Faced with a depressed economy and the grim reality of an inevitable decline in revenues, this is not the time for knee-jerk decisions or cosmetic measures by state governors wishing to shore up their fast crumbling financial bases. In converse, there can be no better time for serious-minded governors to introduce innovative, bold and far-reaching measures that will enable them to survive the debilitating upshot of the hard-hitting COVID-19 pandemic.
This is why governors contemplating a slash in salaries as a hedge against hard times should pause and have a rethink. Among such governors are Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State and Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, although the last two are only interested in political office holders. In Nasarawa State, there is a rumbling of discontent as local government workers kick against the non-payment of their salaries in full, while, in Kogi State, doctors have sounded a note of warning against any attempt to slash their salaries by Governor Yahaya Bello.
While el-Rufai sees civil servants, who earn above N67,000 per month, as the target of his planned 25 per cent salary cut, he is also focusing on 50 per cent of the salaries of political office holders. Similar measures in Ekiti and Oyo states will see political officer holders forfeiting between 30 and 50 per cent of their salaries to cushion the effect of the pandemic on government revenues.
Undoubtedly, these are trying times for every state government. Practically all of them are still under varying levels of lockdown, a measure adopted globally to slow down the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic. The world faces its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, with loss of jobs reported in millions.
It is a double jeopardy for Nigeria. The slowdown, owing to a near-total global lockdown, has adversely affected Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy, with the benchmark Brent going for $30.6 per barrel as of Sunday, according to Crude Oil Prices Today. Aside from the falling prices, finding buyers for Nigeria’s oil has become a serious challenge as shipments of oil cargoes are reportedly floating on the high sea frantically looking for buyers. The resultant dwindling oil revenues are bound to affect the amount that is available for sharing by the Federation Account Allocation Committee.
Certainly, political appointees need to make sacrifices. They are in government based on the spoils system or patronage system. Most of them got the jobs just as members of a political party or as friends and relatives of the governor. There is, therefore, still so much that the governors can do without tampering with career civil servants’ salaries. This borders much on the reduction of the size of government and the cost of governance. There are several government agencies and departments with duplicating functions that should be closed down.
Most states carry the burden of a bloated civil service. Governors in Nigeria are notorious for making hordes of appointments, which, according to them, is a form of job creation. The Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade, had last month reportedly approved the appointment of 427 aides. In defence of the bizarre appointments, his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Christian Ita, said, “The governor has said repeatedly that he only needs about five per cent of his appointees. So, he deliberately creates these jobs to put food on the table.” Ayade’s counterpart in Ebonyi State, David Umahi, had similarly announced late last year the appointment of 513 aides, which were described as additional, in a practice common in states across the country. Nothing could be more outrageous for a government to think that it can single-handedly create jobs for its citizens, when its duty is to create an enabling environment for the private sector to drive job creation.
It is argued that a bloated civil service is a sure sign of a country with a bleak future while massive bureaucratic red tape usually results in corruption.
This is the time to raise the quality of governance to the highest level of competitiveness. It is imperative that Ayade, at this stage, should pick the five per cent he needs to run the government and release the remaining 95 per cent, to free up funds to run the state effectively.
Equally important is the need to weed out phantom names from state payrolls. A lot of money is needlessly lost to the “ghost” workers syndrome. It is a phenomenon in which payrolls are blatantly padded with fictitious names through which some highly-connected syndicates steal huge sums of money from the government. This is the time for all serious-minded governors to take a second look at not only stopping the well-orchestrated leakages, but also ensuring that the perpetrators face the wrath of the law. Detecting payroll fraudsters has been made easy by the advent of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System.
Governors would also save a lot of money by being more frugal in deploying state resources. Nasarawa State shockingly coughed up N500 million to buy vehicles for lawmakers in the midst of the current financial crisis.
Additionally, apart from sacrificing part of their salaries, governors also need to stop the fraud called security vote. Transparency International says “the origins of the modern security vote likely date back to the late 1960s, when head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, granted state military administrators small slush funds-labelled ‘security votes’-they could use to placate civilian elites rankled by these officers’ new-found dominance over state affairs.” But TI rightly recommends that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) “has an opportunity to reverse this trend and burnish his democratic credentials by banning these relics of military rule. If he wants to rein in defence sector corruption in Nigeria, outlawing the use of security votes is one of the most important places to start.”
A review of the governance structure and the lifestyles of public officials in states to create room for nimble and frugal government is now urgent.