Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Nigerian leaders’ extravagance in austere times

Everyone likes to enjoy and make oneself happy in a season of abundance. It’s a normal human inclination. Irrespective of race, creed, clime, sex or colour, we all have a propensity to indulge ourselves when we have the wherewithal to do so. However, in a situation where one’s finances is in the red and one has to borrow to augment, shouldn’t one lead a life of prudence?
On November 16, 2014, our former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, officially declared austerity measures in Nigeria. She announced some strict policies aimed at helping the country to save scarce resources. In order to curtail waste, she said there would be no more foreign travels by civil servants unless for purposes that could be fully defended as absolutely necessary. In addition, foreign training programmes would be stopped and all training done in-country. The exception, she said, would be to secure foreign sponsorship for such travels and training abroad.
Part of the immediate steps to cushion the fall in oil revenue, the minister said, was to significantly increase non-oil revenue in the country, as she announced an aggressive tax administration in which, private jets, yachts, Champagne and a list of others to be announced would be taxed. The minister said that the idea of Luxury Goods Tax was not to stop wealthy members of the Nigerian public from enjoying their wealth but to create an avenue for them to share with those at the lower rungs of the ladder.
If we expected to see a reduction in profligacy at the level of our elected political leaders, that has not manifested. Our leaders have continued to live their ostentatious lifestyles. There was no drop in the number of their motorcades and private jets. No reduction in their unaccountable “security vote” and foreign trips. Worse still, they continue to embark on frivolous projects that will not impact meaningfully on the lives of the masses of this country.
Since the advent of this new administration on May 29 last year, the much expected change that the Nigerian public expected has yet to happen. If at all it has, it is not significant. A cursory look at the 2016 budgets which federal and state governments presented to their respective legislative bodies shows a clear indication that we are not yet out of the woods in terms of wrong priorities and waste in our governance system. I have on this page in a couple of times attacked the Federal Government’s incredible 2016 budget for the State House cum Presidency. Over the weekend, a sister publication of this newspaper, shed some light on what is happening at the state level. It is baffling!
Saturday PUNCH of January 30, 2015 under the caption “2016: Govs budget billions of naira for feeding, maintenance, others” reeled out figures of what some state governments voted for the upkeep of their Executive Governors. For example, the Cross River State Government which proposed a budget of N350bn has budgeted N13.9bn as overhead cost for the office of the Chief of Staff to the Governor.
According to the newspaper, “A breakdown of the overhead cost showed that N1.4bn was proposed for entertainment and hospitality in 2016 for the governor under the office of the Chief of Staff. A further breakdown under the sub-head showed that entertainment at meetings would gulp N500m while financial assistance was put at N900m. Under travel and transport, a total of N844m has been budgeted with local travel and transport gulping N832m while foreign trips were put at N12m.”
The paper added that the governor’s security vote was pegged at N4bn, while contingency and press/public relations were proposed to gulp N2.1bn and N610m respectively. For the office of the deputy governor, the overhead cost was put at N225m.
In Delta State, findings showed that the administration of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa budgeted N25bn for the running of the Government House. The Special Adviser to the Governor on Labour Matters, Mr. Mike Okeme, reportedly said the N25bn budgeted for the Government House would take care of “repairs, maintenance, logistics, and others.” Meanwhile, the Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, budgeted N8.98bn for the running of the Government House. The Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, who will be leaving office this year at the expiration of his second term, reportedly earmarked N10.65bn for his office. The picture is however different in Kaduna State where Mallam Nasir el-Rufai put the Government House expenses for 2016 at N563.7m, a 70 per cent cut from the N2.1bn that the previous government spent in 2014.
Before you blame the governors, let’s see how much our dear President has voted for his upkeep. The capital budget of the Presidency rose from N4.3bn in 2015 to N19bn this year. This newspaper in its December 30, 2015 edition said: “President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo are to spend N2.2bn on travels and transport, foodstuffs and catering materials, refreshment and meals as well as honorarium and sitting allowances in the 2016 fiscal year.”
I am not begrudging our elected leaders for making themselves comfortable; however, I am pained by the fact that they are doing so at the expense of the suffering masses of this country. They are enjoying on our behalf. This is unfair and ungodly. Here you have a country that is going cap in hand to borrow to finance its budget having its leaders living ostentatious lifestyles. What a paradox! For your information, the Federal Government is reportedly seeking from the World Bank and the African Development Bank the sum of $3.5bn (N697bn) in emergency loans to fill a growing gap in its budget. This is according to the Financial Times of last Sunday reported in this newspaper on Monday, February 1, 2016.
Meanwhile, these state governors who are voting mind-boggling amount for their upkeep are the ones who are saying that they can no longer pay N18,000 minimum wage to their workers. Many of them are still owing their civil servants; some are paying half salaries while threatening to downsize their states’ work forces. Is this fair to the goose that lays the golden egg?
I thought President Buhari should have sold off many of the aircraft in the presidential fleet by now and use the resources for public good. Alas, he has held on to the 10 aircraft which is being maintained with billions of naira annually, a drain on our lean resources. Also, Governors Tanko Al-Makura, Ayo Fayose and Rauf Aregbesola of Nasarawa, Ekiti and Osun states respectively are still hell-bent on building airports in their states despite the existence of airports in neigbhouring states to them. Should this be a priority in these austere times? Definitely not!
Follow me on twitter @jideojong