By Dele Sobowale
“If we were a soft society then we would already have perished. A soft people will vote for those who promised a soft way out, when in truth there is none. There is nothing Singapore gets for free, even our water we pay for…”
Lee Kuna Yew, in ‘FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST’, p 53.
NOTE: What follows should not in any way be mis-construed as a contradiction with the earlier position that the 2017 Budget offers hope for recovery.
We still stand by that.
But, there is no perfect budget. One can be generally positive while at the same time questioning some provisions in the document.
This is one programme to which Sunday Vanguard strongly objects.
Some events are simply acts of God.
On Saturday December 31, 2016, at the residence of the publisher of Vanguard, on a shelf was a copy of Lee Kuan Yew’s global best seller which many people had written and talked about – but few ever read. It was time to read it from page to page in the hope that there might be some insights in it for Nigeria. I was an undergraduate reading Economics in the United States when in August 1965 the majority Malaysians physically threw out the minority Chinese and other races and forced them to form a new country – Singapore. It was a small island state with no natural resources, no large population, nothing to build upon. The vast majority of economist in the US gave the new country no more than six months before collapsing. Its per capital income was far less than that of Nigeria. But, by 2000, it had per capita income of over $13,000 per annum – the third highest of any nation in the world.
How did Singapore do it?
By January 3, 2017 when the newspapers announced that “Buhari begins N5000 payment to one million poor Nigerians”, I had raced past page 53 of Yew’s book and it had become clear that one of the reasons tiny Singapore swept mighty Nigeria aside and rose to the top was the fact that right from the start, Yew had impressed it on his people that “We cannot live by the begging bowl.”
By contrast, that aspect of the Social Intervention Programme, SIP, has now legalised a million Nigerians living on the begging bowl. Buhari’s government had legalised paid idleness – all because it must stubbornly redeem a campaign promise which should not have been made in the first place.
What on earth can justify legalised paid idleness in a poor country?
How many other poor countries of the world, tax the workers, collect revenue from productive exports, borrow from foreign and domestic sources, only to turn around and give away a significant percentage of the proceeds of hard work and honest labour by the many to the unemployed few?
Has it even occurred to the framers of this “free money” programme that millions of workers in Nigeria earn less than the N5,000 they will give to the loafers every month? Why not give the money to them as extra?
Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948, father of independent India, had warned us that among the things that would destroy us are: “wealth without work.”
Since it became independent in 1948, India has had more people living in poverty than the entire population of Nigeria at any one point in time. Even today, with its economy humming along at close to seven per cent per annum the nation has never given away free money to idle people to stimulate its economy. Indeed, if giving away free money is all that is required to lift an economy out of recession and sustainable economic growth then India and China have more millions of people to do it than Nigeria. Why have they not adopted free money as economic policy?
To start with, the policy represents the triumph of bad politics over good economics – as well as the verdict of our own history.
Most of us now vaguely remember the “Free Education Programme” in the old Western Region which started under late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Today, in the same region, now carved into seven states (Ogun. Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Edo and Delta) education that is free is not good; what is good is not free. That should tell us what to expect when any government encourages any segment of its population to “live by the begging bowl.”
Free money is nothing more than entrenchment of the “begging bowl” mentality. It does not confer dignity on the recipients; it only buys votes for politicians.
It won’t even help to alleviate poverty. Globally, those living in poverty had been defined as those living on less than two dollars ($2) a day. Giving N5000 per month amounts to giving, at Central Bank rates forty seven cents ($0.47) per day; and at parallel market rates, thirty four cents ($0.34). How on earth does that take them out of poverty? It simply makes no sense. And the N5 billion per month or N60 billion per annum is only 0.008 of the budget for this year and less than 0.001 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, GDP. Either way, it will not even cause a ripple in the economy. So, it cannot be dictated by economics.
Furthermore, starting this inevitably socially and economically destructive programme demonstrates that government knows that Nigerians are soft people, unlike Singaporeans. That millions of Nigerians actually voted for a government which had promised us a soft way out of the problems we face is an indication of the Nigerian mentality – the something for nothing mentality.
When Yew said “There is nothing Singapore gets for free”, he reminded me of my Economics 100 lecturer at the university, who started every Freshman class with the same anecdote ending with a punch-line: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Nigerians stupidly vote for those promising a lot of free things. Politicians capitalise on the pervasive lack of sense to tell us what we like to hear and not what we must know.
That explains why by the time Buhari was Head of State in 1984, Singapore, without oil, had already passed Nigeria, the world’s sixth largest oil producer, in terms of per capita income and was a more highly respected economic entity than the Giant of Africa. No government of Singapore will ever consider giving free money to idle people because it makes no economic sense in the long term.
Perhaps the most important reason this programme makes no sense is that it has an expiry date. In a nation where abandoned projects run into thousands nationwide, free money will, at best, last as long as the Buhari regime since no other President made the promise to the people. It might even not last the entire tenure of the administration.
