By Abdulwahab Oba
Few days ago I hosted some journalists’ colleagues at the government house. This is a routine occurrence given the privilege I presently have to interface between the government and the media. Such engagements, expectedly, always involve discussions, most times, arguments, about sundry issues about the nation, most often, about the state.
For those who regularly or once in a while sit down with pen pushers to discuss freely, you will agree with me that we are a set of people given too much disputation. Often than not, we claim anecdotes and antidotes to every imaginable challenge. Little wonder they call the newsroom a mad house most of the time.
Thus in the course of our deliberations, we inadvertently started to x-ray the issue of governance in the country and the most prominent subject as at the time of our meeting was the Paris Loan refund and the pitiable plight of local government workers. Some of my colleagues were ready to crucify some state governors, literarily, accusing them of all dimensions of crimes and wrong dealings with state fund. Unfortunately, most of these accusations are either as a result of premordial scepticism or misinformation. Some of the allegations are also based results of political bias.
Initially I kept quiet for three reasons: one, I am in government and given the penchant of Nigerians to disbelief state officials, I wondered if my friends would not say they couldnt belief me or my position on the issues at hand. Two, I have recently done a piece on the local government and Paris fund issue and knew that some of them had read that piece and would ordinarily pick counter-arguments from its content. Three, even, despite what I had written which represents my thinking on the debacle, I still cannot but feel for the local government workers who have been left in a lurch in several states due not to factors they brought on themselves willingly but extraneous events that impacted on the ability of their employers to meet their monthly obligations to them. Pity!
But it was this last thought that prompted me to join the disputation and believing they would believe the sincerity of my purpose, offered some insight from the privilege of being in government. My thinking is that if we all fail to see the problem of the local government system beyond the current cry for bailout for salaries, then the future is at a greater risk for the system than what we may think of.
For me there is a fundamental issue about the evolution of our local government system that needs to be addressed pragmatically, even now that we have an opportunity to have a review and amendment of our constitution. We must all agree that the local government issue has brought out the underbelly of the arrangements that led to the evolution of local government systems in this country. Majority of our local governments are creations of political intrigues and survival and not of economic viability. The same goes for our states, all of which are creations of military command and control structures with no interest in ability to survive hard times as a basis for their creation.
We can hardly fault this line of thought and even if we attempt to, reality will expose our self delusion. Today, apart from states like Lagos, Rivers and Kano, how many other states have the financial muscle to stand on their own, without a recourse to oil fund? When the oil fund was flowing, the central command system put in place by the military immuned us from the fragility of the arrangement we call states and local government system. But just a little drop in that revenue, we came face to face with the reality of how many states would need a bailout, or a divine provision like the Paris Loan refund, to be able to meet simple obligations such as payment of salaries.
I then asked what happens when the central system cannot afford a bailout, or when we have all collected the Paris loan refund? If we use these two sources to pay outstanding salary arrears now, would it stop us from owing salaries again? What would happen to the payment of our local government employees in their thousands?
Of course I also agree that corruption has also done a grievous damage to the survival of our economic systems. But the question is, in social systems where corruption has been tamed, do they run local governments and states as we do here in Nigeria, where states and local governments are created based on political interests and necessities and would therefore always need to depend on what comes to them from the central purse to survive?
Unfortunately too, I went ahead to explain to my colleagues, most of the workers both at the local and state levels across the country are redundant without any specific schedule of duties. The last time I visited one of the northern states on a Monday, there was hardly any worker on seat except few of the security details. On enquiry, I learnt most of them go to work at the end of the month when they notice that salaries were being paid. I also met a blind man who introduced himself as a driver for a non existence vehicle. These might not be significantly different in most of the local and state governments across the country.
“What should be our concern now between using funds, such as the Paris loan refund, to meet salary obligations, at most half way in several states, and thereafter relapse to owing salaries again or standing up for a pragmatic review of the systems that make these state entities to depend solely on the centre for survival”? I asked my colleagues. And then I quickly added without waiting for responses from my colleagues: “I really pity state governors over this issue of local government. The bitter truth is that the payment of local government workers is not the responsibility of state government. Many people don’t want to hear this, but again that is where we need to start from”.
When state governors present their annual budget, they don’t include how much local government workers would get in their estimates because it is not their responsibility. It is local government chairmen that make such proposals, based on the provisions of the constitution. But then local government workers are residents in the state; they are voters and no politician likes to joke with voters because they determine the political destiny and destination. As such, governors are hooked between satisfying the remaining segment of the state population with the little that has been trickling in from the central purse and meeting only the needs of local government workers. Which governor would also want to displease state pensioners? Which governor would also want to abandon infrastructure? Which governor would also want to deny the other segments of the population beneficial representations?
It is really a tough time and tough decision as few governors would risk off loading the workers, especially the redundant ones. Little wonder Gov Ahmed recently said he was pained by the plight of the local government people. It is real, for those who know him.
My thinking is that local government should only see coming to the state as a last resort, states should see going to the federal government as a last resort to survive a crisis just as the federal government always goes to the Central Bank of Nigeria, as the lender of last resort. But today, it is only the federal government that is practising this. So why cant we push for the other segments to do same?
“Look, the only sustainable solutions to this challenge is for local governments to look inward for sustainability, like Gov Ahmed did through the Kwara State Internal Revenue Services, a total review of the existing local and state structures to making them truly financially independent and possibly a review of the revenue sharing formula of the federation account”, I rounded off the discussion which I almost turned to a monologue with little interjections from my colleagues.