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High governance cost and the deficit of the will

The cost of governance in our country has always been way beyond the capacity of successive federal and state administrations to cope with. No one…

The cost of governance in our country has always been way beyond the capacity of successive federal and state administrations to cope with. No one can sensibly dispute this. It has retarded our development because federal and state governments have turned the paradigm of development upside down.

Recurrent expenditures outstrip capital votes. Consequently, capital projects are held up in various stages of uncompletion to the frustration of the citizens whose hopes were raised only to be dashed. We have the sweet anomaly of development sans development.

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The federal civil service is the largest employer of labour in the country. It has been turned into a bloated behemoth. It is inefficient and unproductive. It has also managed to acquire an ill-repute as the greatest breeder of corruption and corrupt practices. Politicians use it to do favour for their supporters in terms of employment, even there are no vacancies. Contractors flock to it to take advantage of its inflated contracts.

Past attempts made by some federal administrations to reform the system or radically change it in tune with the aspirations of the country and its people never succeeded. Every president has added a greater burden to the system by creating new ministries, merging and de-merging ministries and creating new companies and parastatals. And the cost of governance keeps rising with the nation reaping less and less from its investments in an elusive good governance.

The late President Shehu Shagari suspected that part of the problem with the rising cost of governance had something to do with contracts. Was Nigeria spending more than other African countries in executing similar contracts? He needed an answer. 

He set up the Gamaliel Onosode committee in 1982 to do a comprehensive and comparative study of the cost of contracts in selected African countries with what obtained in Nigeria. The committee’s findings were no brainer. It found that in virtually all cases, contracts in Nigeria cost between one and half to two and half times higher than in other African countries. Whatever the president planned to do about this was aborted by the refusal of the generals remain in their barracks. They sacked the second republic on December 31, 1983. 

President Ibrahim Babangida believed that the rising cost of governance could be arrested if the government privatised its parastatals and companies and turned them into the private sector. Government companies and parastatals were money guzzlers with poor returns on investments. Their failure added to the huge cost of governance. What business, indeed, did the government have in investing in breweries and transport companies? That programme has still not been completed because the will to sufficiently shed the excess weight in governance remains in deficit.

I thought President Goodluck Jonathan put his fingers on it when he decided to look into the structure of government itself as the possible culprit in the burgeoning cost of governance. He appointed a seven-member presidential committee to study the situation and advise him on the restructuring and rationalisation of federal government’s agencies, parastatals, and commissions to reduce duplications and reduce the cost of governance. He seemed determined to get at the root of the high cost of governance and on the informed recommendations of the committee, appeared prepared to take steps to reduce the cost of governance and put government money where it was needed. Jonathan inaugurated the committee, headed by Stephen Oronsaye, former head of service, on August 18, 2011.  

Its four terms of reference showed that the president knew what he was looking for. The third term of reference asked the committee to “examine critically, the mandate of the existing federal agencies, parastatals and commissions and determine areas of overlap or duplication of functions and make appropriate recommendations to either restructure, merge or scrap some to eliminate such overlaps, duplications or redundancies.”

The committee carried out its mandate and duly submitted its 800-page report and recommendations to the president on April 16, 2012. The committee found that there were 541 federal parastatals, commissions, and agencies. Its major recommendations were the reduction of the 263 statutory agencies to 161; the scrapping of 38 agencies; the merger of 52 agencies and the reversion of 14 agencies to departments in the ministries.

The government, as governments in our country are wont to do, set up a committee headed by the then attorney-general and minister of justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, to draft a white paper on the report. The government rejected most of the recommendations of the committee in the white paper it issued on it. No surprise there. Pussy footing and ambivalence continue to define the character of every federal administration in the country.

Still, there was some motion on it. An implementation committee was set up in 2014, ostensibly, to implement parts of the report and recommendations approved by the government in the white paper. The agencies and commissions affected were either set up by an act of parliament or by decree. To scrap or merge them will require repealing their enabling laws. The implementation committee took no steps towards this. Jonathan left this critical problem of the crushing weight of the high and needless cost of governance where he found it.

The shuffle began. By this time the government had lost its mojo. The political cost of implementing the report which would see the scrapping of some agencies and thus swelling the population of the unemployed as the 2015 general elections loomed, frightened the government. It demurred. The cost of governance has continued to rise to fill the void left by the inaction on the part of the government.  

This, of course, is a very familiar story in our country. Our governments seek solutions to problems but cynically toss the solutions proffered by experts at the instance of the governments themselves into the wastepaper basket, the burial ground of proposed changes in the character of government and governance. Government archives or shelves are full of such reports commissioned by various federal administrations but were simply put away and ignored by them. It is no way to run a country and expect good results. Problems are not solved by ignoring them. 

 The problems they sought to solve did not have the luxury of forgetting themselves on the shelves. They kept growing and getting worse for the country and its citizens. It is estimated that since the submission of the Oronsaye report the Buhari administration has established more agencies or is in the process doing so with bills to that effect before the national assembly.  

Come to think of it. In 2015 when he was composing his cabinet, Buhari gave the impression that he voted for a lean and effective government. He merged some federal ministries and thus reduced their number. But he still appointed more than 36 ministers. In 2019, he de-merged the ministries. We were back to square one. That, I regret to say, is where the country will remain in the foreseeable future, virtually crushed by the combined weight of the debt burden and the rising cost of governance in the face of steadily dwindling financial resources.