Several questions arise from this observation: What then will happen to those who have lived on paid idleness when a new government comes into power and deletes the programme? Will the people then have to develop the self-reliance they have lacked during the years of paid idleness?
At any rate, what stops the same government, after being elected to the second term, from abolishing the project – since the peoples’ votes will no longer be needed? It has happened before. Some of the present state governors, re-elected to second terms, announced education policies which the people had not anticipated. Suddenly, states stopped paying WAEC and JAMB fees; school fees were introduced; tertiary institution fees were increased – among other measures which ignored the “begging bowl” mentality they have fostered when it promoted their political ambitions.
In fact, if anything is certain about the future, it is the abolition of this programme which will bring out the worst in Nigerians.
IS IT FAIR TO ALL?
Now, we turn to other related issues, especially politics and equity.
How is it possible to choose one million out of 80 million poor people in Nigeria without bringing subjective considerations into the matter. Mr Laolu Akande, the spokesman for the Vice President, who made several questionable statements (e.g School feeding programme starting in December when nobody can verify the claim), disclosed that the funds for three states had been released to the Nigerian Inter-Bank Settlement system – whatever that is. He was careful not to disclose how much was released.
That was probably deliberate. Full disclosure had not been a strong point in the Social Intervention Programme, SIP, which is being managed like the Peoples Democratic Party’s “family affair”.
The first three states, according to Akande are: Borno, Kwara and Bauchi – all controlled by the All Progressives Congress, APC, and all in the North. Perhaps it was a coincidence. A closer look at the list of states slated to benefit from the first roll out indicates a more deliberately politically skewed programme. The breakdown shows that the zonal allocations are as follows:
So twice as many states in the North will benefit from the programme than Southern states which provide the bulk of oil revenue and tax receipts on which the nation depends for survival.
That is not all, the Vice President and his advisers on this give-away programme had ensured that the top officials in the Executive and legislative branches, as well as “favorite son’s” state, Kaduna, had been included in the first list of states. States from which the President, Vice President, Senate President, Deputy Senate President had been dutifully included – while most of the nation’s “Cash Cows” – Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Edo, Lagos, Ondo and Rivers had been excluded. The Vice President and his advisers must be laboring under the fallacious impression that there is a state in Nigerian where there are no poor people. Lagos with a population of twenty million, mostly unemployed, probably has more destitute people than the entire population of some of the states included. Not a kobo will come here. Instead, Lagosians are supposed to watch while the poor in the VP’s state next door receive attention.
That is not all; a further breakdown of the states presents this picture based on the political party controlling the states.
That by itself should raise the issue of whether they are actually trying to eradicate poverty or paying off their debts to “political stalwarts”. So, this is not only a case of “robbing Peters to pay Pauls”, it is so blatantly unfair one would have to find another word other than fraudulent to describe it.
There are too many facts pointing to the fact that the selections did not coincidentally favour a predetermined group’ it is the sort of happenstance that could trigger a political uproar any time soon. The programme is not even entirely new. One of the first measures of the PDP under President Obasanjo was to launch a Poverty Alleviation Programme, PAP, in 1999, with N10 billion to prosecute the progarmme of assisting poor Nigerians. Till today nobody can account for the money and the number of Nigerians living in poverty actually increased. Why?
“Every great enterprise [especially politically motivated] starts off with enthusiasm for an exalted aim and ends up bogged down in petty politics”, according to Charles Peguy, 1873-1914. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 49). It was entirely political – just like this one. Nobody undertook a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate that it would be socially beneficial in the end. It is a safe bet that this programme based on the wrong economic foundations will end up in hot disagreements without achieving any of its aims. Anything that makes no economic sense cannot last; and, this will not – unless Nigeria, unlike Singapore, does not pay for everything.
At least, we are beginning to understand why Nigeria might never reach First World status. We don’t have First World economic/political managers in charge of policy. The sooner we developed them and put them in charge of key programmes, like SIP, with its enormous potentials for stimulating economic growth the better for us. Right now, the mentality concerning this particular programme has not risen above that which has left us undeveloped for so long.
“When those in office regard the power vested in them as personal prerogative, they inevitably enrich themselves, promote their families, favour their friends”, wrote Yew. A programme which has the states from which the President, Vice President, Senate President, Deputy Senate President and Speaker of the National Assembly, among its first set of beneficiaries cannot be fair to the rest of us. It is tainted with too much self-seeking at the expense of the generality of the people.
P.S. Just before sending this article to the Sunday Editor, Governor Fayose had disclaimed that people in Ekiti received any money. That is only the beginning of what could become a political tsunami regarding this particular programme. The presidency has denied his claims. Buhari and those who advised him on this one are in for a political war which will rob it of any political advantage they expected to get out of it. It will also most probably end up in a probe because it lacks transparency and accountability.