The Unsustainable High Cost of Governance, By Dan Agbese

I thought these two important items would be on Jagaban Bola Tinubu’s plate on his assumption of office as president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. One is the high cost of governance about which there have been muted cries from those who know what this means for a struggling developing nation; the other is the current and confused nature of our federalism. Both are problems that cannot be solved with prayers and fasting in our prayer-loving nation.

I expected him to immediately serve notice that under his watch, these lingering afflictions in our body politic would be cured and the nation would be freed from the scandal of the people and their country living for and serving fewer than 1.5 million of their compatriots who are serving as public officers at federal, state, and local government levels. I thought that having been a state governor and a senator, Tinubu had seen enough of the obstructive nature of our federalism that mimics the military command structure but sorely stifles best practices in the nature and the letter of federalism. I thought he would remember the agitation for restructuring the country to attain the desired end of true federalism. 

Well, the problem with old men like me is our indulgence in the luxury of thinking and the disappointment of being wrong. I see no indication so far that the president has given or is giving some serious thoughts to these critical problems that hobble our efforts, singular or plural, to manage our democracy as a participatory form of government in which public service, not self-service, is the end of governance and the mission of government. 

I can understand why. Since his assumption of office on May 29 and his immediate announcement that the jolly good old days of subsidized fuel were over for Mohammed, Okoro and Wole, Tinubu has been bogged down in the crisis that arose therefrom. He has been battling labour; he has been battling the fuel cartel and, in the process, he finds himself warring on several fronts. It is the nightmare of commanders-in-chief. Spare some kind thoughts for him.

The high cost of governance is not a new problem; it is an old problem that, in the nature of unsolved problems, progressively worsens. In 1982, worried about the high cost of governance, the late President Shehu Shagari appointed a committee of experts to compare the cost of governance here with what was obtained in selected African countries. Its findings was a national shame. We spent more but reaped pathetic returns. The situation has not changed. No, the problem is not entirely that of corruption, although it plays the centre half in the soccer game of misgovernance.

It should worry our political leaders that the cost of governance here is the highest on the continent. It is not because we are rich. It is because we love to squander our wealth on the needless. It is because we have shifted the paradigm of governance from the security and the welfare of the people to the security and the welfare of our political leaders at all levels. You cannot miss the scowling face of the constitution over this cynical breach of its provisions. 

 We are a nation with an estimated population of 219 million people. Of this impressive number, fewer than 1.5 million people are public officers in the executive and the legislative branches of government at the three tiers of government. This is an infinitesimal number compared to the teaming crowd outside the loop of government. Government is the business of the few empowered by the many in accordance with the rules of democracy. No grudge there.

Here is the grudge and the scandal it has gradually grown into: we spend the wealth of the nation on the few at the expense of the many. Some 80 per cent of federal and state budgets go to service the men and women in the executive and the legislative branches of government. Recurrent expenditures outstrip capital allocations. Yet, each head of government promises repainting the moon blue to make the colour blind happy with the pittance left in the coffers after the few men and women who constitute the first charge have been taken care of. 

As you read this, remind yourself of the current scandal in the national assembly where the first order is the comfort of our senators and the members of the house of representatives. The purchase of SUV vehicles at an astronomical cost for the members of the national assembly is a monumental scandal and shows the ugly face of the squandering of our riches that dogs the giant of Africa. The expensive vehicles may be the evidence of their political power and social importance, but they do not enhance their ability to make laws for the good governance of our country. 

We have had 24 years of democracy under our belt. It is not too much to expect our politicians to have learnt the rudiments of public service inherent in their exalted positions by putting the people first. Yes, we are rich; never mind that ours is the poverty capital of the world. Yes, we are potentially a great nation. Our great natural resources, liquid, and solid minerals are still waiting to be fully tapped. When they are, the dollar will channel its flow path into the coffers of our nation. While we await that development, we have moved on from millions to billions. Money is spent in billions, and it is stolen in billions. 

Together, these billions paint a false picture of false grandeur in a nation given to excesses of the worst kind. When a nation moves this fast up the scale, the biting evidence of the parlous times must necessarily be ignored. We have lived this big since our independence. But we know, even if we choose not to remember that 138 million fellow Nigerian families are doing a permanent battle with the hardship of survival in the midst of so much wealth in the land. 

Times like this task the conscience of political leaders. Times like this challenge political leader to make symbolic sacrifices in sympathy with the have-nots having much less. Times like this do not permit of cynical display of self-importance. What is the fun in a senator driving the latest state of the art SUV on an ill-maintained road? Oh well, riding in the comfort of an SUV trumps sweating in the heat of a smoke belching molue bus.

Governments are the largest employers of labour in the country. The president and the state governors employ hundreds of men and women as special advisers. Why do they need special advisers in such large numbers when they have permanent secretaries, ministers, and commissioners? There is a warped sense in it.

If a state governor appoints 300 special advisers he does not need, he has done the needful by taking 300 men and women off the streets where they wore out their shoes in search of unavailable jobs. The pools of idle men and women feeding on rather than below the table, make our political leaders feel good but in so far as the nation reaps nothing from their being there, it amounts to a cynical management of human resources. 

Is this high cost of governance sustainable? Certainly not. National development is a function of how well or poorly a nation manages its human and natural resources for the greatest good of the greatest number of its citizens. The high cost of governance is partly the result of the easy choices we make as a nation. It induces in our political leaders the lack of will to do the needful, hence we blissfully move in circles and mistake circular motion for linear movement. 

It is not the business of government to be the sole employer of labour. Our confused system of feeding the people with catfish is not the way to go in our economic and social development. Nigerians are proud and resourceful people. They do not want to be fed with fish, they want expanded opportunities to go out there and catch the fish. It is the business of government to create or provide such opportunities by taking hard but necessary decisions to run an economic system that expands the frontiers of individual creativity. The resort to Buhari’s economic model of loans by the Tinubu administration is an insult to itself.