IF he had wanted an alibi, a pretext, a reason, any excuse whatsoever for not paying salaries in a state bedeviled by the chaos, anarchy and the “Nihilism” of the Boko Haram insurgency, many will understand his predicaments and probably forgive or even justify his action.
But Governor Kashim Shettima of Bornu State is not a man to trade in excuses, alibis and apologias for salary non-payment even in a time of war. An agricultural economist, an erudite intellectual and a lover of books—someone I exchange books with and whom I have had cause to buy one or two interesting books each time I travel outside Nigeria—Shettima quotes John Maynard Keynes for his famous dictum of paying salaries and keeping the people perpetually engaged even in the heat of war. Hear the governor:
“One of the most influential economists the world has ever known John Maynard Keynes once said in periods of economic crisis, even if it means you are going to pay people to dig holes and pay them to cover them up, it is absolutely important to keep people engaged. And as Vivian Greene once rightly pointed out, ‘You can’t wait for the storm to pass, you have to learn to dance in the rain.’”
I was watching the Shettima interview on Channels TV’s ‘Business Morning’ programme where he was talking exclusively to Boatson Omofaye, the station’s business editor. Naturally, I took interest in that exclusive interview which was serialised in three parts. Here is an excerpt:
In the era before the Boko Hara siege, things were much robust. The inflow from the federation account was relatively on the high side, such that after payment of salaries, we might still be left with some amount to engage in some productive activities. But side by side with the economic prosperity were the security challenges that we inherited. Right from Day One, it was all about how to cage in the rampaging Boko Haram. And this is a scourge that if it had been addressed promptly earlier on, it couldn’t have metastasized into the conflagration that nearly consumed the whole of the north. As at that time, things were equally pretty tough, especially within the city of Maiduguri. It was later on when they were driven out of Maiduguri that the Boko Haram sought refuge in the outlying local government areas in central and southern parts of the state. Otherwise, initially it was largely a Maiduguri phenomenon.
At the time we took over the mantle of leadership, things were relatively stable. At the rate of sounding immodest, Borno is the most strategically located state among all the states of the federation. Borno shares borders with three countries: Chad, Niger and Cameroon. We were about the only state in Nigeria which enjoys that privilege. And taking into cognizance my background as a banker, I can attest to the fact that at a point in time, Zenith Bank in Maiduguri where I was heading was the highest cash-processing unit of the banks in sub-Saharan Africa. We were processing up to a billion naira cash per day, which bears testimony to the economic relevance of the prosperity in Borno State. Even the Kano economy largely depends on Maiduguri. If Maiduguri sneezes, the Kano economy catches cold.
So, generally speaking, apart from Lagos and Port Harcourt, in terms of economic viability, in terms of vibrancy, in terms of opportunities, Borno is second to none. Our people are intrepid business people who against all odds, are endeavouring to keep their businesses alive. At a point in time, Bornu was the leading economy in northern Nigeria. And we believe that in the coming months and years, I am absolutely certain—you can even say I am arrogant—that we are going to regain our lost glory. I am absolutely certain about that. Because it is ingrained in our very nature.
Naturally, the insurgency had tremendous negative effects on the business life and economy of the state. In any situation of generalised insecurity, it doesn’t favour economic activities. And as the insurgency began to rage on, businesses began to wither. Traders, artisans, craftsmen and business people in general were not only systematically targeted by the Boko Haram for destruction but were equally eliminated. So there was mass exodus of people, of vibrant economic activities from Borno to more sober climates. And that impacted negatively on us. Our tax base literally disappeared. We were living largely from hand to mouth. It was the proceeds from the federation account that was sustaining us literally. And when oil plummeted from $114 in 2014 to less than $32 earlier this year, the effect was catastrophic. But we ensured that salaries are paid.
You might be amazed why we pay salaries in this age of challenges and so on. Because I was really not keen on compounding our security challenges with labour unrest. That was why we were adamant. Up till now we are not owing even a single month’s salary in both the state and the local government. Paying salaries goes a long way in keeping some businesses afloat. It tends to recharge the local economy. So that was why we were adamant, that by all means we must pay our salaries on the 25th of every month.
We plan ahead of time. I make sure that in my reserves I have one or two months’ salaries. So that on the 25th of every month, I ensure that salaries are paid, before the proceeds of the federation account hits our system. Because I know our people even in the best of times, especially the civil servants were the poorest of the poor. The take-home pay of N18,000 hardly takes anybody home. I was in the banking industry. I know what I was earning. My driver in the bank earns more than a director in the civil service. So that goes to show that these people need to be treated with a great deal of empathy and support. Because if we try to play by the rules, we will say: “OK we don’t have sufficient money, we are not going to pay salaries.” The effect would be much more catastrophic than you and I could imagine. Labour unrest in a state under siege by the Boko Haram will only compound the mess.
Buhari’s greatest gift
So far, the last administration gave us N200million. When President Buhari assumed the mantle of leadership, one heavy burden that he lifted off our shoulders has to do with the feeding of the IDPs. Hitherto it was the state that was bearing the brunt of feeding the IDPs. The President is so passionate about Borno, having been a governor of the Northeast, having been the first governor of Borno State. He knows the terrain very well and he has a great deal of empathy for this part of the world. The greatest gift he has given us proper is the security of lives and properties. A year ago, you couldn’t venture 10 kilometres out of Maiduguri because if you go beyond that you are in Boko Haram territory. They were no-go areas. The only accessible road to Maiduguri that was repeatedly attacked was the Maiduguri- Kano road. Even that was not spared of sporadic attacks by the Boko Haram. So, more than any monetary assistance, the greatest gift we got from the Buhari presidency is the restoration of peace and harmony in this part of the world.
We might not have the complete peace that we are clamouring for, there are still pockets of Boko Haram attacks here and there, but the most important thing is to keep the hope of the people alive. Secondly and most importantly, we need to appreciate the fact that underlying all this insurgency, beneath the mayhem of Boko Haram and underneath the Nihilism lie the real cause, which is extreme poverty, destitution and the inability of millions of youth to find a space of relevance in the 21st century working space. These are some of the great drivers of the insurgency. We have to adopt a holistic approach towards addressing these challenges.