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The devaluation of government promises

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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


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9 Comments
  • DrPak

    If states were true federating units they will be more viable. The minning Act 2007 is anti federalism…most of the exclusive list needs overhauling…we have not moved away from the principles in the Unity Decree…Nigeria must restructure by deconstructing the Unity Decree that informs our current Constitution…we must return to the basic 1963 consensus

    • amador kester

      Nigeria is a unitary state de facto by whatever yardstick one uses to evaluate. The unitary decree 1966 still operates de facto while a federal constitution fawningly operates de jure. This is nothing short of black magic hoodwinking

    • William Norris

      What about the Land Use Act and the Solid Minerals Act?

      Nigeria is NEVER going to fulfill the basic aspirations of its peoples until THE TRIBES are set free and given back the property & resources stolen from them by the Nigerian State. That’s one thing this Feyi guy never wants to write about and the reason is clear – the Yoruba are beneficiaries of the the theft of Niger Delta resources.

      Nigeria as presently structured is an Exercise in Futility. Good Luck to you all !!!

  • emmanuel kalu

    The simple solution is pure federalism, whereby states are doing more and control more. what this allows is for state governors to be held totally responsible. Right now, if a lazy state governor can’t pay salaries, he blames the federal government. That is just a built in excuse for pure laziness and lack of creative thinking.
    There is also a need to cut government spending by over 30%. Nigeria government is full of waste, fraud and pure abuse. we over pay for rubbish, spend money unwisely and have no focus on where our money is spent.

  • William Norris

    I used to admire this Feyi man until he started campaigning for The Dullard of Daura, Muhammadu Buhari, The Certificateless One.

    Given that Feyi is Yoruba, I somehow can’t blame him since the PRIMARY animating instinct of all Nigerians when it comes to NATIONAL politics is TRIBE. So once the Yoruba decided that Jonathan had “MARGINALIZED” them in sharing the Niger Delta crude oil national cake, no one could expect anything different. Most Yoruba hate Jonathan.

    What I can’t get over is this – if you’re going to oppose Jonathan, does that translate to supporting BUHARI, A DULLARD? Was there no other option? Geeez !!!

    There’s nothing worthwhile that will come from the brain of a supposedly enlightened Nigerian who could campaign for an archaic, retrogressive and feudalist like The Dullard.

    The PRIMARY PROBLEM with Nigeria is TRIBALISM. The SOLUTION is a separation of the tribes via CONFEDERACY or total division into multiple independent nations.

    Until pretenders like Feyi start acknowledging that reality there’s nothing they write that’s worth a wad of toilet paper.

    • LagLon

      I’d still rather get in a plane with a bad pilot than a fake pilot…
      they’ve decided to compete for the political and economic darwin award…

      • William Norris

        You need to read this –

        http://www.nairaland.com/3284764/feyi-fawehinmi-deji-yesufu-not

        I don’t understand how any Yoruba person could have supported The Dullard. I still can’t fathom it, it’s like a whole tribe….well about 60% of them….lost their mind.

        I mean there was even the prize winning author that forgave Buhari for arresting her INNOCENT father back in 1983. What kind of mind bending gives rise to this kind of masochism?

        Anyway what do I know.

        • LagLon

          nope. i fully understand why.
          its the same reason why someone wouldn’t like to see their drivers (ets say harvard educated) son marry their daughter. social mobility and development are fine in theory but not easily accepted in practice. they sw is extremely proud and self righteous. also they actually believe that the ijaws are genuinely beneath them. like a frenchman, german or italian speaking to an eastern european gypsy.
          they would never articulate it, but it really upset them – south south guys and even a few igbos making money and giving orders. unacceptable. from their perspective their people shed blood to keep nigeria as nigeria and now ijaws and igbos are profiting from it. an utter abomination!
          they would never say it public or in such crude terms so they spun it and because of their hierarchical and respectful social structure the story was bought.
          on tinubus side he also personally played the religious card… he was potentially on his way to oblivion or prison ..so why not. same with amaechi. ex-governors roaming around with a second term and progressive president – anything could happen.
          re nigeria – well pmb is no erdogan. so im actually much less worried than i was a year ago. finally the rest can see him for the mad clown he is… dasuki is chilling, saraki is on seat..blah blah and everyone knows the president is a spent force. its over. in 18 months he needs all the friends he and his buddies in the efcc and dss can get… so everyone can breathe easy.
          its interesting watching the US play the same macabre dance with trump and hurtful to see obama skillfully denouncing their homegrown demagogue, but somehow continually endorsing our own…

    • Ogbeni Aderemi Adeniran

      You ethnic-baiting COWARDS can’t even put your names behind your bigoted views. Shior