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Why state governments cannot pay

By Dele Sobowale

 “Many states have been unable to pay salaries because for the past three months , what is being given to them is not enough. That is where the challenge of paying salaries is coming from…”, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State, PUNCH, September 25, 2013.

Governor Uduaghan earned my respect during his first term when he boldly warned his people about preparing for a future Delta State without oil. It was almost sacrilegious. Who ever wanted to contemplate such a future with so much oil still in the ground to be lifted? Even the Governors Commissioners, who clapped with gusto, were skeptical about such a prospect. Nationally, the Governor might as well have been talking to cows – for all the attention he received. Nigerians have demonstrated that if there is anything they don’t want to think about, it is a future without oil – because it will require a vast amount of effort to build such a future.

But, like it or not, two things are well known about the future. First, the future will always come and it will always be different from today. Part of the future, about which Uduaghan warned us in 2007, is already here – six years after he sounded the alarm. And it is beginning to look unpleasant and frightening to those who can peer into more of the future. For the first time, since 1999, when Nigeria’s crude oil price started on an escalator, and volumes also climbed steadily, bringing unprecedented wealth to the country, Nigeria can no longer count on rising aggregate oil revenue. On the contrary, we are now faced with the real prospect of a decline in crude oil income for 2014.

“We have met the enemy and they are ours”, Oliver H. Perry, 1785-1819. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p 48).

But, even “Prophet” Uduaghan, could not, in his wildest imagination, have assumed that Nigerians would constitute the architects of their own misfortune. He probably thought that the world might need less crude; other nations could discover crude oil in their backyards and the nations of the Middle East which were facing embargoes would be allowed to join the crude market once again. All these had actually occurred; but the most important reason crude oil exports had become unreliable as a revenue source can be captured in two words – “oil theft”. Never in the history of Nigeria, and perhaps any nation, not at war, had so much of a nation’s revenue downfall been traceable to criminal activities by its own people with the government appearing to be totally helpless to check the trend.

However, that is only part of the story. The other reasons, again self-inflicted include incredible and unrelenting corruption at all levels. From Customs to Immigration to FRSC, the government loses billions of naira to criminals, in and out of government. The wealthy seldom pay their share of the tax – if at all. But, the “mother of all corruption is associated with crude oil export and fuel imports” – both under the Ministry of Petroleum; whose Minister is apparently untouchable.

Unlike governments elsewhere, which get going when the going gets tough, the Federal government of Nigeria had simply adjusted to its impotence in the face of relentless assault by oil thieves.

Next to corruption is extravagant waste. Governor Uduaghan, understandably, ignored the culture of profligacy which had developed in Nigeria since 1999. “Fish rots from the head” and the culture of deliberate waste starts from the Presidency and works its way down to the Local Government level. The President of Nigeria has ten aircraft in his fleet of planes; the British Prime Minister has none; Presidents of nations, far richer than Nigeria have no more than one. But, Jonathan has ten. When it comes to cars, it is almost impossible to count the number of cars which come under the Presidential fleet. UK Prime Minister has only four. The governors of states have, without exception, copied the profligacy of the President. Like prodigal sons, which most of them are, including the progressives, they spend public funds in ways that would scandalise American governors despite the fact that we copied the constitution of the United States. No American governor, of any state, owns a plane for his personal use as governor. Governor Suntai of Taraba State, one of the poorest states in Nigeria, not only spent public funds to buy a plane, he went and crashed it, then proceeded to spend even more money to treat himself for being reckless. The excuse given by our governors for their ridiculous expenditure is most laughable.

When it comes to cars, even the most self-restrained governor in Nigeria will make the Swedish Head of State appear a pauper. One governor has over seventy of the most expensive cars in his fleet – each with a driver attached. They claim they need them for their jobs. But, most states in America are larger than Nigerian states and many have more than one airport. No state in Nigeria has more than one airport, except Lagos. So where in their states are they heading for in their planes?

The frequent visits of our governors out of state, usually to Abuja, are totally unconnected with the governance of their states. Instead, they are mostly concerned with their party politics. Apart from having no planes to fly, American governors will not dare travel at tax payers expense just to attend the meeting of their political parties. Added to that inexcusable use of public funds is the amount of funds they spend when attending purely private functions. Let me draw attention to a very recent example.

The regrettable death of Dr Olusegun Agagu, the former governor of Ondo State had resulted in Federal Ministries and State Governments spending huge sums of public money to mourn him. Then each state governor had again, either gone to Ibadan personally, with a large delegation, or had sent many people to the event. This is not an exception; it is the rule. Yet, compared to best governance practices everywhere else, this is totally uncalled for. In my ten years in the US, not once was one cent of public money on such ventures.

The number of Commissioners and Special Advisers each of them appoints could not possibly be considered by an American governor and retain his job for long. One governor, a progressive for that matter, appointed over 1000 Special Assistants and was hailed by the “progressive” media for that fiscal lunacy; that is in addition to over fifteen Commissioners. Yet, for all the waste, there is very little achievement to justify the expenditure.

The prize for stupidity in governance, however, should be claimed by the governor who promised and started to pay anybody over 70 years in his state N10,000 per month – for nothing. Granted, many advanced countries operate a welfare system, but it is based on the fact that millions of their people are employed and they can support the old and unemployed. The governor who wants to pay idle old people governs one of the poorest states in Nigeria and unemployment there is very high. Yet, on that shaky foundation he proposes to build a viable welfare system which is sustainable. We wait to see how that will work now that revenue is certain to decline and expenses remain high because many of the same states governed by people spending money like drunken sailors are also highly indebted. Creditors will deduct their money at source.

From now on, the states will be hot for governors –especially those up for re-election in 2014. Unless things suddenly change for the better, even the 2015 elections have already been decided.
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