which to dispense patronage.
To the extent that the decision to end fuel subsidy regime and merge the exchange rates is not cost-free, government at all levels cannot afford to continue with the template of the past. On Tuesday, the Bank of America (BoA) sub-Sahara Africa Economist, Tatonga Rusike projected that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) may need to increase interest rates by at least 700 basis points before the end of the year to tackle soaring inflation occasioned by these two policies. He warned that if this decision was not taken, the much-sought foreign investment might be a mirage. The implication of Rusike’s intervention is that we are already in a Catch-22 situation.
It is therefore important for President Tinubu and his handlers not to misread the public mood. That he has used his honeymoon period to strike when the iron is still hot on two critical policy issues may have earned him momentary applause on decisive leadership. But there are no predictable outcomes for those choices in an environment where several variables are beyond his control. So, there is a need for caution. Not hubris! Times like this indeed call for a measure of sobriety and there are lessons we can learn from what is happening in other countries. France provides a ready example.
Even when the unfortunate death of a teenager in the hands of a trigger-happy policeman may have ignited the violence, the people on the streets are those who feel that the system has been so rigged against them that their future is not secured. That was the point made so poignantly last Sunday by the editorial of ‘The Observer’, a British newspaper. “Poverty, ghetto-like suburban estates, joblessness, limited life chances and social alienation are problems facing younger people in many developed countries, not least Britain,” The Observer wrote, highlighting why leaders in the United Kingdom must pay attention to the underlining issues in Paris. “What’s happening in France is a warning to all.” If a society like France could experience such convulsion, then authorities in our country should be aware of the danger of what could happen when Nigerians feel pushed to the wall.
For years, many have called for a review of the perks associated with public office in our country. For instance, it is only in Nigeria that public officials travel abroad in first and business class compartments and within the country, in private jets. In August 2016, I was invited by the Chinese government to speak at the China-Africa Public Diplomacy Forum in Tanzania. When the conference ended, I was at the Dares Salaam airport waiting to board the Ethiopia Airlines flight back to Abuja enroute Addis Ababa when the representative of President Xi Jingpin who declared the session open was escorted in by the Chinese ambassador and Tanzanian officials. On the flight, he was in the same economy class compartment with the rest of us. The message sent by the Chinese authority, which we are yet to imbibe in Nigeria, is that serving the public is about sacrifice.
While human nature predisposes people to act mostly in pursuit of self-interest, the essence of government is to subordinate the personal convenience of individuals to the imperatives of the common good. Yet, the crisis of present-day Nigeria is that there is little in our code of public conduct that encourages moderation or sacrifice. Rolling back conveniences, no matter how little, are usually some of the first steps public officials take when their country battle economic downturns. Beyond the fact that reduction in official vehicles will help save fuel and maintenance cost in our present circumstance, it will also send the right signal to the people that public officers are sensitive to their plight.
That is a timely message for the president and all the 36 governors.
Waking Up, Taking Responsibility
With the theme, ‘Wake Up and Take Responsibility’, Mr Tony Elumelu, CFR, is being joined on 19th August by two British women,Ms Dorota Oakley Matuszyk and Ms Juliet Lamin as speakers for the 2023 edition of the teens career conference of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, The Everlasting Arms Parish (TEAP). Elumelu of course needs no further introduction. From banking to oil and gas and the hospitality sector, he maintains a portfolio of investments across several industries on the continent. Chairman of both Heirs Holdings and the United Bank for Africa (UBA), Elumelu also sits on many public and social sector boards, including the World Economic Forum Community of Chairmen and the Global Leadership Council of UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited.
Ms Matuszyk is an educator with sound training experience across many schools in the United Kingdom. In one of her numerous works in Africa, Matuszyk ran a pioneering online programme for teachers in Guinea Bissau and supervised their research on issues such as early marriage, teenage pregnancy, gender inequality and impact of disability and poverty on education. She has also undertaken sizeable fundraising to fight hunger, unemployment, and lack of education, mainly in Guinea Bissau, Uganda, Congo, Yemen, Syria, Ukraine, and Poland.
Ms Lamin is also an educator, community activist, youth mentor and licensed grief recovery specialist, who has worked with adults and young people with different complex needs across the United Kingdom. Following the death of her only son, Phillip Lamin in 2013, she founded a youth charity organization, PL9, where young people from several communities come together to counteract different challenges and be mentored to become leaders. The PL9 youths have collaborated with 118 academic institutions in the United Kingdom to organise youth talent shows, fundraise for cardiac risk and help provide defibrillators in sports centres and churches. Those achievements have earned Lamin several honours, including the outstanding achievement award from the London Borough of Bexley.
Like previous editions, this year’s conference will bring together teenagers from Abuja and its environs to listen to expert advice on career choices in today’s dynamic and challenging world. In choosing ‘Wake Up and Take Responsibility’ as theme for the 2023 edition, our Pastor, Evaristus Azodoh (a consultant urologist and retired army colonel) believes that when young people make the right choices, they can also appropriate the credit for their achievements. Conversely, if they feel beholden to the actions or opinions of others, they inevitably live in the shadow of other people’s expectations, and this can result in frustration, bitterness, and failure.