COVID – 19 in Nigeria: Matters arising
The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, is a candid reminder that God is omnipotent and that He rules in the affairs of nations. The devastation of lives by the virus in many countries with patently advanced healthcare systems is, for now, a sharp contrast to the level of casualties so far reported in Nigeria, known for her decrepit healthcare system – the very reason our government officials embark routinely on medical tourism overseas. It is our prayer that COVID-19 will not escalate beyond what is presently the case in Nigeria. One must commend the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his team for rising to the occasion in measures designed to curtail the spread of the virus and the palliatives for poor persons and families in the State. Similar measures are in place in Ogun and many other States by the governors in this regard plus the philanthropic gestures of well-meaning Nigerians and organizations in support of the governments.
With regards to palliatives for the very poor, the lack of vital statistics and data on them is a hindrance to effective planning and distribution of materials resulting in discontent amongst the target people. This raises a fundamental question: what is the population of Nigeria? It is not uncommon at conferences, workshop, seminars, etc, that different figures are touted as estimated population of Nigeria – 150, 170, over 200 million – depending on sources. This is unfortunate and so nothing near accurate is known about the population of the unemployed, the elderly, the youth, the physically- challenged, etc for purposes of planning and budgeting. The politics of population distribution as pertaining to revenue sharing at the center stands on the way to truly national census exercise. And because census is on the exclusive legislative list of the 1999 Constitution, no State can embark on it. Therefore the level of poverty may be much higher than the governments – States and Federal – truly know. There is no doubt that many poor people depend on the sustaining grace of the extended family system which is now threatened by a weak economy and poor remunerations of workers. Lest we forget, the issue of N30,000 minimum wage has not been fully settled in many States.
The dichotomy in pay structures of public/civil servants and political office holders, with the latter at much higher remunerations, appears to accentuate the insentivity of governments at all levels to the plight of workers and the people. While a differential may exist between the two structures, there is the need for a joint committee of the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission and of the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission to harmonize remunerations across the board taking cognizance of the strength of the economy and for their periodic review as the case may demand. The budget of the National Assembly justified on grounds of its oversight functions is disproportionate against allocations to vital sectors of the economy – education and health which are abysmally low. Otherwise, how rational is it that amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, members of the National Assembly took possessions of exotic cars imported at great cost to the tax payers. This is more so when the economy is distressed arising from fall in price and demand for crude oil and gas.
Many countries in the world are engaging their universities and research institutions to unravel the character of COVID-19, deploying massive funds to speedily achieve results and to develop vaccines to arrest future occurrences. This is in addition to conducting clinical tests on persons in regard to the virus. But in Nigeria, public universities are lockdown. The research agencies have been complaining of paucity of funds to pursue meaningful research, their primary business. Over the years and for inexplicable reasons, the federal government has not been funding postgraduate programmes neither is there any budgetary provision for research in the university. Funding in this regard has been left to the discretion of the Tertiary Education Tax Fund (TETFund), conceived initially as an intervention agency – yes, intervention, not a substantive funding agency for tertiary education. The public may never really understand the workings of universities world wide as can be gleaned from many public comments, for most part, armchair and uninformed.
The federal government is unperturbed that the universities have closed shop over a dispute on the use of Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) amongst other issues when academic staff through the union, ASUU, pointed out the glaring weaknesses and inadequacies of the software for payment of salaries, allowances and sundry personnel costs. The implementation of IPPIS on non-academic staff has confirmed the fears of academic staff in the confusion resulting from it. Now, the salaries of academic staff have not been paid for three months running despite a recent unconditional directive of Mr. President that they be paid. The Accountant-General of the Federation has tied submission of Bank Verification Number (BVN) by academic staff as precondition for payment, a surreptitious move to roll them into IPPIS, the point of dispute between ASUU and the Federal government. Clearly, the disobedience to a Presidential directive by the Accountant-General of the federation is a sad commentary on the pervasive impunity that has characterized this administration. ASUU has proposed to design appropriate software that will comprehensively meet the needs of the university having all the trappings of an integrated payroll system. Yet, the government insists that academics must enroll in IPPIS hook line and sinker.
No, the Nigerian University is not a robot. Indeed, patriotism demands that the government should have commissioned the University ab initio to design the software rather than have recourse to the World Bank for the purpose. This arrogant recalcitrance of government smacks of anti-intellectualism, the hallmark of the Nigerian governance system. This government has demonstrated this tendency in many ways, not least in the manner of appointments for critical sectors of the Nigerian economy, engaging greenhorns on nepotistic grounds. Thus, while other countries invest in and rely on the university to lead the way in matters of development, the Nigerian governments, over the years, have been seeking to stifle it and to exercise controls which negate its enabling laws. In the process, Nigeria has been walking while other countries are running! Now, if Nigeria must run, then the University must run faster and lead the way.
By all indicators, the Nigerian economy is weak and is increasingly enmeshed in both domestic and foreign debts, a sad reversal of the case under Obasanjo’s government which cleaned the Augean stable. Successive governments have always pledged to diversify the economy but without a concomitant commitment to governance architectural reform for an enabling environment. Indeed, the present government has demonstrated beyond doubt that it is averse to a change in the status quo – centralized governance system by which revenues are collected centrally and shared monthly by Local, States and Central governments – which revenues accrue substantially from the sales of crude oil and gas. Yet, the petroleum industry is underdeveloped particularly the downstream sector with potential multiplier effects which could impact the economy positively. The attempt to unbundled this sector through Petroleum Industry Governance bill has not been fruitful despite several sessions on it by successive National Assembly.
The bill was forwarded to the President by the 8th Assembly but he did not assent to it, hence we are back to square one. The current National Assembly has called for it ostensibly for another round of review, public hearing and money spending for no fruitful purpose amounting to a wild goose chase. Clearly, the bill will not see the light because vested interests are not served by it.
Amid all these, politicians are jostling and strategizing for 2023 on who becomes president, governor, etc. The South East has argued, quite rightly, that a President of South Eastern extraction will be good for equity and unity of the country. But beyond the psychological satisfaction in this regard, how does an Ibo President solve the multiplicity of systemic challenges confronting the country – challenges arising from structural dysfunction of the body politic? And the corollary question: How has the emergence of President Buhari from the Northwest – nay Daura in Katsina State- positively affected the ordinary citizens there beyond nepotistic appointment therefrom? Candidly, the Ibo is hard-working in every sphere of life that in a truly federal system, he would excel beyond measure. The current governance architecture is constraining and disenabling for the full expression of the creative energies of our people. It is to this that we must collectively address our minds for the greater good of our people, not from which tribe the President emerges.
The verdict is that Nigeria in its present governance structure holds no promise for us now and for future generations, characterized by a weak economy, weak institutions, systemic corruption and loss of the pristine values and patriotism. The endowment in natural resources – petroleum crude and gas, solid and semi-solid minerals – is enormous but are vested in the federal government that has, over the years, demonstrated lack of capacity or willingness to develop them by exploitation and value addition. In addition, federal government has not demonstrated the political will to liberalize the power sector in favour of embedded electricity generation system for greater and effective participation of entrepreneurs in this regard. It is sad that generation capacity far outstrips transmission at the moment for a country with huge demand for electricity. We are thus confronted with inadequate power supply across the country with grave consequences for the economy. Therefore, Nigeria must be restructured in the governance system by devolution of powers and responsibilities from the Centre to the constituent States, in true federalism, and allowing them unhindered access to their resources for the overall good of the citizens.
Professor Eromosele, former deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.