Government as awoof restaurant

Mr. Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister did not feel a sense of shame or of the miniaturisation of his high office when he travelled last week to the Caribbeans on an economy seat of British Airways. On arrival at his destination, he gladly took pictures with the excited staff of British Airways and some passengers. He was roundly cheered by the crowd for the display of simplicity by this leader of a major western country.

A Nigerian leader would consider travelling in that class infra dignitatem, a degradation of his high office; secondly, which ordinary person would have come near a Nigerian leader, let alone pose for pictures with him, except he wants to die. I had wanted to say that that could occur when he is campaigning for votes but you and I know that our votes may be counted but they do not actually count at the end of the day. Mago mago always takes the votes away. Sorry for the digression.

The Boris Johnson trip occurred in the same week that the Nigerian National Assembly wants a whopping N37 billion spent on the renovation of its offices. Juxtapose the two stories, examine the four corners of the two stories, strip them to their bare bones and what do you see? A stark, yawning difference between both. One is a simple, unadorned life of service. The other is a concept of government as the big spendthrift. The former is the grand reality of governance in an accountable setting.

The latter is the grand exhibition of grandeur because this is a system in which accountability is next to nil. The Acting Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, attempted to explain away the situation by sophistry. He said that the National Assembly did not play any role in the approval of the project and would play no part in its execution. “The public outcry against the leadership of the National Assembly on the issue of the N37 billion National Assembly complex renovation project is not only misplaced but unnecessary and unwarranted.

How the team from the Federal Capital Development Authority arrived at a cost of N37 billion is not the business of the National Assembly,” he said. Really? How a public institution whose budget the National Assembly approves spends public money is not the business of the National Assembly that has oversight responsibility for it? Whose business is it then? Is the National Assembly just there to rubber-stamp whatever is brought before it without scrutiny? Or is its role discriminatory, to scrutinize some and harass its leaders and then to look the other way where some others are concerned? If Senator Akwashiki is wondering why people are firing verbal missiles at the National Assembly then his statement is brimming with insincerity. This economy is walking a tight rope. The revenue is low and the government has imposed all kinds of taxes on the people. Value Added Tax has been increased from 5% to 7.5%; the government wants a loan of $29.9 billion even though it is finding it difficult to meet its current loan servicing obligation. There is a public outcry, in fact, a debate on whether or not the government should be allowed to borrow more and pile up debts for future generations. In other words, spending N37 billion to renovate the offices of the National Assembly seems insensitive because even without knowing the details the sum seems excessive even at the best of times. And this is not the best of times.

No private sector organisation in Nigeria, no matter how rich, would be able to get its board of directors to approve N37 billion for the renovation of its offices. A few questions need to be asked: Does it mean that the National Assembly offices have not been receiving some routine touching up from time to time since it was built? If the offices are so horrible that we need to spend N37 billion to spruce them up in what state have they been for the past few years? What would it cost to build a new complex if renovation only is to cost N37 billion? Would it cost many trillion naira? Some people like to think that the naira is becoming worthless but it still buys a lot of things. Are the materials to be used for the renovation to be imported? Are the contactors to be imported? Is the paint to be imported? Even if the National Assembly was not involved in the conceptualization or costing of the project, the leaders must understand that the public does not think it’s National Assembly now or in the past has been able to prove that it is people-oriented in its legislation and its behaviour. The people have been waiting for years for legislation that can drastically improve the oil and solid minerals sector. The people have been waiting in vain for legislation that can empower the states on policing and stem the tide of the current insecurity. Now the states and regions have resorted to self-help on security.

They are setting up their own security outfits. The people have been waiting in vain for federal legislation for the reversal of the unworkable nature of our federalism. Instead of these potential life-transforming issues, our legislators are talking of death for hate speech and social media clamp-down in an era in which there is a global campaign against the death penalty. The legislators probably don’t know how angry the people are when they compare the salaries and allowances of our National Assembly members with those of legislators in other countries, including the advanced countries. Add to these issues the so-called constituency projects and the N5 billion spent on cars for the legislators, even though they work for only a half of the year and can afford to use their personal cars since their allowances are already stratospheric.

Our concept of money and what it can be used for is expansive. From a few million in the eighties, we have now moved into the realm of billions and trillions for most projects now. The projects may not cost what we say it costs but if we add the word “complex” to it we can feel justified to put a high money tag to it. Every stadium or airport or legislative or judicial building is a complex. The World Bank has put the lie to the fabulous costing of some of our projects several times but it doesn’t bother us.

Our figures are our figures. The World Bank’s figures are its figures. They cannot dictate to us how we can spend our money. After all we are a sovereign nation. Most of us do not actually know how big (or small) N37 billion is. I, therefore, decided to do an amateur’s costing of some projects to that tune (a) At one million naira per village we can give pipe-borne water with a small generator to at least 37, 000 villages (b) At the rate of N20 million per kilometre of dry land we can tar 1, 850 kilometres of roads (c) At the sum of N2 million per two-bedroom bungalow we can build 18, 500 houses for low-income earners (d) At N60, 000 per year we can provide food for 61, 666 persons (the poorest of the poor) for one year (e) At N100, 000 per student per year we can provide scholarships for 92, 500 students for a four-year undergraduate programme in a Nigerian university. Before writing this column I spoke to two property developers about the cost of the renovation. They said, independently, that since the buildings are about 20 years old, the renovation cost can go up by as much as 30 or 40%. One of them said that the maximum increase would be 50% of the original cost of N10.9 billion, not a kobo higher.

I am not giving these figures as an indication that the National Assembly “complex” should not be fixed but so that they can understand that many Nigerians don’t think that N37 billion is a believable figure; that there are several other things that can be done with such a huge sum. It is to indicate that there are many things we can accomplish even with small, relatively small, sums of money. It is to indicate that it is not only by big-spending that we can achieve results. We can do so by proper, prudent management of our meagre resources. It is to indicate that when the times are lean the expenditure has to be lean. It is to indicate that we must begin to discard the concept of “government as a spendthrift, as an awoof restaurant” from where people have to chop and quench. The truth is that if people do minor repairs regularly on government buildings which they inhabit there will be no reason to do any massive, expensive renovation. But in the Nigerian government system, everything must be big. You know why, don’t you?

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