The devaluation of government promises
These days, it takes the same amount of effort to find a goat that is mild mannered and does not smell as it does to find a state in Nigeria where workers and pensioners are not being owed salaries or allowances. From local governments through state governments right up to the federal government, the only difference is about how long workers are being owed for. A few days ago in Edo State, pensioners took to the streets to protest the non-payment of up to 42 months of their arrears.
This problem is not new and is certainly not limited to the public sector – even when oil prices were high and Nigeria was awash in petrodollars, people were still being owed salaries. But the crash in government revenues has only made things a lot worse. Today, it is as if the federal government’s N662 billion bailout of 27 states in June of 2015 never happened. As soon as arrears were cleared, another round of arrears began to build up.
There is a lot about this state of affairs that should make any Nigerian sober. How did we get to the point where it is the norm for the government to routinely break even the most basic of promises? This has implications for the evolution of Nigeria’s ‘nascent’ democracy. Very few policies can be successful when the people are deeply cynical of their government. Yet, this is exactly what will happen when the government’s promise no longer has any value in the eyes of the people.
Most Nigerians will say that the solution to the problem is for states to find ways of increasing their IGR (internally generated revenue). That is, having more money will make the problem go away for the government. But the evidence before us suggests that if governments have been unfaithful with little, it is likely that more money will only make the problem worse. Giving a local government chairman more money might only tempt him to hire more people to expand his patronage network. Now he has more people to owe.
When it comes to unpaid salaries, the proposed solutions might actually be the problem. At all levels, governments in Nigeria have serious spending problems. It is very hard to point to any type of government spending that can be described as cost effective or value for money. Where is the bridge that was built for an amount that sounded ‘cheap’? Where is the road that cost less to build than a similar road in South Africa? Which state or local government does not have ghost workers in its ranks?
Last week, the businessman, Jimoh Ibrahim, picked up a form to run for governor of Ondo state. He immediately promised to pay salaries promptly if elected as governor (if the state does not end up with AMCON first). He did not say how he planned to achieve what will be a truly remarkable feat in this time of rock bottom oil prices. Across the nation, wherever there is an election to be won, you can find politicians promising to pay salaries once they are in office.
The cynicism is complete when millions of Nigerians apply anytime the government advertises new jobs like the recent 500,000 teachers or 10,000 policemen. The risk of not being paid on time or at all with these government jobs is high yet people rush for them like gold. The Nigerian economy does not provide many employment alternatives but without a doubt, government jobs hold a certain ‘appeal’ even after factoring the risk of not getting paid. The jobs are easier as there isn’t really much to do. In June, the Benue state government declared Fridays as work free days ostensibly to allow civil servants spend more time on their farms. And only a few days ago, the Imo state government reduced the working week to 3 days with Thursdays and Fridays now for farming.
When will the conversation about how governments spend money begin? It is tempting to say that the solution to overspending is to reduce spending. Without a doubt, cutting spending is very important. But there is something even more important that is hardly talked about – the quality of what is spent. For everything that government spends money on, what are the things that money is not spent on? If an airport is built instead of a road, what effect will it have on the state 10 years from now? If the federal government hires 500,000 people in the name of job creation, how much will they cost 5 years from now and how many roads won’t be built as a result of hiring those people?
Money is not unlimited and such hard questions must always be asked if the country is to have any hope of breaking out of this destructive cycle it has trapped itself in. However noble the intention, it is not always the right decision to employ thousands of people in the name of alleviating unemployment. It is even worse to hire and then not pay them. Not only does it devalue the currency of the government’s promises, it also risks attracting people who want to be employed for reasons other than working for their pay.
The current situation is untenable. Just because Nigerians have become used to people being owed salaries does not mean that it is a normal thing. It is a problem that needs fixing urgently.
But we need a deeper level of conversation and better ideas to make that happen.
Feyi Fawehinmi writes from London. He blogs at aguntasolo.co and tweets at @doubleeph