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The insolvent state

By Obi Nwakanma

The Federal  government is running on half its lungs: President Buhari’s inability to constitute a government nearly thirty days after taking his own oath of office is worrisome, and does provide some perverse humour for those whose thinking about Nigeria is often in the breach. It is true that the constitution does not give a time bar for when the president can constitute a federal executive council, but the law is quite clear that there shall be an executive council to make for the full governance of the republic.

Aregbesola2Without the executive council in place, appointed and chaired certainly by the president, no government can be said to be running, or functioning, and no financial obligations or policies can be fully entered or catered to by the government. The executive council is a “council” for a reason, and the president, though chief executive of state on whose pleasure any member of the council serves, is not endowed with absolute authority or power. It is an imperative of state governance to put in place this ministerial council as part of the first fundamental obligations of government.

That President Buhari has not been able as at the writing of this column, to announce his ministerial list; and that the 8th Assembly has not even been properly constituted as to demand such a list from the president does say something about an incipient political crisis in Nigeria. I do not wish at this stage to be alarmist, but there is no government in Nigeria. We have an elected president still doing house cleaning, long, long, after the last party. It is not looking good.

There is too much grappling at straws. It just seems like President Buhari is a little too surprised, and a little too startled by the power he now possesses, and with the shocking reality that he no longer is in the position of the critic. This government of the APC is too slow; too full of talk, but no action yet. There is no action because the party seems too fragmented to constitute a common front and govern. No party has yet taken this length of time in supplying a ministerial list to the National Assembly for confirmation. There is talk about empty treasuries and about a national “financial collapse” in the Ahmed Joda document which is now retailed as something of a holy grail.

The Joda document presumably is providing Buhari with a road map through what increasingly seems a murky fiscal and administrative landscape. There is even greater talk about recovering loot from past governments because the current government is far too broke to govern. “The treasury is virtually empty,” so declared President Buhari, in his meeting last week with state governors who came to talk with him about a federal bail-out of states.

“The next three months” the President said to them, “is going to be tough.” But he was quickly countered also last week by the former Minister of National Planning in the Jonathan administration, Mr. Abubakar Sulaiman, who said that the last government did not leave an “empty treasury” or a whopping debt, as has been claimed by the new President, but to the contrary, left $30 billion in government accounts – former education minister, Obi Ezekwesili, was quick to put a lie to that.

The point of this is not about the veracity of the counter claims, but about what it suggests. Nigeria’s national accounts is in the red, and with but skeletal government in place, Nigeria itself is coding – to use a clinical term. All these are worrying signals. But the truly dangerous signals are coming from the states. News around us point to a potentially nation-wide collapse of the states, with growing labour crisis following the inability of these states to meet their basic financial obligations to their workers. Many states went into the elections owing their workers, and the elections are over, and more than 90% of the states are still owing workers, some upwards of four months ofunpaid salaries and arrears.

This is outrageous! Aside from the immorality of owing a labourer his or her due, there is the potential humanitarian crisis that is bound to follow this situation, when government workers who depend on their income are no longer able to put bread on the table for their families, or meet the most basic of their financial obligations, including paying rent, buying schools supplies, paying hospital bills, and doing such quotidian stuff that comes in the way of man. The explosion is going to come and it is going to be loud. It might just be time for voluntary and other civic agencies to organize themselves and stay ready for the longbreadlines that threatens to form, and open the soup kitchens on street corners for the many who are about to lose their jobs.

It is a crisis, and there is no pretending about it. Nigeria has had great opportunities in the last twenty years to prepare itself for this cycle of oil glut and financial drought. What it has done rather well is to waste its chances with government officials living like Ottoman princes. Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, also puts an absurd spin on it. Pressed for comments on Imo’s financial crisis, Anayo Okorocha, who is also chairman of the Association of APC governors said, “it has to do with bad political appointees…we have also been paying ghosts as workers.” Words to that effect. It is ridiculous. It is an indicator of a badly established government in this age of Information Technology to still talk about “ghost workers.”Imo, like other Nigerian states is bankrupt.

These bankrupt states can no longer meet their constitutional obligations. These states are bankrupt for two reasons: one, they have been improperly managed and under-invested; two: many of the states are unviable entities and cannot survive on their own. This issue brings to fore once more, the abiding question of the number of states in Nigeria, each with elaborate bureaucracies, and large government-house budgets, and very little purpose, beyond the show-and-tell. These states should be allowed to atrophy.

The federal government must not be permitted to bail them out. The 8th National Assembly must block that move. To that end, the federal government must on no account rescue the states, but must allow them to collapse financially and become extinct. It is about time that we allowed the natural structure of things to formalize, and go towards a six regional federal system, save up on the administrative cost of running the federation, and dismantle the current boundaries of growth that has limited cross regional mobility and development as a result of the creation of these unviable states. Perhaps it is time to conduct a referendum on this, and President Buhari might make this one of the great agenda of his government, and the 8th National Assembly must aid him in that process. What is going on now is but a tip on the iceberg. As the oil economy becomes increasingly unviable, the Nigerian state will increasingly experience economic and political shocks and spins, and we are merely at its onset. Better now to deal with it by collapsing the states for greater viability and efficiency.

Finally, President Buhari said last week that he is committed to recovering Nigeria’s money stolen by the last administration, and has secured, we have been told, the help of the Americans on this score. We say his efforts must not stop with recovering money only from the last administration; he must probe further backwards because Nigeria has been stolen blind since at least 1985. Her current finances make the quick recovery of any stolen funds urgent and imperative. But more urgent and imperative must be the restructuring of the federation into more viable regional governments. Only viable states must be allowed to survive, the rest must find new partnerships. This is the historical imperative. Call it, if you like, the shock doctrine. We have to triage these unviable states if the federation is to survive as a strong political and economic union.


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