May 29, 2015, was a remarkable day for Nigeria; the day most commentators agree we moved from a fledgling to a fully functioning democracy. The peaceful transition was a script we all prayed for but feared it might not happen. In front of the world media, two men of rival political parties stood on the same platform in a peaceful transition of power as the incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, witnessed the swearing-in of his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari. Both men conducted themselves with grace and exemplary humility as the world celebrated with Nigeria at the Eagle Square. It was a historic moment to behold and we thank God for answered prayers.
For President Buhari, it is now time to deliver. He inherits a depleted treasury and an economy in a free fall with mounting debts, unpaid salaries, rising unemployment and falling oil revenue. He inherits a country besieged by insecurity on all fronts, from kidnapping and pipeline vandalism in the South to communal clashes and Boko Haram insurgency in the North. These challenges are great but are by no means insurmountable, as the President alluded in his inaugural speech. Although the President enjoys unprecedented goodwill from home and abroad, this could so easily evaporate if Nigerians do not begin to see a marked change from the past. Like yesterday, Nigerians need to hear direct from their President his plans for taking us forward.
There are quick wins that can be addressed in the first 30 days of this administration. Top on the list must be the immediate removal of the current subsidy regime that only benefits residents of Abuja and Lagos. The removal of fuel subsidy will immediately plug the huge leakage in government finances and release resources, potentially in excess of N500bn, for investment in priority areas like security. Unlike in 2012 during the protests, most Nigerians are now convinced that this colossal fraud on the nation cannot continue a day longer. Subsidies have contributed to the collapse of our local refineries and the incessant fuel scarcity in the country. The competition that will ensue in the forecourt from the removal of subsidies will force the big operators to invest their own money in refining oil products in Nigeria without the need for government to invest taxpayers’ money in refineries as some have ill-advised. In a deregulated market, this would make great business sense. In addition, the competition that would ensue amongst oil marketers as a result of the removal of subsidies will drive down prices to below N100 a litre at the current crude oil prices. It will be irresponsible for any government to continue to fund this corrupt subsidy regime.
Most agree that our budgets are mired in corruption and waste. The government can make quick wins in reducing MDA budgets for overheads, without any impact on services, by cutting overheads by at least a half in its supplementary budget proposals to the National Assembly. Savings can be made in waste and profligacy on travel, office furniture, and IT equipment that repeat themselves every year in the budget; purposeless meetings and conferences arranged so that ministers and senior officials can claim allowances; and many other excesses that stare one in the face in the detailed budgets of the MDAs. These excesses are even more lavish in revenue generating agencies like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigerian Communications Commission, Nigerian Ports Authority, Federal Inland Revenue Service and Customs. What they do not pay themselves in outrageous salaries, they take in allowances, with some boards reportedly awarding their members as much as N10m annually for medical treatment abroad. The President would need to invite the DGs and board members of these agencies to Aso Rock, lock the doors and windows, and read to them the riot act. Public officials need to be reminded that the revenue they collect does not belong to them and their families to fly first/business class, but the Nigerian people. There is the need to review the laws governing the revenue these agencies remit to government. The current arrangement that leaves so much revenue in the hands of these agencies to use as they please is scandalous and irresponsible.
Going forward, we must look again at what we spend our money on, how we spend it, and where we spend it. We need to look at the high cost of governance that leaves very little for vital investment in infrastructure that will create the badly needed jobs for the youths. We do not need 42 ministries and over 700 parastatals, all duplicating one another’s work; some set up just to serve individual interests.
The National Assembly must understand the message from Nigerians that it will no longer be business as usual. Their oversight function is not a licence to extort money from the MDAs in order to approve their budgets. The MDAs do not need to give them anything or cover their costs for carrying out a role they are paid handsomely to perform anyway. The “new” Economic Financial Crimes Commission must set an example of members who compromise the budget process by demanding “back handers” from the MDAs. Although the Eighth National Assembly showed some goodwill by proposing a 25 per cent reduction in their budget, this now need to come down further by another 25 per cent in the light of our current challenges. With so much goodwill on the sails of this government, there is no better time to scrap the much criticised governors’ security votes and the National Assembly constituency allowance. The lawmakers have no business digging boreholes for their constituencies unless they choose to fund this from their own pockets.
Much have been said about the need to reform the police and the judiciary but this government will do well to pay particular attention also to the role played by the Accountant-General’s Office, Customs and Excise and similar agencies with inspection, auditing and regulatory responsibilities. The corruption in these agencies pervades both federal and state institutions, including schools, where it is believed to be common practice for public officials to set aside some money for auditors in order for them to sign off audits and inspection reports. These corrupt agencies have frustrated policy implementation and the good intentions of many a government. We need an effective whistle-blowing policy across the public sector where people can report in confidence suspected wrongdoing. In the fight against corruption, the role of the National Orientation Agency is crucial in changing entrenched habits.
The hopes of millions of suffering Nigerians hang on the promises of this government and that is why the ongoing discourse on the public disclosure of the President’s assets is a regrettable distraction. Mr President, your integrity is your biggest asset and so your promises must count for something.
Nigeria is a great country and with the right calibre of people and selfless leadership we could be at the verge of something great. We in the Diaspora congratulate the President on his inauguration and wish him well.