Zamfara State governor and chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, Abdulaziz Yari, gave a masterclass to incoming governors last week. The governor, who has obviously become wiser on his way out of office, advised his incoming colleagues to start thinking now of what they can do for their people and how they can find the money to do it.
The man should know. He has been governor in good and bad times. After eight years of spending more time in Abuja than in Gusau, Zamfarans would be more than pleased that the governor delivered his masterclass where his heart has always been: Abuja.
But we can leave the man for another day and examine the merits of his message for now. I don’t think many people would disagree with his point that it is a difficult time to be governor. The states are in a shambles, and with governments failing ever so spectacularly, more and more citizens are creating their own private spaces to keep their sanity.
There’s no better example of a shambles than Yari’s Zamfara, where bandits have made life miserable for most. To be sure, the state’s misery predates the coming of the armed bandits. For years, the official bandits – the bandits in power – plundered the state’s resources, including a $3 million Paris Club debt refund, which was supposed to have been used to pay salaries, and the poor masses were fed with tales of the afterlife.
More Zamfara children are out of school than at any time in recent memory and a telling statistic was the revelation by minister of education, Adamu Adamu, that in 2018, only 28 pupils from the State registered for the common entrance examination into the 104 unity schools.
Yet, it would be unfair to single out Yari’s Zamfara. At a public event in Kaduna in April, Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, offered a graphic picture of the situation in the country, but with particular reference to most parts of the North: “While the overall social economic considerations in the country is a cause for concern, the regional imperatives are, in fact, alarming.
“In both the North-Western and North-Eastern parts of Nigeria, more than 60 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty. It is instructive to know that the 19 northern states, which account for over 54 per cent of the country’s population and 70 per cent of its landmass collectively generate only 21 per cent of the total subnational internally generated revenue in 2017.”
From Kogi to Kano and from Plateau to Ebonyi, the landscape is littered with states which, were they companies, would have been forced to file for bankruptcy long ago. As at last year, 24 out of the 36 states were owing workers’ salaries of between four and 18 months, with pension arrears going back even much farther.
So, what now? Yari advised incoming governors to stop depending entirely on money from Abuja to run their states. Instead, he said, they should find ways of increasing internally generated revenue. That is easier said than done, especially when incoming governors know that the only way to resist the temptation of gorging on Abuja money is to yield to it.
The smell of Abuja money is irresistible. On the heels of the spectacular increase in tax revenue from N3.3 trillion in 2016 to N5.3 trillion last year under Tunde Fowler, the minister of finance, Zainab Ahmed, said the Federal Government plans to find creative ways of expanding the tax net to fund gaps in the N8.83 trillion 2019 federal budget.
In the last four years, the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) has plugged internal leakages and loopholes instigated by insiders; adopted more efficient tax collection methods; and enticed a large army of tax defaulters through the Voluntary Assets Income Declaration Scheme, which raked in N17 billion within the first six months of introduction.
The reforms have drawn their own controversy, both inside FIRS, where vested interests now appear determined to wreck the system if they cannot hijack it, and from outside the service where states that collect 50 per cent of all federal VAT revenue, apart from other taxes, cannot wait to get their hands on a slice of the larger pie.
By the way, the intriguing power-game around the tax trough reached a high on Sunday when a report in a section of the social media declared, dead serious, that Fowler had gone into hiding following a manhunt for him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over alleged financial misconduct. But we did not have to lay ambush at the Abuja city gate or airport in case Nigeria’s “Zacchaeus” wanted to escape in disguise.
On Monday, the same Fowler who was supposed to be “on the run” was widely reported by the mainstream media to be busy at his desk, thus putting a lie to the earlier report. If anyone should worry at all, it should be those the FIRS boss announced that day had been added to the tax net, bringing the new taxable population to a record 45 million.
With more reforms, including but not limited to tackling multiple taxes/duties/levies; improvements in infrastructure; removal of red tape and better regulatory environment; reduction in corporate taxes; and possibly, introduction of flat rate tax, the revenue from the tax pie could grow beyond its present level. As things are now, the relatively narrow taxable base, comprising mainly distressed formal sector workers and struggling business owners, is reaching its elastic limits.
But even if you pour the entire 2019 federal budget into some states as they are presently run and structured, it would still amount to throwing good money after bad. It’s OK, as Yari suggested, to ask incoming governors to find money to run their states and to warn them of the danger of relying on dwindling and uncertain commodity prices.
But that’s not the biggest risk factor, and Yari’s tragic tenure in Zamfara should serve as a good example. The thing worse than dwindling resources from Abuja and far worse than the volatility of commodity prices or even the bogus fear of another recession is the unthinking governor. And there are far too many of them than the country can cope with at this time.
I agree that there is the need for radical leadership from the centre; leadership that is bold, imaginative and courageous to straighten out the public sector and scrap or amend archaic laws holding down investment and the citizens’ creative spirit, like the Land Use Act, for example. But even within the current restricted space, thinking governors like Kaduna’s Nasir El-Rufai and River State’s Nyesom Wike, still find a way, if you overlook their politics.
We need governors who can find a way to cut-out fat in useless bureaucracies, keep overheads low and shun unnecessary foreign trips. Those who will reward talent, invest in education and health and let citizens know that uncontrolled population is a time bomb. We need thinking governors who know their limitations and who are determined to find a way to encourage healthy competitive spirit among communities and businesses.
Governors who will find and encourage partnerships – private-public partnerships – that work; not those looking for contractors that will line their pockets with dollars.
How is it that while the Kogi State government is owing workers’ salaries, for example, the same State is host to Dangote’s Obajana Cement Plant, a factory which produces 13.3 million metric tonnes of cement yearly and makes a profit of N390 billion, more than twice Kogi’s 2018 budget and roughly eight times its annual dole from Abuja?
Rochas Okorocha, a member of Yari’s class and outgoing governor of Imo, may not have received as much money from Abuja as his counterparts in the Niger Delta. But even if the streets of Owerri were lined with money-bearing trees, he would still have used the bulk of it to build statues and the balance to amuse himself and his family. That’s what happens when you prioritise resources over judgement.
As Yari may have noticed, the echo of his advice had not even faded when fliers flooded the social media that the PDP Class of 2019 governors among his audience are planning a retreat in Dubai, a city state built from nothing when the jet-set governors were already in their adult life. When will they learn?