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SERAP: Attainment of meaningful economic development impossible with current governance structure

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Kolawole

Deputy Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Kolawole Oluwadare, in this interaction with ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, said no meaningful economic development would be attained with the current governance structure, just as he urged President Muhammadu Buhari to show leadership by putting citizens’ human rights and access to basic public goods and services before politicians’ allowances.

President Muhammadu Buhari promised to eliminate wastage and run a lean, as well as an efficient administration. From all indications, he has kept his word. How far-reaching are the consequences in the polity?
THE president’s action has impacted so little on the socio-economic rights of Nigerians, which is the reason behind the President’s promise. We still have governments at all levels spending millions on security votes and former state governors earning huge pensions, even while serving as ministers and senators. SERAP has a yet-to-be-enforced judgment mandating the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubabar Malami, SAN, to take legal action to determine the legality of state pension laws and recover amounts unlawfully paid as pensions to former governors.

Cutting waste and running a lean and efficient administration should not just be only about reducing the number of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). It involves and requires President Buhari to take bold, meaningful and effective measures to cut the costs of governance at all levels, including the reduction of the actual cost element, and recurrent expenditure of these MDAs, particularly for political office holders and senior public officers, and cutting some unnecessary allowances for the Presidency, like the yearly purchase of furniture and fittings, as well as reducing spending on refreshments, catering services and purchase of kitchen and household equipment.

If anything, the revised budgetary allocations to the Presidency, the National Assembly, and the NJC do not justify the president’s position. The consequences of spending more on unnecessary items are huge for the country’s most vulnerable population, as it means a reduction in spending on critical sectors, public services and goods. It also means governments’ inability to respond appropriately to protect the socio-economic rights of Nigerians, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The expenditure of public funds requires the highest degree of public trust, and it is the constitutional duty of every public official to protect and preserve the public interest in public spending. So, the Buhari government should stop unnecessary spending, enforce the judgment on life pension to former governors, cut spending on security votes and ensure transparency and accountability on any such spending, and also recommit to improving Nigerians’ access to basic public goods and services.

It is given that a lean government would have freed a lot of funds for capital and development projects, which would have, in turn, ensure prosperity for all Nigerians. To what extent have Nigerians been shortchanged?
The facts are obvious. The 2020 revised budget has a 54 percent and 42.5 percent cut to education and health respectively. Though a large chunk of spending on health and education are statutorily tied to revenue performance, being percentages of the Consolidated Revenue Fund, Sections 11 of both the UBEC Act and National Health Act provide for the least possible allocations of one percent and two percent respectively and not the maximum. So, why can’t the Buhari government increase allocations to these sectors in the revised budget to cushion the effect of COVID-19 pandemic? It is such a good thing to do, but this government has again let down Nigerians and failed to comply with international human rights obligations – to provide access to basic socio-economic rights.

The Basic Healthcare Provision Fund for instance, is for the provision of basic minimum health packages to citizens, through the National Health Insurance Scheme; provision of essential drugs, vaccines and consumables for primary healthcare facilities; provision and maintenance of facilities and equipment for primary healthcare facilities, and the development of human resources for primary healthcare and emergency medical treatment.

Moreover, spending on these sectors should have been bolstered by increased capital expenditure in budgetary allocations to the concerned ministries. Instead, capital allocations to health and education were also cut by 25 percent and 20 percent respectively.

The number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty has increased since May 2015. The reduction in healthcare and education budgets would exacerbate the prevailing inequalities, poverty, and create a vicious cycle of reduction in spending, and increments in socio-economic inequalities.

President Buhari will do well to immediately reverse the unlawful, disproportionate and discriminatory budget cuts to education and healthcare, and to stop the spending of N27bn on the renovation of the National Assembly complex.

What are the risks of continually having in place a nebulous government structure that is cost insensitive?
It is more of reality than risk, and the reality is more particularly evident in the inability of the Federal Government to respond proactively and adequately to the various socio-economic problems thrown up by COVID-19. For instance, the government could not provide social protection by way of financial and material palliatives to majority of poor Nigerians, who according to NBS’s 2019 Poverty and Inequality Report, amount to over 82 million people. The long-term effect of our governance structure includes a perpetually stunted economy, more debts, less infrastructural development and growing poverty.

