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Friday, 20 March 2009

Follow the money, Mr. President

By Azubuike Ishiekwene

Do what I say, but not what I do is a way of life in official circles. We are used to governments asking us to make sacrifices while we watch the same governments indulge in heart-breaking excesses. It wasn’t long after former President Shehu Shagari declared austerity measures that ‘Shagari Benz’ displaced Peugeot as the official car and Akinloye Champagne replaced the spirits of the time as the choice vintage.

Former military president and self-acclaimed evil genius, Ibrahim Babangida, introduced a structural adjustment programme that was supposed to tide the country over a difficult patch. But as soon as oil money began to flow again from the Gulf War in 1991, Babangida squandered over $12.4 billion of the proceeds. In a particularly spectacular example of a man learning to use his left hand in his old age, before he stepped down from power two years ago, former President Olusegun Obasanjo returned, with arrogance, to all the excesses he had forsaken in his first time around as military head of state.

And now, President Umaru Yar’Adua is promising something different. This man, whom this newspaper has constantly criticised for loving big government, is offering to cut pay as a gesture of leadership in tough economic times. That’s just as well. It will cost the country nearly N3 billion to pay the salaries and allowances of 43 cabinet ministers, and 48 presidential aides and special assistants this year alone. According to estimates, 17,500 public office holders will earn N1.3 trillion out of the N5 trillion income expected to come into the Federation Account.

When oil was over $140 per barrel, no one cared much what political office holders earned – or what they helped themselves to. The problem was how to spend the money. In many states, one of the first things that councillors, local government chairmen, legislators and governors did after assuming office was to go to London or Liechtenstein to shop for foreign investors or to learn how to govern. Usually on such trips, there would be at least four parties – the advance party, the protocol party, the real party, and the welcome party – all fully paid for by the state. No questions were asked about the cost or the results of the trips. Estacode was quietly and generously shared, until the next trip.

This is largely what Yar’Adua is promising to change. No one is sure yet just how much fat the government is planning to trim, and the resounding lack of enthusiasm outside Aso Rock seems to suggest that even this symbolic gesture will be tough to pull through. But while the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission is hammering out the details of the proposed pay cut, this might be a good time for government to treat its leprosy for what it is. Pay cut, the equivalent of treating ringworm for leprosy, just won’t get far enough.

It doesn’t send the right signal that the President is serious about cutting costs when, according to yet-to-be-denied reports, Bauchi and Katsina State governments spent N300 million on his daughter’s wedding, with each of the 34 local government areas in Katsina coughing out N2 million. This example of nuptial indulgence resonated in Oyo State , the country’s filth capital, where Governor Christopher Alao-Akala spared no expense for his daughter’s wedding. There are, of course, those who would argue that the fault is not necessarily with public officials but with hangers-on past restraint. But we know that these hangers-on refuse to be restrained not because of the public good but because of their personal harvest from such flamboyant spending. Former United States President George Bush may have been an incompetent chief executive, but when it came to his daughter’s, Jenna’s, wedding last May, he knew where to draw the line – it was a private affair on his own ranch.

Beyond the salary cut, another major area of public expenditure that requires urgent attention is the estacode. At $1,000 daily for foreign trips and N35,000 daily for local trips (outside Abuja ), Nigeria’s ministers are in the league of the world’s highest paid junketers. Our president, too, is not doing badly at No. 2 in the continent and with a hardship allowance of N1.7 million, apart from other statutory allowances. This extravagance runs right from Aso Rock to the office of the council chairman in Kutuwenji. Cutting salaries would be meaningless if the perks and allowances – sometimes up to 200 per cent – attached to the office of most political office holders are left intact. The idea is not to impoverish political office holders, but to ask them, for once, to join in making the sacrifice which they have paid lip service to for too long.

Another needless lump of fat is the security vote. Economic Confidential, an online financial news service, reported in September 2008 that for eight years under Obasanjo, four oil-producing states – Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom – received about N1.8 trillion from the Federation Account. A large chunk of this amount was taken in the name of “security vote” but spent by some of the governors, as we later saw, on beach houses in South Africa or tummy tuck in Germany. Rivers (under Peter Odili), typical of a number of prodigal states, built a government house that cost N200 million monthly to maintain. In addition to this white elephant, a state-of-the-art jet was placed at the governor’s disposal when pupils were sitting on bare floors in classrooms across the state.

The profligacy continues today in different guises in a number of states, with governors keeping a cottage industry of advisers on the state’s payroll and fleets of bullet-proof cars fuelled by the public treasury. With such ridiculous fringe benefits, a salary cut alone – even forfeiture – will hardly dent the opulent lifestyle of many political officer holders.

There are two things that the government must do to ensure that its modest proposal makes a lasting difference: one, move quickly to implement it; and two, press the passage of the Freedom of Information bill. This last point will ensure that the public not only knows what is spent, but how it is spent.

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