While campaigning for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential ticket sometime late last year, former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar came up with what I considered the most fundamental statement I have heard from any Nigerian politician on how to redirect our economy and put public finance on a path of sustainability. He pledged that if elected president, his medium-term (a four year period) strategy would be to ensure that recurrent expenditure is financed fully with non-oil revenue while every kobo earned from oil revenue is devoted to investment in infrastructure, security, education and health.
Highlighting his plan, Atiku said: “Oil revenue is highly volatile and exhaustible. We must have a plan to wisely use it to build capacity for the future - invest in infrastructure and in the people-- and not consume it today. We would also encourage all state governments to set an agenda and timeline within which they would no longer depend on oil revenue for recurrent expenditure. Our regional governments did not get oil revenue but massively developed the country. We must return to the responsible path. The FGN would develop an incentive system (grants-in-aid) to encourage states which are succeeding in making the transition. This agenda is fundamental to motivating all tiers of government to develop the non-oil sectors of the economy and hence diversify the economy.’’
Although I was not in the country then, when I read Atiku’s proposition I thought it would set the agenda for the electioneering campaign. I imagined that the media and other political contenders would take him on so he could elaborate on how he would do it and in the process create the basis for fighting the election on a contestation of ideas. But nobody challenged him and I am beginning to doubt whether he himself reflected much on the idea. Now that the elections are over, I believe we should reopen the debate which is central to the future of our country.
Last weekend in Abuja, I sat among a multi-disciplinary group of very highly accomplished stakeholders in Project Nigeria, a monthly non-partisan forum that has been meeting for the past four years. Whenever the group meets, it has an all-night session on different aspects of our national life and tries to articulate solutions and road maps. This time there was an interesting presentation on the sustainability of free education in some progressive states that have embarked on extensive human capital development projects. Even more interesting was the fact that a senior federal government official who was in the neighbourhood listened in very attentively.
For me, the kernel of the discussion this time was how far sustainable development can be centred on revenues derivable from a wasting asset like oil especially when such development projects are of a social nature and therefore not capable of generating revenues to sustain themselves in the immediate time frame. This general concern will form the basis of my preoccupation in this column for the next few weeks as I examine the merit of what I have now dubbed ‘The Atiku Abubakar Formula’.
It is recalled that in September last year, then Finance Minister, Mr Olusegun Aganga established the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) to look at ways to help government reduce the country’s spiralling recurrent costs and overheads. Presenting the report a few weeks later, the Chairman of the 23-member committee, Prof. Anya O. Anya, said a situation where successive governments since 2003 continue to devote 80 percent of the country’s financial resources to recurrent expenditures “tends to portray governance as irresponsible, unresponsive, self-centred and clueless pretenders to leadership.”
Those are very strong words from Anya, also a former Chairman, Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), who said that in the last few years, two-thirds of the country’s resources were allocated to recurrent and overhead expenditures, pointing out that the 2011 budget hardly showed any marked departure from the trend, despite the pledge by the National Assembly for a 30 percent reduction. Indicting the leadership at the various levels of government, Anya noted that “prominent political actors must know that we are at a historical conjuncture where demography, economics and social dynamics suggest that unless there is a drastic redirection of our fiscal operations, the judgment of history will be harsh.”
Although the usual pledge was given by government, we have not seen anything to indicate that any lessons were learnt from the report and if indications from the states are any guide, it is very clear the governors are not paying any attention with some of them appointing over a thousand personal aides!
Regardless of whether he actually meant what he said or not, I believe that the Turaki Adamawa has offered a roadmap worth examining if we are not to remain a rent-dependent economy and a people on a bus ride to nowhere. And on this page I am going to be exploring his thesis in all its ramifications.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 29th September 2011