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Still on El-Rufai’s formula

One reason why El-Rufai’s current reforms in Kaduna State has proved so far controversial and unpopular in the state and beyond is because neither the…

One reason why El-Rufai’s current reforms in Kaduna State has proved so far controversial and unpopular in the state and beyond is because neither the Buhari government, that is, the government Nigerians elected on a promise of change, nor any other state government, had done it before him. In a sense, the controversy is in the pioneering. Otherwise, the policy is potentially one of the most consequential reform measures to have come out of Nigerian governance for a long time.

But first, the second reason: the man’s politics. As a politician, Malam Nasir El-Rufai is admired by a few, derided by many and unloved by all. On social media and public conversations, criticisms of him and his policies are more generally associated with markers like ‘wicked’, ‘inconsiderate’, ‘unyielding’, ‘arrogant’, ‘all-knowing’, ‘attention-seeking’ and so on. At the same time, he is admired by a few for much the same reasons. And yet, even his staunchest supporters fear what he could do next, or who next would be the target of his often ‘hostile’ approach to governance.

For all these contradictions in his public perception however, El-Rufai’s political persona is actually easy to tease out. It is, simply put, a rare mixture of bad politics, sound policy. He has the confident assurance of the best student in class, but lacks the genial warmth of the most popular. This is why he tends to thrive better under the shadow of a political principal, first Obasanjo, and later Buhari; and why, I suspect, he would struggle to win any election all on his own. Unfortunately for him, as executive governor of one Nigeria’s most diverse and volatile states, his government lacks that one person who would apply a political soothing balm to his own policy rough edges.

This is why, in my view, the man appears to be at daggers-drawn with virtually everybody else in the state and beyond. Otherwise, if we could cast our glance away from his crude and sometimes rather amateur politics for a moment, then it is easy to see that the specific policy in question, that is, the attempt to reform how much public money goes to the civil servants versus how much of it goes to the rest of us, is an idea whose time has come. It is an idea that strikes at the very heart of governance in Nigeria, and not only for Kaduna and all the remaining 35 states, but most importantly, for the federal government itself.

Consider the public money that matters the most to all of us in Nigeria – the federal government’s. Every legislative year, federal appropriation bills are passed with much fanfare, and most Nigerians look up to it and wait on it, as if our national economic life depends on it, which indeed, it does. But once the budget is passed, nothing significant seems to change for the ordinary Nigerian, as government business returns to normal, until talk begins for a new budget yet again. All told, the reason for this repeatedly high expectation against no-show in between budgets is precisely what El-Rufai is drawing our attention to with his new policy.

According to recent World Bank data, Nigeria has a total workforce of about 62 million workers. I could not find a reliable figure for it, but I seriously doubt if the total number of people working for the federal government exceeds two per cent of this figure, or about 1.2 million who work for the federal government, that is, the whole of the federal civil service, the armed forces and the police. This number is less than one per cent of the country’s population, and even if we include all their families, their total number may not be more than five per cent of the overall population in the country. So how much of our federal public money goes to this very tiny minority?

The short answer is almost everything there is to share. According to a January 2021 article on the leading economic intelligence website, Nairametrics, “the Federal Government of Nigeria has spent N29.3 trillion in the last 10 years on (non-debt) recurrent expenditure. The government has earned N33.2 trillion as revenue in this period”. In plain language, we blew 88 per cent of the public money we generate on less than one per cent of our population for their salaries, allowances, pensions, chairs, computers, travels, and so on. The remainder 12 per cent goes for roads, hospitals, schools, housing and everything else for the rest of us, discounting any additional borrowings.

If this is not daylight robbery, nothing else can be. It is also precisely the point El-Rufai is making in Kaduna State specifically, and regardless of his crude politics, he is right. And at the heart of it all is the question of social justice: what redistributive mechanism of collective resources is the fairest to each and all? I don’t know the answer, but the existing practice in the states and the federal government in which about 90 per cent of public money goes to less than one per cent of the people is not fair at all.

This practice partly explains why there are no places for the 13 million out of school children in Nigeria, about the largest such statistics in the world. It is why there are not enough hospitals, and not enough hospital beds or medicines in the few available. It is why our roads are death traps. It is why the federal government has to borrow money to finance ever-increasing deficits each year; borrowings that must be paid for by future generations. It is why the private sector is not growing at the pace and volume consistent with the potential, at least relative to the public sector. And many more problems besides. As long as recurrent expenditure remains this high, nothing else will work or work optimally. And it is simple economics, not magic.

Moreover, it is also about the efficient use of scarce resources. Why, we must ask, the work that all federal civil servants and other federal workers do, how much value does it add for Nigeria in terms of wealth generation and service provision to justify spending almost 90% of federal income on them? The reader’s guess is as good as mine. So in terms of value for money, allocating 88% of your revenues to less than one per cent of the population over 10 years is probably the most astonishing example of wastage thinkable. Factor into this in-equation the corruption in the civil service and we begin to have an idea of the unfairness of it all.

All of these lead to the final question of what to be done to reform the situation? What can a governor like El-Rufai who receives N4.819 billion from the federal government, but who must pay out N4.498 billion from it every month to the state’s civil servants who make up less than one per cent of the total population of the state do to be fair to each and everyone in the state? I don’t know many things, so I don’t know any other ways than his new formula.

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