States, public spending and citizens

States, public spending and citizens

Last week, I wrote about the need for Nigerians to pay more attention to what their state governors are doing, if we are to save our present and future. There is every reason to stay on the matter a bit more. And a few news items in the last few weeks and a further reflection about similar stories in years past make this choice imperative.

More importantly, Nigerians need a lot more reminders to realise that the rot may be right under their roofs, where they can influence change than from a more distant level of governance. This should not be mistaken though, for an attempt to discourage a focus on what is happening at the centre.

Last week, words came out that the Akwa Ibom State government had demanded world football legend, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele) to return $300,000 the state paid him for services not rendered. From the news, Pele was paid the money, as ‘appearance fee’ for him to join other international dignitaries at the inauguration of the beautiful stadium in Uyo nicknamed the ‘Nest of Champions’. It turned out that Pele did not make the event and some news reports suggest that the ‘no show’ was apparently caused by the change in date for the event.

The contractual obligations and other legal issues are left for the state and Pele or his agents to sort out, and one hopes that such would be done speedily. But it opens up discussions as to how a state government could so easily part with money to pay for something that has an infinitesimal, if any utility to the citizens. Pele was meant to join Presidents John Dramani Mahama of Ghana and Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, as well as former Ghanaian president, Jerry John Rawlings at the stadium opening. With last week’s news report, many would wonder how much more may have been spent by the state in ensuring the presence of these other dignitaries who obviously did not attend at their personal costs.

The sad thing is that today, Akwa Ibom State is said to be running a monthly deficit of N5.27billion based on facts published by BudgiT, a civic organisation involved with budget data analysis. This fact is arrived from the records of allocation from the federation account, including oil derivation and from internally-generated revenue for 2015 and the average recurrent expenditure projection for the current year. This figure may be even more damaging, given that the revenues accruing to each state from the federation account has dipped significantly this year due to poor oil prices and low level of oil production outputs caused by militancy in the Niger Delta.

Just thinking about what $300,000 could have paid for in Akwa Ibom State at the time of that gift would jangle the mind. Even at the exchange rate of say N180 to the dollar (at about the time of the event), that would give us N54m but at today’s exchange rate that would be more than N100milliion. That would have been enough to sink at least two boreholes in each of the 31 local government areas of the state to provide safe water for the rural poor, for instance. But it had to be spent to bring Pele to add pomp to an already grand event in an equally grand football stadium. Even the cost of the stadium itself and the utility to the state was questioned back then, knowing that the stadium only has facilities for one game – football – and no other sports.

But Akwa Ibom State is not alone in this unrestrained spending. It is a national trend that shows up in every state. Take the case of Jigawa State that receives an average of N3.1billion in revenue each month. It spends N5.18billion each month, leaving it with a monthly debt of N2.05billion. The natural question to ask is what the expenditure covers. One of such spending heads is the construction of 90 new mosques across the state!  According to the Permanent Secretary, Administration and Finance, Office of the Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Muhammad Musa, three mosques would be constructed in each of the 30 constituencies of the state.

I am unable to confirm how much would go into that project and if it was in the state’s approved budget this year but I do not see the justification for that.  First is the fact that the state should really have little or nothing to do with citizens’ private lives for which religion is. In any event, who did the survey to know that Jigawa State has a problem of inadequacy of mosques and that an equal number of mosques is needed in each state constituency?

I am certain that the needs of the state would be better met if that amount is committed to hiring and training more teachers, construction of classrooms or construction of health centres in each constituency. But our government officials know very well that religion opiates the people, hence they always love to grandstand with ‘support’ to the dominant religion in their location. That is what is playing out in Jigawa.

In Ebonyi State, the present government uncovered a bizarre situation about 838 ghost workers whose bogus work description was to serve as cemetery attendants! Whoever came up with such smart sense of stealing public funds must also have a morbid sense of humour. But the shocking part of the revelation is that the state has no public cemetery as the only such cemetery in the state is run by the church.

What clearly played out was that someone did something smart. The operation and maintenance of public cemetery is the constitutional duty of local governments. Most local governments in the country would therefore have expenditure head for salaries to cemetery attendants, so someone inserted that into the Ebonyi State payroll with a long list of such attendants. I doubt if any state in Nigeria could even have that number of cemetery attendants anyway.

There seems to be a crazy competition among states over who has the most outrageous ideas for spending. Sokoto State sure cannot be left behind and so in 2013, they came up with this idea to construct a wall (or perimeter fence) around the government house. And all of N772million was allocated to that “in view of the security challenges confronting the nation and the north in particular”, according to the state government then. We are indeed a country of superlative underperformance.

The one area we hardly underperform and underspend is when it comes to spending on our over-pampered public officers to which our state governors are a major part of. That explains why they fix for themselves such sumptuous after-the-performance goodies that could mean breaking a bank to meet the cost. Last week, news came that the immediate past governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole is to join the ranks of former state governors whose fangs have permanently been plugged on the necks of their states to perpetually suck life out of them. This follows the state house of assembly’s speedily passage of the governor and deputy governor pension bill which provides for residential building worth N200million among other benefits for the ex-governor. These so-called retirement packages for state governors are similar to the laws passed by many other states.

It seems therefore that our state administrations have gone off the rails and must be rescued and brought back on the right path. Citizens need to ask questions about everything but more importantly about revenue and appropriation. The point must be made that there is no such thing as ‘government money’. Every money and resource with such description actually means ‘state’s money’ or ‘community money’.

The elite class of the society, even when they know of the maladministration at the state level are too comfortable and too congenial with the irresponsible ruling class that they often stand aloof while their states are raped. It is better to look to other members of the society such as those in community associations like age grades and town unions. Those ones are known to resist the irresponsible spending of their community money and often put their leaders to task on the management of resources. The time has come for these same people to regard the resources of their respective states as a common wealth and show more interest in how they are managed. They must set priorities and ensure that they are used based on such priority. Anything to the contrary is tantamount to robbery by the ruling class.

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Written by
Obo Effanga
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