President Muhammadu Buhari just weighed in, on the side of long-suffering Nigerian civil servants, owed months as backlog of salaries, by state governments: clear the backlog of salaries before Christmas.
That, to the workers, is sweet trumpet, blaring a good cause. Indeed, it is the right presidential sound bite, rallying the governors to deliver on the contractual rights to their workers.
The premise of the charge was the presidential agreement that yet another tranche of the Paris Club debt over-deductions be returned to the states, so that they are empowered to pay the workers. Work on that is on, and the workers, by now, would be all tizzy with expectations of a salary boon at Christmas.
On the surface of it, the president has done well and should earn the people’s praise. It is good moral charge, which underscores the imperative to empathise with the people, in times of great national angst. The governors, in the eye of the storm, therefore, should do all in their powers to actualise this good intention. This they can do by maximising the cash at hand to fulfill that promise.
But beyond that good intention, it is doubtful how far the charge can go. To start with, there is a big doubt if the repatriations from the Paris Club deductions are enough to offset salary arrears, running into months, in a number of states. That is why the Federal Government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), should not only speed up the release of the funds, the states should also make it an article of faith to fulfill the task at hand.
Even then, if care is not taken, it might end in double fiasco: the federal authorities raising false hope; and the states clamped with another glistening pair of golden handcuffs, if delivery falls far short of the expected. That would drive citizen disillusion to another dangerous level. That can’t be good for anyone.
The states should, therefore, while stretching the cash available to as many months as possible, build openness and transparency into the payment processes. If they do this very well, and convince the people that they have tried their best, even with daunting challenges, the pall of distrust may well begin to lift.
Still, even if the salaries are eventually cleared beginning with this process, it is at best finding the antidote to the symptom. It could bring a temporary cure, as the disease could come charging back, in the near future.
At the collapse of the Second Republic (1979-1983) on December 31, 1983, the new military government, incidentally headed by the same Muhammadu Buhari, then a major-general as military head of state, inherited a crisis of salary arrears in states, as bad as the present crisis. Somewhat, over the years, that government and succeeding military regimes were able to normalise the situation. But as the present crisis is showing, they only got rid of the symptom, while the root cause of the disease was left intact. That is why it has come back to plague the polity.
What are the root causes then? First, political recklessness with state money. That plagued the Goodluck Jonathan presidency as much as it did the Shehu Shagari presidency of the Second Republic. This financial recklessness, coupled with wide and wild corruption did the country in, back then as it does right now. That can be tackled with a more disciplined fiscal regime which fortunately this government is trying to do, given its emphasis on the anti-corruption war.
If the country is not to face a similar problem in the future, even after surmounting this one, the anti-corruption war must be fought and brought to a logical conclusion.
Then, there is the issue of the Federal Government sitting on a surfeit of funds, aside from economic activities it should cede to states, to grow their internally generated revenue. Though the Paris Club repatriations are a function of temporary estimates, pending the time the states stake a definitive claim, it is scandalous that the central government still sits on that pool of funds, leaving the states — and their workers — to near-mortally thirst.
Even before formal “restructuring” which requires a constitutional amendment, both tiers should examine a win-win collaboration that releases some of these assets to states, to improve their cash flow. That would be better than going to Abuja for dole, every time a state is in a hole.
But beyond Nigeria’s lopsided “federalism”, the states too should invest heavily in cleaning up their books. The perennial issue of “ghost workers” is a constant drain on resources, while legitimate workers pine. Besides, the states should improve infrastructure and ease the way of doing business. That would expand their tax base, put more money in their till and limit dependence on oil money, which is Nigeria’s current bane.
While rallying therefore to clear the present mess, according to the presidential appeal, the federal and state authorities should embark on reforms to really federalise the Nigerian economy, make both tiers more fiscally disciplined and make the states earn own legitimate money, independent of the federation purse.
That is the only way the ghost of salary arrears can be banished forever.