President Buhari has to show strong leadership by putting citizens’ human rights and access to basic public goods and services before politicians’ allowances and by addressing the systemic corruption in the spending of security votes. Unless these issues are promptly addressed, it will be very difficult for the government to address the growing economic and social inequality in the country, and to genuinely address the consequences of COVID-19 on the poor and marginalized groups.

The immediate past Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi has persistently called for the review/reduction of the cost of governance, insisting that the country’s current structure of governance is unsustainable. Are his fears genuine, and why has he been ignored all this while?
Of course, his fears are genuine. A reduction in the cost of governance and efficient management of national resources are at the heart of SERAP’s consistent advocacy for transparency and accountability over the years. Nigeria simply cannot sustain our current governance structure if we are to attain any meaningful economic development or even retain the barest minimum of our present level of under-development.

Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, recently admitted that the country needs a national debate to examine issues around the size and cost of governance, but added that it could be difficult for the government to do something about its cost by itself.

What is the place of national discourse, when a president willingly goes against his promise?
Nigeria is a democracy where public officers are elected and vested with the authority to make decisions on behalf of, and in the interest of the people. Cutting the costs of governance is a no-brainer, and the call for a national discourse by the vice president is unnecessary. Prof. Osinbajo should work with his boss to cut the costs of governance. What is needed at this time is the leadership and political will to act, and not a needless and endless discussion. The Buhari government should just do it. A national debate is entirely unnecessary in cutting down the high cost of governance. An essential requirement will be sincerity and commitment of the government to address this issue by abolishing states’ pension laws and security votes to public officers at all levels; reduction and cancellation of allowances of elected public officers, including members of the National Assembly; repealing budgetary laws on statutory transfers for non-essential sectors like the National Assembly, and the Presidency etc.

One of the suggestions made by Sanusi on how to increase productivity is redeploying personnel from the civil service where many people do administrative works to areas like education and health care. How plausible is doing this?
What is needed is to reduce cronyism, corruption and political patronage in recruitment into MDAs and these sectors. For example, recently there were allegations that principal officers and members of the Senate are using their official positions to get job slots from government agencies. SERAP petitioned the ICPC and EFCC to probe the allegations, but we have not heard any feedback on this petition.

Allegations of people being recruited for jobs into government agencies regardless of qualifications or competence because of political affiliations, or connections have damaging effects on the independence, effectiveness and efficiency of these important public institutions. This in turn undermines citizens’ access to public goods and services like quality education, healthcare, and clean water.

Article 7 of the United Nations’ Convention Against Corruption requires Nigerian authorities to adopt and comply with systems of hiring into public ministries, departments and agencies that ensure openness, equity and efficiency.

The public interests are best served when public employees are recruited on the basis of their skills, competence and expertise rather than as a reward for political, social and other similar connections. This is the best way to ensure effective and efficient performance from the public workforce, competence in government services and functioning of ministries, department and agencies.

Do you think that the implementation of the Steve Oronsaye report should be an integral part of the solution to the high cost of running the government?
A wholesome implementation of the Oransaye Report may not be eventually helpful if it leads to staff retrenchment in the face of a looming recession. Moreover, some of the major contributory factors to the huge governance cost include huge spending on allowances of elected and appointed public officers; wasteful practices like the use of consultants in MDAs for projects within the competence of civil servants, and inflated contracts for political patronage. Cutting the costs of governance must be holistic and comprehensive, but must not be done to disproportionately affect the country’s most vulnerable people.

Part-time parliament seems to also hold a measure of promise to cut government’s cost because of the sheer number of lawmakers at the national, states and local councils levels. Isn’t it time we tried this out?
This seems a good idea. If implemented, it will, in the long term, reduce the desperate clamour for public office and electoral violence and most importantly, improve legislative competence and quality.

The National Assembly leadership can at least start by publishing their salaries and allowances. This will immediately enhance the public perception of the National Assembly. The ‘sky will not fall’ if President Buhari asks Malami to take immediate legal action to ensure the publication of details of salaries and allowances of an individual lawmaker.

But the focus of cutting the costs of governance should be broad and all-encompassing, and must necessarily include cutting costs of governance at the federal, state and local government levels, and not just the National Assembly.


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