The above question arose in my mind and got me thinking long time ago, when my State, Osun, was in the news for reasons not unconnected with these same questions, and which made Governor Rauf Aregbesola to be so unpopular among civil servants, not only in Osun but all over. Osun soon became the poster boy for states that failed to be up to date in salary payments. It was so rive and unjustified that states which we all know couldn’t pay between eighteen months to two years weren’t even noticed in the media as but Osun that probably owed just a couple of months of modulated salary arrears.
Sometimes last year, I had to engage a very popular radio On-Air Personality based in Lagos on the true situation of things in Osun. He was hitherto fond of using Osun as an example of what he termed “bad governance” until he, according to him, found out the truth. He profusely apologized on national radio to “…this man, Aregbesola, whom we have all unfairly disparaged”. What was the reason behind this misrepresentation? It was not for lack of adequate information from Osun state’s government information handlers, but the presence of morbid stereotypical syndrome which our media and other critics have not, even till date, corrected or condemned.
Thank goodness Osun has finally gotten out of the mess of inability to pay salaries, allowances and pensions up to date. The modulated salary payments agreed to by labour and government have also ended as Osun has commenced paying full salaries to all categories of staff in its employment, and up-to-date. But this is not the crux of this essay.
Few weeks back, a prominent national daily, in its editorial comment asked similar question as headlined above. The editorial board was of the opinion that payment of salaries should just be one of several other responsibilities of government. That explains why budgets are oftentimes segregated into two broad areas: capital and recurrent expenditures. One is for real development like educational infrastructure, roads, health infrastructure and others while the recurrent is mainly to pay wages, salaries, pension and other costs of running government. But because over the years, citizens see government as the big father, almost everyone sees it as the undisputable provider of livelihood. This certainly, is not unconnected with the defunct oil boom which made us believe in rent and wages without corresponding value added. Going to school to obtain degrees and diplomas is fundamentally meant to equip us adequately to be self reliant. But, over the years, we’ve been made to believe that going to school is a certificate for free meal from government. You can say anything concerning our brothers in the southeast but one thing that probably distinguishes them from the rest of us is their spirit of self reliance which some commentators believe is the result of the sufferings they went through in the thirty months of Biafran war. This experience carried over to their younger generation could be linked to the reason many of them make it in business at relatively younger age than their contemporaries in other parts of the country, who might have spent quite a long period in conventional schooling.
According to the board of editors of the national tabloid referred to earlier, “Governor Rauf Aregbesola exposed the precariousness of the current template by his admission that personnel costs alone amounted to over 85 per cent of the total revenue that accrued to Osun State between July 2015 and November 2017. This is typical of most other states and the message must be rammed home that apart from the primary role of protecting life and property, governments exist to galvanise the people for productive activities.
“The 36 states and 774 local government councils must understand that they are not constituted only to pay salaries and pensions”.
They cited a Canadian government’s policy document which states that regional or state governments are a geographically larger level of government over existing municipalities to provide area-wide municipal functions more economically and to establish a tax base sufficient to undertake necessary new services. If this is the case, states exist mainly to provide services and infrastructure as well as generate funds through tax regimes to provide the aforementioned.
Unfortunately, incompetent governance, dishonesty, fear of popular public opinions, misunderstanding of what government really stands for have combined to make us believe that governments are in office to pay salaries only.
This self-destructive model must give way to a more rational public finance management system. The solution must begin with a proper diagnosis of what went wrong, which is the overthrow of fiscal federalism. It is a slide rich in irony; for when Nigeria first codified the federal principle through the 1954 Macpherson Constitution, it “provided fiscal autonomy to its three regions both over expenditure decisions and over a local revenue base (consisting primarily of mining rents, personal income tax, and receipts from licences). Centrally collected revenues, primarily from export, import and excise duties, were distributed to the regions based on the derivation principle,” according to a World Bank report. This allowed vibrant, self-sustaining regions and LGs that competed fiercely and ran successful administrations. But the violent intrusion of over-centralising military rule since 1966, especially through the General Aguiyi Ironsi’s Unification Decree, gradually eroded fiscal autonomy with subsequent multiple new states and LGs completing the descent that has turned today’s states and LGs into beggars.
According to this board of editors, and which I absolutely agree with, there is no alternative to radical reform; funds are simply no longer there to waste. The World Bank reports that, globally, regional governments are increasingly deploying Information Communications Technology to increase accountability, sustainability and quality of service. The about 600 federal ministries, departments and agencies should be pruned with similar cost-cutting at the states and LGs.
State Governments should downsize their outspized bureaucracies but deploy staff and school leavers to more productive ventures in agriculture, trades and vocations as office works are better automated than use of men in order to free resources for rural infrastructure and make their states magnets for investments in agriculture, mining and SMEs.