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(Opinion) Sins of the Nigerian political class

Okey Mbonu
Okey Mbonu

By Sam Okey Mbonu, Washington, DC


He or she who stays silent in the face of evil, shall sooner or later have evil visited upon them; and he or she who holds his or her people down, stays down.
The world needs to understand the mind of the Nigerian political elite, regardless of their party affiliation. We are witnessing an ongoing crisis of failure to pay workers’ salaries and pensions; and to pay government contractors for contracts performed; among other issues. These issues cut across several states, controlled by different parties, and in various states of the north-south divide (with a few notable exceptions). The issue of bad governance is apparently not peculiar to a particular party or region in Nigeria (though some states are worse than others).
A few years ago, I served a political appointment as Commissioner (Housing & Community Development) in Maryland, United States. Though I was almost fresh out of law school in Washington DC when I was appointed, and with limited exposure to public service, I had to tap into all mental resources to hit the ground running. However, it did not take long for it to become apparent to me, that “budgeting” was the numero uno of government policy, planning and service delivery.
As a policy-maker with opportunities to enact policies that will affect lives of millions of people, one realizes very rapidly, that a government budget is the most important annual instrument for practical governance, without which everyone might as well get out of governance and go back to kindergarten.

The Place of Budgeting & Planning In Governance

A good budget is designed to capture everything, both seen and unseen, including potential fiscal or other emergencies, absent an unprecedented “act of God.” A fall in international price of crude oil is not an unprecedented act of God; it should have been planned for. Once a budget is approved, the government of the day is supposed to adhere to it like religious people adhere to the “Holy Book.”
We have seen that Nigerian governors like to micro-manage state affairs. However, a governor, who needs to placate a political associate with free money, cannot send that associate to a commissioner, and ask the commissioner to give the associate resources that are not accounted for in the budget; and not even in the discretionary emergency funding part of the budget. That favor should come from the governor’s private resources, or will as a practical matter have to wait for next year’s budget.
Thus, salaries, wages, and emoluments, should be line-items in the budget which should be considered sacrosanct, and fully protected from any interference. In fact, any attempt to raid line-items allocated for salaries should be a criminal offence, even for chief executives, and should be a cause for impeachment at a minimum.
In the United States where I trained and served as a public servant, it is a crime to refrain from paying salaries due to employees, even casual day laborers. Also, in the state of Maryland itself, it is illegal for the state to have a budget deficit.
If a state cannot afford to pay salaries because of some real “state of emergency”, then nobody gets paid, including the governor and his aides. In that case some bailout, sanctioned through some regulation or through a designated entity should then kick into action.
The New Administrations Own The Problems Now!
Whatever problems the previous governments have left behind, in their inability to plan effectively and have fiscal responsibility is now owned by the new governments; including at the federal, state, and local levels. Nigerians at home and overseas expect the governments of the day to step up, and begin to tackle the problems as they exist right now.
Tackling the problems should include going after persons who have brazenly carried away the commonwealth of the people, and even the colluding private sector players as well. We are reminded that in 2013 or 2014, a certain Mr. Yakubu, carried away about 200 million dollars (USD) belonging to the police pension fund in Nigeria. Mr. Yakubu’s heist has not been recovered nor the matter resolved, and we hear the man is walking free in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has the moral standing to prosecute these plunders and heists of public resources to their logical conclusion.
Not The Diaspora’s Burden
From the vantage point of a Diaspora professional, with expertise and experience in public service; many of us in the Diaspora can see the gaping holes of fiscal recklessness and irregularities in Nigeria, like one can see gold fish in a fish tank. Some of the recklessness and bad governance practices are actually ticking time-bombs waiting to explode. If the problems of unpaid wages go on, the ranks of hungry youth (and their parents) become angrier, and potentially more vicious. Even the elite will not be safe from the fall-out.
Last year, as in other years, the Nigerian Diaspora pumped in 22 billion dollars (2014 figures) into Nigeria as “Diaspora Foreign Aide (DFA)”, mostly for social welfare in Nigeria; in addition to facilitating “Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)” of upwards of 85 billion dollars (2012 figures) to Nigeria.
The reality is that the Diaspora is carrying a disproportionate burden of the Nigerian state. The “DFA” remittances’ relevance begins to make more sense when one compares DFA remittances to Nigeria’s current earnings from crude exports, which are comparable to DFA remittances in volume; but the crude export earnings are then frittered away, by corrupt federal, state and local officials, in amazing displays of greed. We are not impressed with government officials who display private jets, and multi-million dollar mansions, while their states owe salaries and pension arrears. We will soon begin to call them out.
Correlating Bad Governance & Security
The Nigerian Diaspora is obviously not getting any appreciation from the Nigerian government, for carrying unsolicited burdens arising from Nigerian officials’ failure to plan properly; and I believe that once the DFA remittances begin to dwindle, as first generation Nigerians begin to retire, from the active labor force in overseas locations; we may begin to see a monster bigger than “Boko Haram” arising; this time in the Southern states.
This is because the youth in the Southern states may become just as hungry, angry, vicious, and vulnerable to recruitment for mayhem, just like in North East Nigeria. This potential upheaval will eventually turn on the political and related elite. Southern Nigeria is relatively more economically stable than Northern Nigeria today, in part because the DFA remittances flow disproportionately to the South, due to the South’s higher rates of migration.
The above scenarios are challenges that can be overcome, but they require clear proactive policy formulation and practical implementation. Governance requires expert and responsible planning, budgeting, and implementation. Governance is not a job for mediocres, it’s not kindergarten, its real-life; it’s about people’s lives. Enough said.
Okey Mbonu is Executive Director of the Nigerian-American Leadership Council (NALC); the pre-eminent Public Policy and Business Advisory Council in the United States; focused entirely on Nigeria.

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