It is often rare to see a member of the National Assembly or its leadership give a listening ear to the call for a drastic reduction in the cost of governance in the country. They are not alone. Successive administrations and political appointees have been living a life of obscene luxury and profligacy for several years now. This has made our democracy perhaps the most expensive in the world. But the outbreak of the Coronavirus(COVID-19) pandemic appears to be waking us up to the grim reality that poor governance will eventually catch up with countries that have failed to be prudent in the management of resources, and indeed, cut their coats according to their cloths. It’s all evident now, no thanks to COVID-19 that have upended everything in such a way we never imagined, the global economy and healthcare systems.
Just imagine how much the National Assembly would have spent in renovating the legislative complex if the outbreak of the virus had not happened. Think about how much we are told each legislator receives as salary every month, excluding sundry allowances. The present budget of the National Assembly is ridiculous and needs to be reviewed downwards. Do you also know that if COVID-19 had not unleashed itself on the global space, and the 2020 budget was to be implemented according to the financial estimates, the presidency would have had the luxury to spend a humogous N3.5billion on travel and food, a figure that is more than double what it spent in 2019? Of this amount, N775million was voted for local travel. This amount excludes refreshment and meals for the President and his household, according to Premium Times report, an online publication.
Now that the economy is in a frozen state, with fiscal deficits alone in the budget up by over N5trillion, and national debt inching closer to N28trillion, squeezing out value for every kobo by cutting down cost of governance has become imperative. It’s time to delete unnecessary expenditures on our recurrent budget. No longer should political expediency supersede other priorities. More than ever before, this is the right time to plan in a sectoral way by reallocating priorities. Our policymakers should be up and doing at this time by advising the government properly. This is the time to look at a multiplicity of sources of revenue, remove wastes because our growth dropped significantly even before the outbreak of the COVID-19. Of course, the 2020 budget needs to be retooled again.
All of this makes the call last week, by the Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila that COVID-19, has offered Nigeria “best opportunity” to reduce cost of governance and diversify the economy, worthy of our attention. According to him, a drastic reduction in the cost of governance is one positive option to start the economy back to the path of recovery. Also, last week, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning Mrs Zainab Ahmed disclosed that President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the implementation of a report of a committee on Rationalisation of government agencies, otherwise, known as Steve Oronsaye report. The committee was set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan, but its recommendations were ignored by the present administration, six years after the White Paper was released.
The committee had recommended, among other things, a reduction in the number of statutory agencies, from 263 to 161. The committee also reviewed the size of the government, the merging of some with identified duplication of functions/roles. The Finance Minister admitted that the cost of governance in the country may be the highest in the world. Very possible. The President’s approval is said to have been forwarded to the Head of Service(HoS) and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). One caveat here : Government should be wary of the antics of the political elite who may have begun underground moves to scuttle the plan.
Last October, when acute financial crisis became imminent, President Buhari took the first sensible step to cut cost of governance by slashing estacodes enjoyed by government officials and the size of delegation for Ministers. According to the directive issued by the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, all public-funded travels (local and foreign) must be strictly for official purpose only, and must be supported by documentary evidence. Henceforth, when a minister is head of delegation, the size of such delegation should not exceed four, including relevant director, schedule officer and one aide of the minister.
Also, Ministries, Departments and Agencies(MDAs) will submit their yearly travel costs for statutory meeting and engagements to the office of the SGF or Head of Service(HoS). The government said the directive has become necessary to curb leakages and ensure efficiency in the management of resources. In addition, the Auditor General of the Federation directed to treat all expenditures that contravene these guidelines as illegal. Other cost-saving measures aimed at instilling financial prudence and discipline. The president’s action is in line with repeated calls by Nigerians for a drastic downward review of the salaries and allowances of political. State governors to take similar step, including their own outrageous allowances such as the so-called ‘Security vote’ and other pecks of office. What we have seen so far from few governors was a 50 percent slash in the salaries of their political appointees. They should set a record of good example by voluntarily giving up their numerous pecks of office especially that unaccounted cesspool of corruption called “security vote”. Some state governors appropriate over N6bn monthly for themselves as security vote.
The time for a drastic cut in the cost of governance is now because our economy can no longer support opulence lifestyle of our political officeholders and other appointees of government.The nation’s dwindling revenue can hardly carry this financial load. Our democracy is becoming too expensive especially when the majority of the people is groaning under the weight of extreme poverty. Social infrastructure in the country has deteriorated, the nation’s debt profile is increasing while the amount for debt servicing is on the rise as well.
Therefore, the need for fiscal prudence has become necessary. It is heartening that the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission(RMAFC) is considering a downward review of the remuneration and allowances of political officeholders to reflect the present economic realities in the country. The debate over the salaries and allowances of legislators remains unresolved. Section 84(1-3) of the 1999 Constitution(as amended) stipulates the remuneration and other entitlements of the National Assembly members. Now that the Coronavirus pandemic has woken us up, there is need to streamline the wages and allowances by political officials and workers in certain government organisations.
The Presidential Committee on the review of salaries of political officeholders should go a step further and consider other factors that have led to high cost of governance. Statistics show that between 2014 and 2018, the 36 states in the federation budgeted over N14 trn for salaries, allowances, overheads. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) advised the Federal Government to reduce high cost of governance and end what the Fund called the “financial recklessness of those in political office”. That advice is even more relevant today than ever before. Since 2015 when the the Committee led by Abdullahi Inde was set up to review the Remuneration Act 2008, which prescribes the salaries and allowances for political, judicial and other public officeholders, little has been heard of its recommendations. Our politicians should show leadership by example by voluntarily giving up part of their salaries as the President and the vice president did by reducing their salaries three years ago. There is no justification to continue to pay outrageous salaries and other pecks to political officeholders when the economy is wobbling and revenues of goverments at all levels have declined drastically.