Finance minister Kemi Adeosun seems to have caught the bug. A characteristic of Nigeria’s public officeholders is repetitive behaviour – they say one thing over and over; they daydream without taking any step forward. I had no difficulty in ascribing the disorder to her when, on Thursday, she reiterated that the federal government’s monthly wage bill of N165billion was unsustainable, as it represents 40 per cent of the government’s total expenditure.
It was not Minister Adeosun’s first time of saying so. Nor was she the first minister or opinion leader to recognise the over-bloated nature of Nigeria’s civil service. I’ve read a similar statement in the papers since I was a boy in the 1970s. It was the sing-song in the Second Republic; and, since the return of civilian rule in 1999, every finance minister has said it. Obasanjo used to illustrate the dilemma with a ministry where there were 28 drivers for one car. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was a witness to the inauguration of the Steve Oronsaye panel for restructuring the civil service; its recommendations have now been buried underground and Oronsaye himself is currently before a court on a charge of diverting about N200million to his pocket.
Obasanjo fiddled with “rightsizing” and “downsizing” until he left office. Only a few unlucky fellows were laid off at the time, but they were soon replaced with an even greater number of civil “servants”. Official cars and official houses were sold and resold; soon after, the policy was reversed: Nigeria’s public servants (including senators) still use over-priced exotic cars and receive car allowances; they live in official houses and receive housing allowances.
There has been talk of impending purge of federal civil servants since the Buhari administration came into being. I thought that was the reason for the delay in the appointment of ministers and, now, appointments of board members and executive positions in hundreds of boards of federal agencies. But, almost one year after, the new administration’s projects and policies are still placed in the future tense. Almost everyone is tired of listening to gospels of prosperity in dreamland, as often preached by Vice President Osinbajo and Minister Lai Mohammed. Thank God the 2016 budget is being signed into law as I write this.
Minister Adeosun is telling us what we already know, perhaps to prepare our minds for a mass sack of federal civil servants. But would that be the answer to the labour union’s request for a N56, 000 minimum wage? Or, did the government lie on May Day when it promised to do something about the minimum wage? Should labour’s request be granted, however, all the resources of the FG wouldn’t be enough to pay its civil servants.
The situation in the 36 states is much worse. An average state gets N3billion monthly but uses N2.8billion to pay its workers. Some don’t get enough to pay their workers – the reason they now owe three or four months’ arrears of salaries. And local governments? There are 774 of them, all but a few dead. No salaries. No work.
The trouble with Nigeria’s civil service, therefore, is that it is crazily unproductive. If it were a profit-yielding business, nobody would complain about the wage bill. But, like Nigeria itself, the civil service lives by consuming what others produce. A time will certainly come when the government wouldn’t be able to pay even pensioners. And that time is not far ahead.
On the whole, the Nigerian government (at all levels) cannot claim to pay most of its workers a living wage, judging by the current value of the naira. Civil servants who get by are only those who benefit from corruption. Since the great purge of 1976, they have learned to award contracts to themselves or their fronts, use their working hours to run their own businesses, create ghost workers whose salaries and allowances they corner, and divert cheques drawn in favour of NNPC, for instance, to the account of Mr NN PCole.
We all know it’s not sustainable to keep paying workers who are not working or making profits for their employers. We also know that the rot goes deeper than the civil service. At least nobody has proven Sanusi Sanusi wrong since he stated that the National Assembly members consumed a quarter of the federal government’s capital expenditure. We had a statistic, sometime in 2007, which showed that 1, 300+ public officeholders (politicians) consumed a third of the nation’s recurrent expenditure. What has changed? It still costs the nation N300million per annum to maintain one senator. Some 469 members of the National Assembly still consume over N120billion each year for doing nothing. When one considers the number of other idlers in 36 state houses of assembly and 774 LGs, innumerable members of the executive along with their PAs, special assistants and senior advisers – most of whom have no defined duty – one understands why Nigeria appears irredeemable.
Corruption and a growing population are stark realities undermining efforts at reducing government’s recurrent expenditure. I can assure the finance minister and the federal government that it’s no longer possible to prune the civil service to a manageable level. And never mind the fight against corruption – they can only scratch the surface. Someone who earns N18, 000 per month cannot have a family or dependant and still stay alive. He would cheat if he could, especially on seeing that the rich and the powerful get their children employed in juicy agencies where they earn upwards of N500, 000 per month. It’s a matter of life and death.
So, it would be dangerous to lay off a large number of civil servants. The current asphyxiation of businesses together with the resultant mass sack of employees in the private sector is bad enough. Adding civil servants to the list would be a crisis too hot to handle. Nobody needs a soothsayer to know that real jobs cannot be created in a country where businesses run on generators, where fuel to power the generators is scarce or expensive, and where the road and rail infrastructure is not developed. Mass transfers of government workers to rural areas (where there is land for agriculture) would be more desirable at this time. But there must be a social security scheme in place to protect the vulnerable – the young, the handicapped, the elderly and the unemployed.
The only way out is what we’ve always preached: a total restructuring of the country. We need six states, not 36. There must be true fiscal federalism. Government should be run as a business; otherwise, government should have no business in business. Woe to a country of 180 million that celebrates the attainment of 4, 000MW of electricity!
A lot is achievable in two years, if there’s political will. When shall we take the first step forward? We’ve skirted round the subject for several decades now. As Obasanjo stated early last year, we’ve had enough of think-tanks; let’s have do-tanks.
–By ANIEBO NWAMU