The past few weeks haven’t been easy for Governor Abubakar Sani Bello of Niger State. He’s become not only the lone scapegoat in the state’s unsteady steps towards economic redemption, but has found himself stuck in a ring with members of the state’s most powerful organisation: the Civil Service.
Behind this seeming face-off is the government’s eventual realisation of its inability to continue borrowing to pay the wages of its 47,000-member bureaucracy, which it has done, and quite impressively, before it was alarmed by the expanding figures of debts it accumulated in just less than a year into the 4-year mandate.
The question of workers’ wages is a national disaster, each state of the federation has its peculiar reason or explanation for non-payment. In Niger, the monthly wage bill of the workers published by certain sources is N2.1 billion, against the less than N2 billion the state receives from the Federation Account monthly.
At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I think I appreciate the transparency employed by the Governor in introducing his fiscal dilemma to the civil servants. Coming out to announce that his state is too broke to continue paying wages based on existing formula and arrangement may be a PR disaster, but I think such fatal honesty has shown the people a certain sincerity, despite polarising his supporters.
Now, we have those who see the Governor’s proposal to reduce salaries until revenues are stable as a strategic approach and better alternative to not paying at all. And then there are those who expect the Governor to continue borrowing to pay salaries or just suspend capital projects to focus on recurrent expenditures.
What rattled the government, as presented by the Governor’s media manager, was it sensitivity to the implications of the overdrafts taken to augment the wage bill, which was presented to the Civil Servants in meetings between representatives of the government and leaders of Organised Labour in the state.
The Government’s proposal was having allocations from Federation Account split into 70:30, that from whatever is sent from Abuja, 70% will be for wages and 30% for capital projects. This 70% ratio won’t cover the wage bill of our bloated civil service, but the Government insisted on having 30% to fund his capital projects.
The danger of suspending capital projects to pay wages has more damaging impacts than the ratio-based arrangement. And it’s also a tad selfish, as it does not recognise the existence of non-working people who are the majority and who also need to have a sense of government’s presence in their social life.
Capital projects may be understood by some as rehabilitating networks of roads and executing other urban renewal projects, but they actually comprise equipping our hospitals, rehabilitating our schools and implementing rural electrification and both urban and rural water projects. These are what keep both human anatomy and society in tact. Suspending such intervention is a destructive strategy, for it seeks to comfort 47,000 people at the detriment of about 4 million people who depend on the 30% to have a sense of the government’s existence.
But this isn’t an easy decision. Niger, like other states pampered by Abuja, has failed to develop its sources and institutions of generating and boosting internal revenues. It generates less than half a billion Naira internally, and this was mainly because it used to receive between 11 and 5 billion Naira from the Federation Account.
Adapting to this reality of N2 billion allocations, with sources of internal revenues still unorganised, is responsible for the fiscal crisis which has had the Governor down popularity bar. We may rush to describe the government’s position as suicidal but we must not ignore the line between miracle and economic reality, that even the finest economic strategists may have a really hard time developing an easy way out for a state this mercilessly mismanaged.
Though presenting statistics of revenues and expenditures of the state to the public through open data may redeem a part of the government’s image, but that would never matter to the financially illiterate traders, commercial drivers, and all in need of a certain social welfare scheme to survive this economy. The average man doesn’t just believe that there’s no more enough money go round.
To overcome this structural effect of over-dependence on the Centre for monthly salvations, the state can do more than just wailing over depleting revenues. Reverting to agrarian economy should be the aim of any sensible government. What we have in Niger state today are communities of subsistence farmers with potentials to expand and employ.
There’s a need for immediate economic summit in Minna, and this shouldn’t be the usual fanfare, to highlight and analyse the economic potentials and possibilities of the state, and to also form partnerships with financially strong institutions home and abroad to save Niger State. Out of this event shouldn’t come a practical blueprint for exploring and developing the vast natural and human resources of the state. Yes, it’s better late than never.
Preaching the virtues of sacrifice to a critically hungry people isn’t ennobling. We must return to the dawning board at once to rescue what’s left of this serially unlucky state. There’s a loot to recover as announced by the Governor himself, and I hope this may be enough to repair a part of this state. May God save us from us.