It is worth revisiting. Not long after he assumed office on May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari was informed that life at the state level was nasty and unbearable.
Twenty-seven of the 36 states owed their civil servants arrears of salaries of between six and eight months. The unpaid pension of their retired civil servants stretched over many more months.
Buhari took pity on the states, not least because he wanted to stem the monumental scandal in our oil-rich nation and set the nation on a different path of responsibility under his watch. It is a given that a government as an employer of labour, must meet its basic obligations towards its employees by paying their salaries and allowances as and when due. A labourer, the good book says, is worthy of his pay. It is a statutory obligation best captured by the Financial Instructions putting it on first charge to ensure that salaries are paid before contractors are.
The president knew there were obvious security implications with hordes of hungry and angry civil servants and pensioners roaming the streets in their various states, too ashamed to openly carry begging bowls. He gave the states what was technically called bail out funds to help them clear the arrears of salaries and pensions; wipe the slate clean and ensure they did not fall back and accumulate salary and pension arrears ever again. The president innocently threw good money at a bad problem and wasted his sympathy on the debtor-governors.
The bail out fund was a windfall for the state governors. Or more correctly, manna from our father who art in Aso Rock. Not many of the governors bothered to use the money for what it was meant. Contractors came first. After they paid the contractors, there was little money left to pay the civil servants and pensioners. Nothing changed. The situation remained the same.
It is now much worse than it was in 2015. Life at that tier of government is, you guessed it, much nastier than ever before. Less than half of the states are able to pay the new minimum wage of N30,000 per month agreed between labour and the government some three years ago. The number of states that owed their civil servants and pensioners in 2015 remains more or less the same – at least 27. Labour has determined that some of them owe salary arrears of between 12 and 18 months. The pensioners remain at the bottom with salary arrears of between 20 and 36 months in some states of the federation. Many of them have not even been paid their gratuities. But the debtor-governors live big and oil their self-importance at our collective expense.
It is easy to rationalise what is happening. The economy has not been quite healthy. Twice it went through the crucibles of recession. Something always gives when a country emerges from this crucible. Things are not immediately the same on the economic front post a recession. Less money now flows into the federation account and the share of the states monthly is walking down south. No one, however, unfair he might choose to be, would reasonably disagree with this as part of the primary reasons for the situation in which the country finds itself.
The three tiers of governments depend almost entirely on the federation account. Fewer than four states generate reasonable revenue internally to take care of their basic needs. The rest wait for the monthly FAC meeting at which whatever dropped into the federation account that month is shared among the three tiers of government in accordance with the revenue allocation formula. If there is less money in the federation account, there is less money to be shared and less money for each tier of government every month.
This is a classical reading of the problems we face. It is, however, a bigger problem than we are willing to admit. We are actually in a dilemma because the Nigerian state is forced to bear a burden it should not in a federal system of government. Our development is trapped at the grassroots level – from the states to the local governments, thus making nonsense of the perceived wisdom of a three-tier system of government. Many local governments, particularly in the northern states, no longer function. Their failure to bring development closer to the people by providing basic social amenities in the rural areas has aggravated the rural-urban drift and compounded the social and economic problems, including crimes in our towns and cities.
Sure, the lack of money is a serious problem. But the more serious problem, as far as I can see, is the woeful lack of resourcefulness and the incompetent management of our resources at the second tier of government. Given our flawed leadership recruitment process, the states and local governments are invariably packed with men proud to have two left hands. Our current system cannot give us the best in the three tiers of government, but the situation is much worse in the states and local governments.
Every state in this country can count on natural resources in varying degrees – extensive arable land and solid mineral resources. The problem is that our system has fostered total dependence of the three tiers of government on what the nation earns each month. The warped logic systems to be: if there is free money to be shared from the federation account, why bother to crack your head over the available resources you could exploit to develop your state?
In general terms, the state governors have systematically destroyed the local governments. We seem not to bother about this. Generally, they no longer function, at least, not as they should as governments at the grassroots. They are packed with handpicked minions of state governors, among whom are young men and women who had never held a job in their lives but find themselves entrusted with the delicate task of managing human and financial resources beyond their experience and capacity. But, like government contractors, the chairmen understand their place as conduits for leaking money into the pockets of their benefactors.
In many, if not most, states of the federation, the states have become pathetic victims of mediocre leadership, incompetence, and poor governance. It should worry us that our country is increasingly losing its place in the catch-up race because we place such low premium on good leadership, competence, and good governance.