Outcry over education, health capital projects budget cuts



Background

Academics have responded with dismay to the news that Nigeria’s Minister of Finance Zainab Ahmed and the leadership of the Senate have decided to reduce capital projects across national departments by 20 per cent.

The decision has been prompted by the drastic drop in the price of crude oil – from US$60 to below US$20 per barrel and well below this year’s benchmark of US$35 per barrel. Oil is Nigeria’s main source of external earnings.

The Nigerian government has applied for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to a news report published by a Nigeria’s tabloid, the IMF African Department Director, Abebe Selassie, disclosed that Nigeria applied for an emergency loan for its Economic Recovery and Growth Plan.

According to news reports, the IMF has advised Nigeria to “deploy the US$3.5 billion emergency loan being processed for the country to strengthen infrastructure in the health and educational sectors”.

IMF advice

Selassie said Nigeria applied to the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility, a “quick instrument that the government can use to strengthen health spending and provide social protection for the people. There should also be a monetary and fiscal framework that will help Nigeria put the COVID-19 crisis behind her,” he said, adding that it was important for the government to have enough resources to provide infrastructure through public education and health.

The across-the-board cuts to the capital projects budget have drawn sharp criticism from academic staff in universities and colleges of medicine who fear that the cuts will mean a reduction in new student intakes in public universities, which have limited infrastructural capacity and cannot easily accommodate a rise in student numbers.

Dr Adewale Suenu, based in the department of international relations at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, said the health and education sectors were both important for the wellbeing of the entire Nigerian population.

‘Education and health are priorities’

“First, the government must continue as a matter of necessity to look after the health of its citizens. This aspect of governance is not negotiable. Second, providing education for Nigerians is one of the reasons people vote the elite into power. In this 21st century governed by the knowledge economy, one would expect that those who govern us must put more resources into education. We don’t need the IMF and the World Bank to remind the government that education and health should be priorities in the country’s annual budget,” he said.

Suenu said he was unhappy that it was not suggested that emoluments of the political office holders be adjusted as it is a known fact that the salaries and allowances of the political office holders in both the legislative and executive arms of government account for the lion’s share of the budget.

“For example, each senator earns about US$75,000 a month – one of the highest in the world. Yet there is no move to cut the salaries of these office holders … very unfortunate,” he said.

In an interview with University World News, Professor Mathew Ngap, based in the economics department at the University of Jos, said the financial reduction to these two crucial sectors amounts to “economic and social regression” of the country. He pointed out the correlation between health and education, describing them as “twin sisters which should be protected at all times and by all means”, as they are in other “advanced climes”.

“Researchers need good health just as the outcome of the researchers is important to the health sector. A reduction in monies for capital projects has serious consequences for society,” he said.

Impact on online teaching and learning

The budget cuts also have implications for the provision of online teaching and learning during shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Dr Toyin Enikuomehin from the department of computer science at Lagos State University, online teaching and learning can only work if ICT infrastructure, which is capital intensive, is available. Unfortunately this infrastructure is not available in many universities. “The latest reductions meant for capital projects will not allow for the provision of cheap and affordable subsidised laptops for students,” he said.

Professor Makinde Ajayi, based at the college of medicine at the University of Abuja, told University World News the budget cuts were not in the best interests of Nigeria. “This reduction would affect research in both sectors. In a world where other countries are massively investing in education and health, Nigeria is simply turning her back on the areas of health and education. This trend is unacceptable.”

Professor Mukhtar Wagudu from the department of physiotherapy at the University of Maiduguri called for a Marshall Plan to revamp the health and education sectors. According to Wagudu, the needs of the country in these areas are enormous and the challenges daunting – but not insurmountable. He is of the opinion that this kind of reduction could easily compromise the advancement of national health and education infrastructure.

Dr Matti Yaqub from the department of public health at Lagos University Teaching Hospital argued, like Suenu, that the emoluments of political office holders should be cut to pave the way for an increase rather than a decrease in education and health budgets.

“It is difficult to understand the reasons behind this kind of reduction at this critical moment. We must understand that the health and educational welfare of Nigerians would be the first casualties of this kind of retrogressive policy. This reduction should rescinded,” he said.

Professor Mathias Elkanem, based in the faculty of pharmacy at the University of Uyo, said the health and the education sectors should have the largest shares of the budget because of what the whole world is currently facing. “The whole world is looking at ways to combat the pandemic. It is an irony that Nigeria, which can’t boast of modern and credible health facilities, is reducing its health and education budget. This is not acceptable,” he said.

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