March 14, 2024

Oronsaye report is a distraction; Nigeria needs holistic restructuring, by Olu Fasan

Olu Fasan

Olu Fasan

THERE was much hoopla when the Bola Tinubu administration recently announced that it would implement the 12-year-old report of the Stephen Oronsaye committee on the rationalisation of federal parastatals and agencies. The extensive media coverage and public commentaries suggested the announcement was a game changer.

Sadly, it is yet another evidence that Nigeria majors in the minor and minors in the major; leaving leprosy to treat rashes. While Nigeria desperately needs root-and-branch structural changes, it always tinkers at the edges of reforms. The Oronsaye report is too peripheral in the face of Nigeria’s deep-seated structural challenges, and the much-hyped plan to implement it is a distraction. 

But we must start with the irony of Tinubu’s purported commitment to cut the cost of governance by implementing the Oronsaye report. Here’s a president with the largest cabinet in Nigerian history; a president who led the world’s third-largest delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 28, last year; a president who recently led 38 people, including two of his children, on a “state visit” to Qatar.

Surely, this is a profligate big-state president, not one that cares a hoot about the cost of governance. In defending his large cabinet, Tinubu said: “Many people are getting employment, and we should not see it as over bloated.” So, how come he now wants to merge or scrap government agencies, which, if credibly implemented, must lead to job losses? 

Previous governments dithered and failed to implement the Oronsaye report because it was a political hot potato. President Goodluck Janathan inaugurated the committee in 2011 and received its report in 2012. The committee identified 541 federal agencies and recommended scrapping or merging 220 of them; it also recommended reducing the statutory agencies from 263 to 161. But in its White Paper, the Jonathan administration rejected or merely “noted” about 90 per cent of the recommendations. In 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that he would implement the Oronsaye report, citing “dwindling resources and rising cost of governance”. But despite setting up three different committees, Buhari did not implement the report before he left office on May 29 last year.

Now, however, Tinubu has vowed to succeed where his predecessors failed. On February 28, Tinubu ordered the “full implementation” of the Oronsaye report, and subsequently, on March 7, set up an implementation committee, giving it 12 weeks to submit its report. As I said earlier, President Buhari set up three committees: one, led by Goni Aji, reviewed the Oronsaye report; another, led by Amal Pepple, reviewed agencies established from 2014 to 2021; and the third, chaired by Ebele Okeke, published a White Paper on the reports of the first two committees in 2022. Given the work done by the Buhari committees, the Tinubu implementation committee should not start from ground zero. Thus, the real questions are: Can Tinubu “fully implement” the Oronsaye report? And even if he could, would that make a huge difference to Nigeria’s acute cost-of-governance problem and structural challenges? 

Take the first question. By promising “full implementation” of the Oronsaye report, Tinubu gave hostage to fortune. For “full implementation” presupposes scrapping or merging 220 of the 541 federal agencies identified by the Oronsaye committee and reducing the statutory agencies from 263 to 161. That’s a tall order. Even worse, according to CivicHive, an outfit of BudgIT, the budget transparency NGO, there are currently 929 ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs, in the Federal Government budgetary structure. So, what would Tinubu’s “full implementation” mean considering the astronomical increase in the number of federal parastatals and agencies since the Oronsaye report was published 12 years ago?

Of course, the real battle ahead lies in scrapping or merging the statutory bodies, which requires legislative changes. Many federal legislators are already engaging in special pleadings, arguing that certain agencies should not be abolished or merged. They will fight tooth and nail to protect those agencies if a bill to scrap or merge them goes to the National Assembly. Truth is, once a statutory body is created and powerful vested interests emerge around it, abolishing the agency would be highly politicised and difficult. For instance, since President Obasanjo’s government, presidents have issued Executive Orders to reduce the number of agencies at the ports. But because many of the agencies are statutory bodies, hardly any reduction has taken place. As a result, the problem of multiple agencies, sometimes up to 29, at Nigerian ports remains endemic, imposing huge costs on businesses. 

So, despite the hype, Tinubu can only, at best, partially implement the Oronsaye report. He will not reduce the original 541 agencies, let alone the current 929 MDAs, drastically. He will not reduce the number of statutory agencies or do so significantly. Yet, partial or shallow implementation of the Oronsaye report would simply amount to scratching the surface of the cost-of-governance problem. But that brings us to the second, more fundamental, question: Even if the Oronsaye report is “fully” implemented, is that the ultimate solution to Nigeria’s cost-of-governance problem and structural challenges? The answer is no!

Truth is, Nigeria is administratively over-governed and structurally defective, which fuel the high cost of governance. Thus, unless the administrative and structural defects are addressed, the cost-of-governance problem can’t be decisively tackled. For instance, as discussed in this column last week, does Nigeria need the costly presidential system that everyone accepts is the main cause of Nigeria’s large and expensive government? Does Nigeria need a bicameral or full-time National Assembly whose members are among the highest paid legislators in the world? Does Nigeria need 36 mostly unviable state governments, each with an extensive and expensive administrative structure?

Let’s be clear, it is utterly futile to ‘implement’ the Oronsaye report without restructuring Nigeria. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t only the Oronsaye report that was submitted to the Jonathan administration; the report of the National Conference on the restructuring of Nigeria was also submitted to the government. Any attempt to separate or isolate the Oronsaye report from the National Conference report and similar restructuring reports is tinkering with an existential problem.

Rationalising government parastatals and agencies must be seen in the wider context of political restructuring. The Oronsaye report doesn’t strike at the heart of Nigeria’s deep-rooted cost-of-governance and structural problems. Only holistic restructuring can result in genuine consolidation of administrative and governance structures in Nigeria, not implementing the peripheral Oronsaye report. At least, not doing so in isolation!