By Olu Fasan
LAST month, on May 1, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the implementation of the Oronsaye Report on the rationalisation of federal parastatals and agencies six years after it was submitted to his predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan.
Recently, in his Democracy Day speech, President Buhari said he approved the implementation of the report because of dwindling resources caused by collapse of crude oil prices and the costs of COVID-19. So, economic realities are the trigger for the decision.
Yet, President Buhari’s sudden resort to the Oronsaye report is flawed in three significant ways. First, the decision lacks credibility; second, it is too late; and third, it is too little! Take the credibility issue first. It stretches credulity that President Buhari pontificates on the cost of governance when he has run a very profligate government since 2015.
Over the past five years, his administration has indulged in mind-boggling borrowing and spending sprees, taking Nigeria’s external debt from $9.7billion in 2015 to $27 billion by December 2019. The Federal Government’s debt-servicing costs ballooned to 99.2 per cent of its revenues in the first quarter of this year, before COVID-19. Yet, President Buhari recently secured Senate approval for another loan of $5.5billion!
In 2015, Buhari campaigned for president on radically cutting the cost of governance. One of his promises was to sell some of the presidential planes. But, once in government, he abandoned the promise. Nigeria still maintains, at huge running costs, 10 presidential aircraft. Recurrent expenditure was about 70 per cent of Federal Government’s budget before Buhari took over in 2015; today, five years on, it’s still nearly 70 per cent.
Over the past five years, the Buhari administration has created several commissions and agencies. In his first term, President Buhari had 36 ministers; in his second, he ratcheted the number up to 43. His party’s manifesto in last year’s presidential election promised to create two new government-owned banks, six regional industrial parks, six special economic zones and 109 special products and processing centres – effectively more parastatals and agencies! It’s big state writ large!
Recently, the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo said: “There is no question that we are dealing with large and expensive government.” But he blamed the federal legislators who would not vote to make themselves part-time legislators. True. But what about the costs emanating from the executive that could be addressed without the legislature, such as selling off some of the presidential planes and reducing the number of non-statutory agencies? What about reining in the excessive borrowings and spending? Sadly, the Buhari government has played lip service to the cost-of-governance problem, and, thus, lacks credibility on the issue.
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Let’s turn to the second flaw. Even if there is no credibility problem with the decision to implement the Oronsaye report, why now? Why not since 2015? The Oronsaye report identified 263 statutory bodies and recommended they should be reduced to 161. But even if President Buhari wants to abolish just one, he needs legislation to do it. Yet, he said the report should be implemented “possibly by October this year.” How? Maybe he has secured the support of his party’s legislators in the National Assembly to push through the dissolution of statutory bodies swiftly. But history tells us it’s not a child’s play.
Several years ago, I wrote a report for the Nigerian Ports Authority entitled: “Port and harbour development in Nigeria”. In researching the report, I gained valuable insights into the problem of multiple agencies in Nigerian ports. There were 29 government agencies involved in the inspection and clearance of goods at the ports.
A Presidential Order by President Olusegun Obasanjo to reduce the number of the agencies to five was ignored. Why? Well, the legislators and powerful interest groups colluded to stop any of the statutory bodies from being dissolved. They argued that each of them had a good reason to exist. Truth is, abolishing statutory bodies, with vested interests tied to them, is often highly politicised and resisted.
President Buhari should have submitted a bill to the National Assembly since 2015 to dissolve or merge statutory agencies and work constructively with the legislators to get it passed. But he spent his first term in a gridlock with the legislature. Now, with barely two years of any real governance left, before politicking for the 2023 general elections kicks in, he would have to work extremely hard to get even a single statutory agency abolished.
But here’s the third flaw. Even if the decision to implement the Oronsaye report is not too late, then it’s too little! For a start, what does President Buhari mean by the “Oronsaye report”? Does he mean the report itself, as submitted by Steve Oronsaye in 2014, or the Government’s White Paper on it? If he means the White Paper, well, about 90 per cent of the recommendations were rejected or merely “noted”! So, what’s the point?
Yet, even if President Buhari means the full Oronsaye report, the truth is that, apart from the legislative challenges highlighted above, it’s not the solution to Nigeria’s cost-of-governance problem. In 2014, the report estimated there were 541 federal parastatals and agencies, but a recent World Bank study identified 821 federal agencies.
Truth is, Nigeria is administratively over-governed. The problems are structural, and key questions must be confronted. Does Nigeria need the expensive presidential system? Does it need a bicameral or full-time legislature at the centre? Does it need 36 barely viable states, each of which has expensive administrative structures? Can it afford the unnecessary duplications between the federal and state governments, and, indeed, between states within the same geo-political zone? These questions must be addressed within the context of restructuring Nigeria.
But President Buhari is not interested in restructuring. Yet, if he cares about radically reducing the cost of governance, and not just paying lip service to the problem, he must embrace restructuring Nigeria. For therein lies the solution, not in the Oronsaye report. It is passé!