By Tonnie Iredia
During the recent fuel subsidy controversy, the government side rightly challenged Labour to name any item other than fuel whose price had remained unchanged since 2007. It was probably a strong point but the truth is that both the government and her people have the same attitude towards petroleum which in this piece we simply call ‘petroleum mentality’- a mindset which devalues an otherwise precious item.
No one in our country values petroleum; yet it is the live-wire of the nation. While the people think they should pay little or nothing to have it, government often misapplies the revenue it generates. Indeed, rather than invest such revenues for the benefit of society, they are devoted to among other things, the sustenance of an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy.
This seems to explain why inspite of calls from every quarter for a reduction in the cost of governance, nothing substantial has been done about the issue. It was the main exhortation of the Nigerian Labour Congress during the last May Day celebration.
Even the friends of government have similarly spoken to no avail. Before he left office as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council, General T. Y. Danjuma made the same point and in fact specifically recommended a reduction in the number of ministries, departments and agencies.
It is not that government didn’t hear the calls; it is just that as an oil-rich nation which collects revenue from a source to which it invests nothing, we can take our time with our handling of anything including our exorbitant cost of governance.
It can be argued that our point is essentially an alarm that has been overtaken by events as government has since constituted a panel on the subject under the chairmanship of Mr Steve Oronsaye a former Head of the civil Service of the federation. But the Oronsaye panel is restricted to Parastatals, Agencies and Commissions.
Its main task is to examine critically the mandates of such specified government bodies and determine areas of overlap or duplication of functions and make appropriate recommendations in order to eliminate them.
The panel is therefore not expected to look into the core bureaucracy-the civil service -which is where the main problem is located. If for instance, the core civil service had been diligent in supervising the Parastatals under it, all the shortcomings in such bodies for which a panel was constituted would not have arisen.
The truth really is that the civil service gets so much funds but does little work. Over the years, it has become over-bloated because of our petroleum mentality. At independence in 1960, there were only 72,000 employees but in 2000 when we did some research on the body, there were 1.2million employees. At that time, the federal government had 26 ministries.
Today, it is not quite easy to know the exact number as they have been experimented upon variously since then. While some have been merged, demerged and remerged, others have had their schedules and names changed making it difficult for anyone to speak with authority about the exact number of ministries. What appears certain for now is that there are 43 ministers made up of 36 representing the states, one from the federal capital territory Abuja and 6 others representing the geopolitical zones of the country.
We are of the opinion that to so constitute such a large cabinet the way other nations make up their parliament is suggestive of profligacy. The argument by government that it is a constitutional matter is neither entirely true nor articulate. Oh yes, we must have 37 Ministers because Section 147(3) of our Constitution mandates the President to appoint one Minister from each State who shall be an indigene of such State.
Any additional figure to 37 is therefore discretionary and not a constitutional mandate. We are thus free to imagine that the reason why the PDP led federal government has since 1999 being appointing 6 additional ministers is part of our petroleum mentality. The argument that the additional Ministers represent the six geopolitical zones is not persuasive because the zones are not known to law making the argument only an excuse for absurdity.
At a time like this when we are finding it difficult to fund capital projects, because our resources have been over-stretched, it is expedient to identify the several useful options open to the nation.
To start with, government should immediately through an ordinary administrative fiat reduce our bloated list of Ministers by 6. By so doing, the cost of maintaining those ministers and their aides would be saved without offending the constitution.
Second, the executive branch should immediately initiate a bill to the National Assembly to amend section147 of the constitution so that the President will no longer be under compulsion to appoint as many as 37 Ministers. Thereafter, a moderate cabinet of not more than 20 members should be constituted.
It is because we have too many Ministers that some are in charge of ‘special duties’. If we trim the cabinet to size, every duty will fall within one ministry or the other. But if we persist in keeping to the present arrangement, we may continue to have as many as 3 Ministers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with some handling frivolities like “pilgrim affairs”.
It is therefore not unlikely that the reason why we have so many ministries is to find where to deploy our large cabinet. Otherwise, the Ministry of Aviation for example is a clear anomaly because aviation is just a form of transportation. Since we have a Ministry of Transport, it is superfluous to have another one for air transportation known as Ministry of Aviation.
To use the Ministry of Aviation as a good example of one Ministry that should go is particularly significant because it currently has a Minister, Princess Stella Oduah who has transformed many of our airports to the applause of all.
She probably also won the hearts of many when she put British duplicity to check over the reciprocal deals between British and Nigerian airlines.
She has no doubt been good. But that does not mean we should allow aviation unit to run as a full ministry. No, the Aviation Ministry should be scrapped while Minister Oduah who has proven to be an achiever should take charge of the entire transportation industry.
What we have said so far about the need to reduce Ministers must not be understood to mean that the excessive weight of the executive branch of government is caused by only that class.
Far from that- it is just the starting point of a number of articles dedicated to prompting government to drastically reduce the cost of governance so as to free ample resources to improve the material wellbeing of our people.
In subsequent articles, we shall examine the role of the adviser and the large number of permanent secretaries in the bureaucracy. As a teaser, note that in the office of the Head of Service alone, there are 6 Permanent secretaries. Why? Because Nigeria has a petroleum mentality which holds her hostage to big government and poor service delivery.